Finders-Keepers

Delivered June 3, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
as part of a series on the parables.

Theme: “Finding Jesus” means that we should find our life changing.

Sermon Text:
Matthew 13:44
and Psalm 107:1-9
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man
found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had
and bought that field.

How many of you have played Monopoly? Everybody has played Monopoly, I don’t think you’re an American, or anyway, a westerner, if you’ve never played Monopoly. A few years ago my daughter and a friend of hers were playing while I was studying. Groans and shrieks were coming from the room in which they played and they were arguing back and forth about the rules and they kept coming in to me and saying, “Is this a rule?”(like I invented the game). “Can you collect money while you are in jail? Can you buy mortgaged property from someone who is still playing?” Bob, Mandy’s friend said, “You guys have such weird rules, you roll snake eyes and you get $100, whoever heard of that rule? Or you put money in the middle and if you land on free parking, you get the money. We don’t play those kind of rules.” Actually at one point he called his mother and said, “Mom, do you have the rules from our Monopoly game? She said, “Yes, I’ve got them right here.” He asked her if you could collect while you are in jail? She said, “No, the rules say you can’t collect while you are in jail.” Well at that very moment, Mandy, my daughter was in jail and she said, “Well I want to get out of jail then.” And he said, “You can’t, you have to wait until it’s your turn.” And on his turn he hit her boardwalk with three houses and owed her $1,400 but she couldn’t collect because she was in jail. “Daddy”, she came running in to where I was studying. Now most of you probably know that Monopoly was invented during the Depression in 1935. It was also against the backdrop of many anti-trust laws that were being created at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. People could play and enjoy with paper money, what they couldn’t with real money. And I am sure that anybody who has ever played the game of Monopoly at one time or another has said, “Don’t you wish this was real money?” And that’s the way it was back in the 1930’s when the game was invented and why it became so popular. Monopoly mirrored real life with all of its rules and regulations, its hopes and dreams.

In a similar way, there were many rules and laws regulating trade and wealth in Jesus’ day. And it’s important to understand those rules in order to understand the short parable that I have read for you this morning. Also, there was the background of Jewish treasure stories that created a sense of understanding that Jesus’ original hearers might have had. One such law of the 1st century was the law of “lifting.” Lifting had to do with finding treasure. Back in ancient times, people often hid treasures in the ground to safeguard it. They would take it, put it in a pot, and bury it in the ground. It was their only security from marauders and thieves. There was no First National on the corner. And even today we sometimes come across stories in the newspaper where people have died and others go in to their houses and they find thousands of dollars sewn in to drapery linings, and mattresses and all of that. It was a common practice in Jesus’ day to protect money by putting it in pots and burying it in the ground. And so the law of lifting stated what a field worker or a day laborer could do if he found the money. Whether he could keep it, or not keep it. Here’s one example. If the owner said, “Weed or dig for me today,” the worker could keep whatever he found. But if the owner said, “Work for me today,” without specifying the nature of work, the worker’s findings belonged to the employer. The rabbi’s decreed all kinds of rules, just like a Monopoly game, about who owned what. And how lost goods could be kept or not kept. Usually the stuff that could be kept was not buried, it was stuff that was scattered, like money or figs or wool sheerings, things that the owner would not necessarily expect to recover and so in those cases it was finders-keepers. In other cases it was not. But clearly marked things like money in a pot that had been buried in the ground, were the owner’s. And again, just like the Monopoly rules, treasure presumed to have an owner could not be kept.

Recently, there was a news article in the paper about a Coke can episode. I don’t know if you heard about this or not. Some people were visiting and the hostess handed a can of Coke to one of the guests and it happened to be that Coke was doing a prize thing, and if you got a certain can, you could win a million dollars. And the person who had the can handed to them had the winning can. And then they got into a whole legal battle about whose it was. I am sure the hostess was thinking, “I didn’t give you the can, I gave you the contents of the can. The can belongs to me.” Okay, well that’s what we, even today, wrestle with. Who owns what? Not too many years ago, a man bought a painting at a yard sale for $10.00. And when he took off the backing, there was a parchment paper that ended up being a copy of the Constitution. Now believe it or not, he didn’t understand the value of what he had discovered. He ended up selling the Constitution. But the person, who bought the thing, sold it for $3 million dollars. Sometimes we don’t realize the treasure that we have in our hands.

