These Parables: The Hidden Treasure

Just as the parable of the mustard seed has its counterpart in the parable of the yeast, the parable of the hidden treasure is twinned with that of the pearl of great price. No twins are absolutely identical. Twinship can show up differences more vividly than an ordinary match of siblings. The finding of the hidden treasure is an idyll and distinctly not the hard and deliberate adventure that is the quest for the pearl; the hidden treasure is stumbled upon by chance, and you get the impression that the man who found it was rather nonchalant. I do not say lazy, but he was nonchalant to say the least. If the man who roamed and worked to find the pearl was a man of sweat, this man was just lucky. He who found the pearl dug like a miner; the man who happened upon the hidden treasure could be the patron of those who win the lottery.

There is nothing inherently wrong about finding a treasure without working for it. Were it otherwise, no heir could be canonized, yet many have been. I summon as a fresh and modern witness St. Katherine Drexel. Crudely put, the entire history of salvation is an account of how the bumbling and stumbling human race won the Great Lottery. Grace is gratuitous. As the Catholic knows, from the age of the apostle James to the moral tonic of Trent, faith without works is vain; but faith is faith, and as such, it is a gift. Should we make the mature examination of our souls in the second before the Particular Judgment, we may be astonished at how many times holy grace dropped into our laps without our recognizing it.

Salvation requires a response of the will, and in this parable, the response is deliberate recognition of the worth of grace. The man who chanced upon a hidden treasure acknowledged that it was a treasure. Not always does the believer appreciate the richness of the gospel. What is granted can easily be taken for granted, without the faintest Amen. Otherwise our hymns in church would be louder, and the breast-beating at the Agnus Dei would bruise.

The pantheist may gloss over this: The treasure was in one particular field. It was not the germ of every field that ever was, nor was it the abstract fieldness of the field. Salvation, which is the treasure—and there I have given the parable away—is a particular thing in a particular place. So the Church, before she is apostolic, is catholic; and before she is catholic, she is holy, and before all else, she is one. This is easier to say when the naive and injurious adolescence of ecumenism has matured. Now that religions speak to one another, we can talk about what was formerly speakable only between coreligionists. The treasure of salvation is found in the Catholic Church, not because of any inherent righteousness of Catholics (we are always stumbling upon it) but because that is where God planted it. Knowing how upset sentimental people can become when thwarted, I had no qualms about allowing a parishioner to have her Highland terrier blessed in a non-Catholic church—in a ceremony that has virtually become a high feast in that denomination. But I still draw the line at blessing people. This is not because no one else may be able to do it but because I know the Catholic blessing definitely does it.

Once this “sacred deposit of faith” is discovered by the gift of grace, the stumbler buys the field. Here is a moral challenge, for Jewish law required that anyone who discovered wealth inform its rightful owner: The “treasure trove” is the landowner’s property. In His tumultuous ethic, Jesus condones the slyness of the lucky man, who is only a vagrant and not even a prospector, just as He positively commends the unjust steward and the unjust judge. The law is not condemned but fulfilled; in the casual words of a little parable, the raucous glory of heaven has slithered in through the cracks of time and space. The moral manners of heaven, whose homely tokens are a sense of humor and an appreciation of paradox, would seem to us far more perverse than this parable, and even horrible, without sanctifying grace or purgatorial refinement. Heaven is not for the religious but for the heavenly, and heaven breaks through the bounds of earth when the clumsy soul chances upon the great treasure and takes it to himself with an exuberance that publishes the news in spite of all the proprieties of limited reason and habitual custom.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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