The Parable of the Hidden Treasure
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. (13:44)
As He does in the other parables, Jesus builds this simple story around an experience or situation familiar to His hearers. Few, if any, would themselves have found such a treasure; but the practice of hiding valuables in the ground was common. Because there were no banks or other public depositories, most people protected their valuables in a secret spot in the ground. When they needed money or decided to sell or trade a piece of jewelry, for instance, they would go to the place at night, uncover the jar or storage box, take out what was desired, and rebury the rest.
Because Palestine had been a battleground for hundreds of years, families would often even bury food, clothing, and various household objects to protect them from plundering enemy soldiers. The famed Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “The gold and the silver and the rest of that most precious furniture which the Jews had and which the owners treasured underground was done to withstand the fortunes of war.”
Over the years, the ground of Palestine became a veritable treasure house. When the owner of buried treasure died or was forcefully driven from the land-sometimes deported to a foreign land such as Assyria or Babylon-the treasure would be forever lost unless someone accidentally discovered it, as occasionally happened.
No doubt that was the fate of the treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again. The man may have stumbled over part of the treasure or seen some of it protruding above ground as he happened to pass through the field. Or he may have been a hired hand who inadvertently dug it up while plowing or cultivating. In any case, the field did not belong to him, because, from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.
Many Christians are embarrassed by this story, thinking Jesus used an unethical act to illustrate a spiritual truth. It seems to them that the man was obligated to tell the owner of the field about the treasure, since it was on his property and therefore rightfully belonged to him.
The point of the parable does not involve the ethics of what the man did, but rather his willingness to sacrifice everything he had in order to possess the treasure. But what he did was not unethical or dishonest.
In the first place, it is obvious that the treasure was not hidden by the present owner of the field and was unknown to him. Otherwise, he would have retrieved it before he sold the field. The man who bought the field obviously knew the owner was not aware of the treasure or he would not have offered to buy the field, knowing the treasure would not be included in the deal.
In the second place, rabbinic law provided that “if a man finds scattered fruit or money, it belongs to the finder.” If a person came across money or other valuables that were obviously lost and whose owner was dead or unknown, the finder had the right to keep what was found.
In the third place, the basic honesty of the man is testified to by the fact that, had he been dishonest, he would simply have taken the treasure without any thought of buying the field. But he did not even use part of the treasure to buy the field; rather, he sells all that he has, and buys that field.
The parable of the hidden treasure (13:44)
For the way these parables relate to the structure of the chapter, see comments at vv. 10–17.
The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl are a pair; and pairing is not uncommon in Matthew (e.g., 5:14b–16; 6:26–30; 7:6; 9:16–17; 10:24–25; 12:25; 13:31–33; 24:43–51), an excellent way of reinforcing a point. Like the paired parables with which these two are chiastically coordinated (mustard seed and yeast, vv. 31–33), these two make the same general point but have significant individual emphases.
Unlike the parables earlier in the chapter, these two do not deal so much with the hidden, inaugurated form of the kingdom and the concomitant delay of the Parousia as with the superlative worth of the kingdom of heaven. Yet even here, the previous eschatological structure underlies them, for in traditional Jewish apocalyptic, one could scarcely liken the kingdom to a man finding a treasure or buying a pearl. The kingdom was to come apocalyptically at the end of the age by an act of God alone. In contrast to this, some kind of realized or inaugurated eschatology is here presupposed.
44 On the “is like” language, see comments at v. 24. The kingdom is not simply like a treasure, but its situation is like the situation of a treasure hidden in a field. The Greek articles are generic (cf. Turner, Syntax, 179). Finding the treasure appears to be by chance. In a land as frequently ravaged as Palestine, many people doubtless buried their treasures; but as Huffman (“Atypical Features in the Parables,” 213) points out, actually to find a treasure would happen once in a thousand lifetimes. Thus the extravagance of the parable dramatizes the supreme importance of the kingdom.
Derrett (Law in the New Testament, 1–16) has pointed out that under rabbinic law if a workman came on a treasure in a field and lifted it out, it would belong to his master, the field’s owner; but here the man is careful not to lift the treasure out until he has bought the field. So the parable deals with neither the legality nor the morality of the situation (as with the parable of the thief in the night) but with the value of the treasure, which is worth every sacrifice. When the man buys the field at such sacrifice, he possesses far more than the price paid (cf. 10:39). The kingdom of heaven is worth infinitely more than the cost of discipleship, and those who know where the treasure lies joyfully abandon everything else to secure it.
Two alternative interpretations must be dismissed.
- The first, represented by Walvoord, understands the treasure to represent Israel and Jesus as the man who sold everything to purchase her. He rejects the above view by making the parable mean that “a believer in Christ has nothing to offer and the treasure is not for sale” and proposes his own interpretation by noting that in Exodus 19:5 Israel is called God’s treasure. But any view, including Walvoord’s, can be made to look foolish by pressing a parable into a detailed allegory. For instance, one could rebut his view by showing that it entails Israel’s being worth far more than the price paid, and that of course would constitute an implicit depreciation of Christ’s sacrifice, which no thoughtful Christian would accept. One must come to grips with the nature of parables (see comments at v. 3a). And “treasure” has a vast range of associations in the OT and NT; on what basis, then, does Walvoord select Exodus 19:5? Above all, his interpretation does not adequately handle the opening clause.
- J. D. Crossan (Finding Is the First Act [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979], esp. 93 ff.) argues that “sold all he had” must be taken so absolutely that “all” includes the parable itself. One must give up the parable itself and, in abandoning all, abandon even abandonment. The parable is therefore a paradox, like the sign that reads “Do not read this sign.” Crossan’s interpretation is unacceptable for exegetical, literary, historical, and theological reasons: exegetical, in that this parable does not speak of “abandoning” or “giving up” things but of “selling,” and one cannot imagine giving the parable away by selling it; literary, in that Crossan, like Walvoord, fastens on one word and rides it so hard that the nature of parables is overlooked; historical, in that ascription of such existentialist results to Jesus or to Matthew is so anachronistic as to make a historian wince; theological, in that his interpretation of “paradox” is defective and is used in undifferentiated ways. Crossan oscillates between paradox construed as a merely formal contradiction and paradox construed as antinomy or even incoherence.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 13:44). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 375–376). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.