Let’s make it more personal. Lets say that you came upon a yard sale antique and it was marked $5, but you knew it was worth $500. Would you tell the owner? Or would you buy it for $5. All you pious looking folks out there saying, “Oh, I would tell the owner!” No you wouldn’t. You would buy it for $5, wouldn’t you? Of course it could be reversed and if you were the one who didn’t know the value, what would you wish for somebody else to do for you, then it becomes a different story.

In ancient days there were clear laws about treasure. And there were common stories about people discovering treasure. Those stories had to do with being rewarded for some righteous behavior. One such story was about Abba-Judah. He was wealthy and generous but he lost his wealth. He was saddened that he couldn’t give anymore to the rabbis and in his despair his wife said to him, “Well you still have a field, sell half of it, give to the rabbis and then just plow the other half.” Which he did and they blessed him for his generosity. They said, “May the Holy One, blessed be He, make up all the things that you lack.” And one day when, Abba-Judah went to plow his field, his cow broke a leg and he went to lift the leg of the cow and there right where the leg was, he found a jewel worth a great deal of money. These were the kinds of stories that were floating around in the 1st century as well as all the rules about what you could find and keep. This was the backdrop for this parable. And so Jesus opened his mouth and said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again and then in his joy, went and sold all that he had and bought the field.” What does this mean? Now we read this and we assume maybe at first glance, that the kingdom of heaven is about joy. And certainly it is, but the hearers who heard this parable would say, “Wait a minute, that man did not own that field. He was a day laborer who found treasure marked; it was hidden. It was marked and yet he was so excited that he bought the field.” They are thinking that he just snookered the owner of the field, like we are tempted to snooker the person in a yard sale find. And probably the clearest proof of that assumption is this. If he could have legally lifted the treasure, why not just take it? But he didn’t. He had to go and sell everything he had to buy the field in order for it to be legal. And unlike the Jewish treasure stories, there is no sense in Jesus’ parable about whether the man who finds this treasure is good or bad. Often Jesus reverses things to drive home a point. So why is the kingdom of God like this hidden treasure? Because the kingdom of God comes to us before our deeds can dictate anything. The kingdom of God is discovered by “morally good people” and by “terrible people.”

I was talking to a woman who was in the church that I use to serve; she was the Clerk of Session for at least 20 years. When I was speaking to her, she was in her mid 80’s. And she told me how she had, in the midst of all of her church work and all of her church life, discovered Jesus only 5 or 6 years ago under the ministry of the previous pastor. She said, “All my life I went to church, I was doing a good thing. I was serving and I was on the board. But it finally dawned on me that Jesus was not just an idea, he was a living person who wanted to know me, and I trusted him and it changed everything.” Sometimes people who discover Jesus are, well we have heard all the terrible things that they have been into before they find Christ and everything changes. In Matthew, Chapter 13, Verses 34 and 35, Jesus spoke to the crowd in parables. “He didn’t say anything to them without using a parable and so was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet. Now listen carefully. ‘I will open my mouth in parables. I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.'” Here’s the hidden treasure. And for someone today it may be like a find, a discovery. Jesus Christ is the hidden treasure. Our Lord died on a cross and was buried and raised the 3rd day. And before one person really ever put their faith in him, God provided that treasure. He was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. This is an amazing thing to think that there might be someone here today who has never really understood the treasure that is in Jesus Christ and I, in the name of Jesus, get to utter something that happened before the foundation of the world and now it can be discovered. Jesus offers himself to you and to me. And to some he remains hidden. To others he is found and really to be theologically correct, it would be saying we had been found by him. But he radically reorients the life of everyone who finds him. For some people who hear the good news, Jesus is like a picture. Bought and sold for $10. It has some value, pretty, but not worth keeping. For others he is like the hidden original of the Constitution whose value changes our whole life. Now the person, who would have heard this parable would have to ask, “Well what’s this man going to do next?” And that’s what we who say that we have found the treasure have to ask ourselves. What will we do next? Because we say that we have this treasure. If Jesus is truly my treasure, then my life ought to change. A real treasure find like the one in the parable is going to change everything. I mean aren’t you skeptical of the person making $6 an hour and who says “Well I am not going to quit my job even though I hit the lottery and I now have $5 million dollars in my pocket. I am just going to keep working in the factory.” There is no way. That’s life-changing stuff that reorients everything. In the same way, someone who says, “Well I found Christ and there is no change, no way.” The Holy Spirit has come to create change, to take away hatred and envy. To bring love and hope in to the heart. If Jesus is in control, if he is the one who my life is now oriented around, something has to change. How will I treat my family? How will I act at work? To say you are a Christian, but nothing ever changes, or you’re no different from the person who says they are not a Christian, something is wrong. The Spirit of God has come to invade our lives, and to radically reorient them.

