The Mission Is His

“The kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.” (Matt. 13:44)

By Oliver O’Donovan

First there was the finding: a chance turn of the furrow, or, in the parable of the merchant, the result of a lifetime’s search. In either case, it was utterly decisive. To find was to be found. The joy of finding occupied the soul, took over everything. Perhaps the farmer or the merchant might in principle have refused the opportunity, but it would have branded them in their own eyes forever as might-have-beens. 

I remember a most famous and eminent publisher of a couple of generations back who used to murmur mournfully, “And I turned down All Quiet on the Western Front!” The discovery of a supreme value is a life-shaping experience; it disembowels us, turns us inside out. That is the truth behind all art and all religion, good or bad.

Then there was the hiding of the treasure and the relentless, unsparing slimming down, gathering resources, lopping off every unnecessary commitment, the grim-faced, resolute self-discipline preparing simply to be in a position to lay hold. So, too, when the supreme beauty overhauls us, we have to take up the task and overhaul ourselves, turn ourselves inside out, placing the precious before the vile, making ourselves fit for the blessing. That necessity gives form to all art and all religion, good or bad.

Two initial observations prepare us for the direction in which these tiny parables will lead us. First, there is an inseparable connection between love and judgment. The harsh restructuring that merchant and farmer impose on themselves springs from the madness of love. Judgment has sprung from eros, ice-cold calculation has come from red-hot rapture. “I can do without this” follows “I can’t do without that.” 

The only way to live without judgment, without selecting and rejecting, without making all those decisions about greater and lesser worth, is to live without eros and without beauty. We may imagine human life as a succession of lives, now in one role, now in another, or as a succession of enchantments, now enjoying one, now another. But to suffer many enchantments, one after the other, means never to be enchanted by any; to occupy many roles and never to occupy oneself is not to occupy any. 

From which the second observation follows. To exercise judgment and to judged are two complementary aspects of the one decision. As we decide, so we are decided upon. As we value, so we are evaluated. We judge the good and are judged by it. We are inevitable conspirators in judgment on ourselves.

So much for the preliminaries. And now St. Matthew faces us with the hardest question any religious person must confront. It is a deeply disturbing shift of focus, and is meant to be: from images of self-imposed order and personal discipline he bids us look at the confusion of the world at large. The kingdom of Heaven is like a net thrown in the sea which catches all kinds — no judgment there, no clarity of purpose or meaning! 

Can the life-shaping engagement with supreme beauty ever extend from the soul, in its private self-determination, to the human race? Can my pursuit of the goal of life be shared with other people? Can my discovery of meaning and purpose lead me out into the world, or does it withdraw me into myself? We might hope to ignore the question, and pursue our own way regardless. But it won’t work. The religious person is not immune to the disorder that prevails outside his or her skin, where the morally self-directing subject breaks up into a mere succession of roles, beauty itself dissolves into a kaleidoscope of enchantments. There is no treasure that is not hidden in a field. To win the treasure, the farmer must also buy the field in which it lies.

But how is the world included in my self-determining pilgrimage? Is it to be involved as a moral implication? If in pursuit of my treasure I must turn to other people in acts of love and care, does that not give the world its place? Yes, but only a passive one, as the object of my kindness. Nothing is implied about other people’s vocations. 

May it be that each pursues a different road to one supreme beauty, each closed off from the other? But if that is so, it cannot be known to be so. The convergence cannot be mapped and observed. So perhaps we need to think in terms of a spiritual communion. In pursuit of beauty, we discover we are not alone, but form a community of pilgrimage, in which strength and encouragement is given by one to another. 

And that is of great importance, yet the church, or the symphony orchestra supporters’ club, does not include the whole human race, so that the question still has to be answered about the chaos, religious and artistic, that lies all around it. And so we may come to the thought of a missionary task: those who follow are charged with testifying and summoning others to follow, too. 

True and important, once again; yet there is still a gap between witness on the one hand and a coherent pattern and purpose which will embrace the world as a whole on the other. That gap we may be tempted to close by violence, psychological pressure, trickery, or any of the corruptions to which missionary zeal is exposed. Excessive carnal energy in the cause of mission is not an offense easily laid against Anglican Christians today, yet other times and other places warn of a temptation that reveals a gap in our understanding yet to be filled.

