Parable of the Hidden Treasure (1 of 2)

hidden treasure 2

Q. I read a famous author interpreting the treasure as international peace, and the secret to world peace is Israel. Most commentators interpret the treasure as either Christ or the Church. Is the author’s interpretation valid?

A. No, I think his interpretation did not take all clues into consideration. The parable is given only in Mt 13:44:
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.

Since it consists of only one verse, we need to draw clues from its immediate and wider context in addition to the text itself. But before we do that lets look at the historical and cultural background.

Historical Background. In the old days people typically store up their savings in the form of silver coins (Lk 15:8). There were bankers where you can deposit your money and receive it back with interest (Mt 25:27), but not all trust them and would rather keep the money themselves. Some store it at home, where thieves break in and steal (Mt 6:19-20). To keep it safe some dig a hole in a field and hide it there. However, with periodic wars between Israel and her enemies, and between Judah and Israel, people get killed and their treasures were forgotten, giving rise to the possibility of finding treasures hidden in fields.

Legality and Ethics. Scholars have raised questions re the legality of the man buying the field to get the treasure, and his ethics in not turning over the treasure to the field’s owner. Though strange to the Western mind, his action was actually both legal and ethical under Jewish law.

The man found the treasure in someone else’ field. Either he was there without the owner’s permission, or he was there with approval, employed by the owner as a laborer. If the former, he would be trespassing, an intruder. He could simply steal the treasure. He need not buy the field.

If the latter, there are two possibilities when he found the treasure. Either the field’s owner already knew of it being there, or he has no idea that a treasure existed. The former is unlikely as the owner would have removed the treasure for himself. In any event, the laborer would be the owner’s agent, and anything he finds belongs to the owner. If the latter, then the treasure did not belong to the field’s owner, because he could not lay claim to something he didn’t even know existed.

However, the laborer did not know whether the treasure was hidden by the field’s owner himself, or whether he had no knowledge of it whatsoever. The only way to test the vendor’s knowledge and claim the treasure legitimately at the same time is to buy the field. If the vendor hid it himself or knew of the treasure, he would have extracted it before the deal is closed. If he didn’t, then finders keepers applies, and the purchaser becomes the treasure’s owner. The morality is similar to finding sunken treasure in an old shipwreck. The original owners have expired a long time ago and whoever finds it can claim it. Everything the man did was legal and ethical under Jewish law.

(To be continued)

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