What’s Your Treasure?
Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 26, 2020
Jesus’ parable about the buried treasure in the field reminds me of the famous story about a city in Germany named Weinsberg. Overlooking the city, perched high atop a hill, stands an ancient fortress. The townspeople are proud to tell about an interesting legend concerning the fortress.
According to the legend, in the 15th century, in the days of chivalry and honor, enemy troops laid siege to the fortress and sealed all the townsfolk inside. The enemy commander sent word up to the fortress announcing that he would allow the women and children to leave and go free before he launched a devastating attack. After some negotiations, the enemy commander agreed, on his word of honor, to let each woman take her most valuable, personal treasure she possessed, provided she could carry it out herself.
You can imagine the enemy commander’s consternation and surprise when the women began marching out of the fortress…each one carrying her husband on her back.
Jesus’ story, of course, invites the hearer to struggle with the question of treasure. What do we treasure? One way in which I have looked at this was to think about all my possessions, including all my photographs and items that I had collected during my travels. What would I try to save if there were a fire in the rectory? I had read a book about a practice rooted in a Japanese spiritual tradition about tidying one’s space as a discipline to help us see what is beautiful and important. One of the things the author suggested was to take every photograph we possess—take them out of albums, out of drawers, off the walls—and put them in a big pile on the floor. Take each photograph and look at it, not just with the eyes, but with the heart. What kind of emotion, if any, does each photo elicit? So, I did that and narrowed them down, creating one album that preserves a photographic record of my life, my family and those most important to me. In case of a fire, after making sure any person in the house is safe, that is the one item I would take with me. It is a treasure.
Now, the stories Jesus tells suggest that there will be some effort involved to get the treasure. We might have to actually work at it. In the case of the treasure buried in a field, you have to put together the resources needed, and find the people you need to talk to, to be able to buy the field. In the case of the fine pearl, you have to examine it and test it to make sure it is truly the find of a lifetime—without tipping it off to everyone else. And then, again, you have to do whatever you need to do to get the funds to actually buy it.
A story involving former President of the United States James Garfield makes an important point on the need for effort to get one’s treasure. When Garfield was the president of Hiram College in Ohio, he was once approached by the father of one of the students seeking admission to the college. The father criticized the length and the difficulty of the curriculum. “Can’t you simplify the course work?” he asked. “My son will never get through all this academic work. There should be a shorter route.”
Garfield reportedly replied, “I believe I can arrange such a plan, but it all depends upon what you want for your son. When God wants t make an oak tree, he takes a hundred years. And, when God wants to make a squash, he requires only two months.”
The question Jesus raises, of course, is what do we truly want? What is the greatest treasure, the deepest desire of our hearts? An interesting answer was given by St. Augustine, a bishop who lived some 1,500 years ago. In contrast to God, he muses, what is man? While God is infinite and all powerful, the human person is rather puny. Yet, there is a connection between the two. Humans, such a small part of creation and short-lived as they are, still find a need to praise God. In spite of sin, each feels the longing to reach out to his Creator. Why is this? He realizes it is God’s doing. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” Augustine had actually tried many ways to fill his restless heart: excessive pleasures, religions that turned out to be false, philosophy, and various distractions. In the end, they left him empty until he reached out and grasped the treasure offered to him all along: a loving surrender to the God who loves us infinitely.
So this week’s gospel is, in the end, very simple. It asks us to consider, in all honesty, what our treasure is. Are we satisfied, or might there be something more? Do we feel good for a while, but then feel empty again? If that’s so, we’re settling for a half-treasure, and we may need to search deeper: what, really, is our treasure?