And so we come to the point of the parable of the fishes in the net: a final judgment. That means judgment is deferred. It means we cannot hope to see universal order written on the surface of events just yet. Our impatience must be contained; we must not rush in with solutions that promise to impose a shape in which we can take some satisfaction. 

The emergence of meaning and purpose for the world as a whole must be the second phase of God’s dealing with mankind. Of course, that is not an answer to our question. It is a declaration that an answer, of a certain kind at least, cannot be had. Yet if the question of how the treasure in the field can be the kingdom of Heaven is of such importance, we cannot be satisfied with no answer. Nor are we supposed to be. An answer will be given. But the time required for life itself serves us with this notice of deferral to dampen our impatience for it.

Perhaps I may interject that when I read of the fishes in the net, I think of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. It catches all sorts. They wander in and out, they ask questions of the stones and questions of the spirit. Sometimes they come to services and wander up to the Communion rail uncertain what to do there. If ever it were impossible to impose some universal interpretation of what is happening to people, it is impossible here. 

Yet there is one thing that makes this cathedral more than a microcosm of a confused and curious world. It is the constant reference in all we do and show to a particular moment in history, the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus. At the font, at the lectern, in the pulpit, at the altar, our proceedings point to that occurrence. We do not know what follows from it in any instance; we do not know what has led up to it. But the pointing is always there. It is the single element of order in this seething, directionless public ebb and flow. It goes beyond private religious experiences or quests; it is the sole anticipation of final judgment that we are ready for here and now.

Let us come back to St. Matthew. He, too, intends to lead us to that single moment of history, and he does it with a short, final parable to round the parable collection off, and then with a story about how Jesus’ teaching was received.

A scribe trained for the kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings from his storerooms things new and old. The scribe has had a two-stage education, like the arts-theology education that used to be the glory of the schools. This gives the perspective that allows insight into the ordering of history. It reveals a shape, a division into old and new, which occurs as a new departure in world history makes its impact. 

It is not simply that the scribe can date things correctly. He can also exercise a qualitative discrimination, distinguishing patterns of reason and behavior of the old era from those of the preaching of the kingdom. By this historically conscious reading of the world around him, the “scribe trained for the kingdom” shows us what a final ordering of world history could mean. He points to the world’s final hope, the desire of the nations. He anticipates the coming of the angels.

The material for the scribe’s interpretation lies before his eyes as Jesus preaches in “his own country.” The old and the new distinguish themselves: there are those who see the turning point of history occurring before their eyes, and those who fail to see it; perhaps, as in this case, because its guise is too familiar, or perhaps, in another case, because it is too unfamiliar. The shape that will order the world intelligibly to its goal begins to emerge at this moment. Faith divides from unbelief as epoch divides from epoch.

The treasure, then, is hidden in the field, and the field is the world. But not the world only in its present, crowding in on us with its jangling dissonances and confused directions, but the world in its history, laid out from beginning to end, within which we see the character of a final order through the shape Jesus’ coming has imposed on it. 

To reach out for the world’s treasure means to recognize it there and then, in the moment of the world’s turning. This can only be a public recognition, something we do together as human beings involved in one human destiny. It can only be a self-disciplining recognition, forestalling the free play of our fantasy, which would see world history as a blank page to project ourselves and our contemporary projects upon.

But we must not forget the point from which we began. To find is to be found. Who is it that goes seeking for treasure in the fields and roads around first-century Nazareth? Do we? Do Jesus’ first disciples? Do his neighbors and those of his own country who hindered him by their unbelief? Yes, but only as he does. 

As bearer of the treasure of God’s beauty, he searches for the treasure of God’s world. As he is the one to be laid hold on, so he lays hold on us. That is the secret that underlies all mission. The mission is his. He is restless, tireless in pursuit of it. His was the self-denial, the ascetic discipline. Our role is to point, to gesture towards him, while he searches out for himself not only my soul or yours, not only the souls of the enlightened or the thoughtful and responsible, but the soul of world history, drawing it to the goal of its desire and striving.

The Rev. Dr. Oliver O’Donovan is professor emeritus of Christian ethics and practical theology at the University of Edinburgh.


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