The Treasure Seeker & the Oyster Farmer
Ordinary Sunday 17, 24 July, 2005
Bishop Graeme Rutherford
Assistant Bishop of Newcastle
In January this year, I was chaplain to a group of some 50 mainly 16 and 17 year old students from five Australian Grammar Schools on a pilgrimage to Calcutta. For 10 days we were assigned to work in the homes run by the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa's nuns, and also the famous Rainbow school for homeless children run by a formidable Irish Loreto Nun, Sr Cyril, (known as the 2nd Mother Teresa of Calcutta).
Each day began at 5:30am with the Office of Vigils and Mass in the Mother House Church, followed by breakfast in the Convent courtyard. After that, the students and volunteers set to off Homes scattered throughout the city.
I had been assigned to work at Kalighat, the Home for the destitute and dying, the oldest and best known of Mother Teresa's homes. Situated next door to a large Hindu Temple, it is in one of the most congested places in Calcutta. Walking there at daybreak, I witnessed people performing their morning ablutions at pumps on the streets; people drinking water from the gutter; cooking their meals on the curbside and urinating on the footpath.
Malnutrition underlies nearly every disease in Kalighat, with tuberculosis, dysentery, malaria, internal parasites and lice being common.
I must confess I found the experience quite confronting when I first entered the darkened men's ward, and saw people so emaciated, and smelt a mixture of strong disinfectant and other more unpleasant odours.
As I worked in that place alongside the Sisters and young volunteers, many from Europe who return each year, to help feed and bathe the patients, I was tremendously moved by their sacrificial commitment. They do not come for a holiday. They come to pray early each day, and then, to work. There in no natural beauty to see or buildings of great architectural or cultural interest. There is just noise and pollution and health hazards.
Later in London, we met with Archbishop Rowan Williams at Lambeth Palace. When the students asked him about the poverty and suffering we had personally witnessed in Calcutta, he said, 'we don't have to have the answers to suffering before we extend a helping hand. Most of the people who work among the suffering, live with the big questions unanswered. The big questions are still there. But they get on with the next thing, in practical care'.
Above all else, what struck me up close and personally on that pilgrimage was the spirit of sacrificial, practical care small actions like washing dishes; laundering blankets; spoon-feeding and toileting patients small actions, like 'giving a cup of cold water in Jesus' name'.
One of my responsibilities in the Diocese of Newcastle is to interview those who feel they have a vocation to the ordained ministry. It is a ministry I had also in this diocese as an Examining Chaplain. Invariably each year, there are enquiries from successful business people who apply to the diocese for ordination, turning aside from their lucrative careers, in several instances selling their homes or businesses and moving with spouses and children into comparatively cramped college apartments, and doing so because of a profound sense of the call of God on their lives. Nor do they expect to return to their former standard of living after completing their theological training. Ministry for them implies considerable sacrifice.
Far more close to home, I am proud of one of my sons, who every Tuesday, gives up his time to go and volunteer in the Drop-In Centre attached to St Matthew's Prahran, where he befriends others his own age and older who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Each of these are real-life parallels to the characters in the twin parables in today's gospel, the treasurer seeker and the oyster hunter. Matthew writes that Jesus declared:
'The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it'. (Matt. 13:44-46)
The examples I've described are actually mild compared to the sacrifices made by some Christians throughout the history of the church and continue to be made today. People who have become seriously ill or even died because of their sense of vocation to ministry. The stories I have related come from my own recent firsthand experience. I am very aware that St Peter's Eastern Hill has a record up to the present day, of priests, religious and people who have been outstanding examples of sacrificial ministry.
These twin parables of the hidden treasure and the expensive pearl make the same general point but have significant individual emphases.
Both are about the superlative worth of the Kingdom of Heaven but one emphasises that the worth of the Kingdom can be discovered by accident and the other parable suggests that for some people the worth of the Kingdom is discovered only after a long and patient search.
The hidden treasure was found when a poor man's ploughshare suddenly hit a box. He dug it up, opened it up, and there was the precious treasure. Under rabbinic law, if a workman came upon a treasure in a field and lifted it out, it would belong to the field's owner. Here the man is careful not to lift the treasure out until he has first bought the field. The parable is not concerned with the ethics or legality of such behaviour but only with the value of the treasure which is worth every sacrifice. Those who know where the treasure lies, joyfully abandon everything else to secure it.
The pearl of great price is found by a pearl merchant who regularly seeks precious oysters. He knows perfection when he sees it. There were other pearls on the market. There are other things of great value. But none can compare with the pearl of great price.
The message of these twin parables is clear and simple. People find the Kingdom in many ways. Some come upon it by accident. The reality of Jesus and his kingdom is clear cut in an instant. Others find that reality only after a long and patient search. But it is immensely worthwhile, however you come on it. It is a treasure. It is a beautiful pearl. It is worth any sacrifice. True disciples are those who recognize that God's Kingdom is so valuable that it's worth sacrificing whatever it takes to be its citizens.
These twin parables are reflected in a great deal of monastic literature. In his 'little Rule for Beginners', Benedict wants his monks to inhale the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God. They were not to dwell on their crosses and losses in entering the monastery. They were to concentrate positively on what they had gained. They were to 'prefer Christ to all else'. He was the hidden treasure and pearl of great price.
My pilgrimage to Calcutta; my privileged insight into the stories of many contemporary Ordination candidates and the readiness of my own son to commit himself one day a week to helping homeless people, all leave me wrestling with a nagging question.
Why it is that we see so few examples in our Australian culture, even within the church, of people who obviously demonstrate sacrificial living a commitment to Christ that truly costs them something significant, whether through downsizing their property and possessions, through changing jobs, or through radically different spending patterns? Why don't we see more who unambiguously demonstrate through an obvious, visible lifestyle that God's Kingdom agenda is the highest priority for them, even to the point that life becomes noticeably less comfortable for them than it otherwise might be?
In fact, with rare exceptions we see precisely the opposite. Some of our leading politicians appear to have succumbed to the so-called 'prosperity gospel'. At the recent Hillsong Conference which attracted 29,000 people to Sydney's SuperDome, the Premier of NSW, Bob Carr, was reported to have said, 'There is nothing wrong with material prosperity. Without it, there would be no SuperDome, no Olympics and this Church wouldn't function to the level of excellence that it does'.
Ours is a culture in which religious commitment, including Christian activity, functions as a kind of add-on to our real priorities. When convenient, we'll go to church or get involved in this or that program or small group. When not too much is at stake, we will witness or stand up for and model Christian integrity in the work place. When we have a surplus, we'll give a little more to church or Christian causes.
Every time we offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, we open ourselves afresh to be swept up into the sacrificial offering of Our Lord, not only in mind and imagination but in practical service. The Eucharist communicates not only the benefits but also the demands of Christ's sacrifice.
How dare we Catholic Christians shrink from recognizing the Christian life as one of sacrificing for him and for others in return? All our losses and crosses are as nothing compared to the surpassing worth of living in the reign of God. In the words of Benedict, 'Let us prefer nothing whatever to Christ and his Kingdom'. It's a hidden treasure. It's an expensive pearl.