I’m troubled by the parable (Matthew 13:44) of the buried treasure in your book The Treasure Principle.
Question from a reader:
We’re reading your book The Treasure Principle and loving it by the way, but using the example of the buried treasure in the field at the beginning—got me wondering about something else.
I know the parables Jesus used were ones the people could relate to. The parable of the man who finds the treasure in a field he doesn’t own, hides it away, then without telling the owner or anyone else—buys it so he can possess the treasure.
I’m troubled by that example. I know Jesus wouldn’t teach us to do something unethical, yet if I were to find a treasure on your property and not tell you, then buy it from you and reap the benefits of the treasure, I would be considered unethical.
What gives with this example? Is it a cultural thing? Was there a kind of “finders/keepers losers/weepers” clause for the day since people buried stuff a lot?
Answer from Randy Alcorn:
Parables were a form of communication that always stressed one central idea. The rest of the story is usually extraneous, merely a prop to convey the central meaning. We come from our culture and see the ethical problems of one part of the story, which aren’t what the speaker/writer was dealing with, but which he merely threw in to make the story work. In hermeneutics class the instructor warned us “don’t make a parable walk on all fours.” In other words, don’t try to make it say more than it really intends to say, which always relates to its primary point, not its story—supporting details.
A classic example is Luke 16, with the unrighteous steward. The central point of the story is to make wise use of the financial opportunities we have, “making friends” (influencing people positively) with a view toward an eternal reward. Christ is trying to point out that even unrighteous people sometimes have a better grasp of taking advantage of opportunity than we do. But because the man is dishonest, we balk at the story. But we shouldn’t. Jesus isn’t endorsing the man’s dishonesty, only his foresight and craftiness. (We can correctly say “Satan is smart and shrewd,” but that doesn’t mean we’ve endorsed Satan. We’ve merely cited one aspect of him that is in some sense admirable, without intending to say other positive things about him.)
Same thing with man in story of treasure. By law and practice, when a man sold property and moved away, whatever he leaves behind now belongs to the new owner. Whatever he takes is his. Now, if the owner knew about the treasure, he would take it with him. But since it really wasn’t his (except legally, as long as he owned the property), he won’t take it with him, and the new property owner gets it along with the land. This could be viewed the same as seeing property you think has great soil for growing corn. Would it be unethical to not tell the owner you think it has great soil for corn, so he’ll then consider raising corn himself, raise the price or approach local farmers? He may not know the land’s full potential, but (someone could argue) it’s not up to the buyer to tell him, nor to tell him he found another man’s gold on his property.
That may not be good enough for us-and it wouldn’t be for me or my family here in this culture—but it might have been common logic in that culture. But even if it wasn’t, the central point of the story is simply that there’s a treasure worth more than everything a person can give in exchange for it. If we objected to the morals, the storyteller would likely say “You missed the point—that’s not what the story was about.” To us a story may be about many things. But a parable was about one central thing.
One other thought. Since no one was there, the traveler could easily have stolen the treasure, taking what he could carry, then coming back for the rest. He wouldn’t have had to pay a dime. That’s exactly what a dishonest man would do. But since he didn’t do that, since he went and sold everything he had to pay a fair price for the land—which he didn’t have to do—the man was actually showing himself to be exceptionally honest.
For more information on this subject, see The Treasure Principle.