Speaking of stories, Aesop told the story of a miser who buried gold and who would often come to the tree, dig it up, open the bag, look in and look at the gold. And one day a thief followed him and stole his money. He complained to a friend and he said, “Well, when you went and you dug the hole and looked in the bag, did you ever use any of the money?” And he said, “No.” The friend said, “Well just come, dig the hole, and look in it and it will do just about the same thing for you.”

Christians are not folks who come to church, once a week, and look in the bag and say, “Hi, Jesus, I am so glad you are here. I will come back next week and see you.” Or next month, or twice a year, but when I go to work or I go to school, please stay put. The Holy Spirit has come to change us, to conform us to the image of Christ. Finding him means everything. And so somebody may come here today, impoverished of spirit, just like that day laborer in the parable, maybe not financially but impoverished of spirit and Christ is here. To some he is hidden, to some he is very real. In a sense he comes to us again through the sacrament that we will soon celebrate. But he is here. And if you will receive him, he will change everything. It doesn’t mean you will be perfect, but he will change your life and he will give you hope. He will give you help. It’s not about being bad or good. It’s not about doing anything or getting rid of anything. It’s about just setting everything else aside that we think is in first place, and putting him first. That’s what God’s call is today. How about it, are you ready for a real change? The kind that only Christ can make? It doesn’t matter how worthless you think you are. Or how you view yourself. What matters is will you let Jesus be the center of your life? Will you let him take you and touch you and change you? I have asked Babbie Jacobsen to read something for us. She did this in our last service and she did it so well that I thought I have got to have her do it here. It’s really an exclamation point to this sermon. But it’s a way of challenging each of us to consider what Christ will really do in our lives.

The Touch of the Master’s Hand.

“It was battered and scarred. And the auctioneer thought it hardly worth his while to do what would take too much trouble with the old violin. But he held it up with a smile. “What am I bid, good folk”, he cried. “Who will start the bidding for me?” $1, $1, $2, only $2. “Who will make it $3?” “$3”. “Going once, going twice, and”, but no from the back of the room a grey haired man came forward and picked up the bow. He dusted the old violin, tightened the strings and then he played a melody pure and sweet. As sweet as a caroling angel sings. The music ceased and the auctioneer, now with a voice quiet and low said, “Now what am I bid for the old violin?” $1,000, $2,000, $2,000 twice, $3,000, $3,000 going, going, gone. The people cheered, but some of them cried. We don’t quite understand what changed its worth? Swift came the reply. “The touch of the master’s hand”. And many a man, whose life’s is out of tune and beset and troubled with sin, is auctioned off to the thoughtless crowd, much like the old violin. A mess of pottage, a glass of wine, a game and he is on his way. He is going once, he is going twice, he is going and almost gone, but then the master comes. And the foolish crowd never can quite understand the worth of a soul and the change that can be wrought by the touch of the masters hand.”

I would like to invite all who would like to receive that touch again to do so. Maybe there is one person here today who has never really discovered the hidden treasure of Jesus. Is God speaking to your heart? If so, all you need to do is respond in faith and the way that you can do that is through prayer. I will offer a brief prayer. If you would like to make this prayer your own, I invite you to do so. And if you have discovered the treasure already, but somehow that treasure has become a little bit tucked away, I would like to invite you to renew yourself, even through this prayer today. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus I need You. I thank You that You died on the cross for me. That You were buried and raised again on the 3rd day for me. That You have taken away my sins. And so I ask You now to come in to my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in to my heart, I pray. Take over, invade every part of my life and being. Fill me with Your spirit, and forgive my sins. Cleanse me and make me the kind of person that You want me to be. I ask it in Your holy name, Amen.