The cost of following Jesus
Verse 44: “He sold all he had”. Verse 46: “He went away and sold everything he had”.
To many people today, that is unthinkable.
The idea that we might give something up in order to follow Jesus – it’s madness.
The idea that we might give up everything we have in order to follow Jesus – well that’s just insanity.
Many people today are glad to be involved in church. Come along on a Sunday. Maybe even take some responsibilities and make themselves helpful. Maybe even give some money to support the work of the church.
But only for as long as it’s convenient. We don’t come if there’s a children’s party, or if origami club starts to run on a Sunday morning. We’re glad to give money, but out of what’s left when we’ve done everything that’s more important to us. The idea that we might give something up in order to follow Jesus – it’s madness.
The idea that we might give up everything we have in order to follow Jesus – well that’s just insanity.
If someone followed Jesus in the costly way pictured by these parables, they’d be branded a fundamentalist, a fanatic, a bit over the top. Quite apart from anything else, most of us are English, so we don’t do exuberance.
These words of Jesus are not easy to listen to in our day and age.
Sure, we can listen to them on the surface. Just a couple of charming stories. Which child doesn’t love stories about discovering buried treasure? And most adults are equally excited by such a prospect. And how charming to hear about the pearl merchant who’s spent his life looking for quality pearls, and then one day he gets the lucky break he’s more than worked for.
You can listen to all of Jesus’ parables like that if you want. We thought about that a few weeks ago. They filter the listeners. Many just hear them as stories, as entertainment for the ear, but they make no dent on a person’s life. They invite us to scratch below the surface, to think a little deeper, to dig out what Jesus is really saying.
And when we do that with these stories we find that they’re not just stories about someone who found something immensely valuable. (Although they are that.) They are stories about two people who were willing to give up everything. Give up everything to have that treasure chest. Give up everything for that pearl of great price.
Once you see that that’s what’s going on, the men in the parables are frankly embarrassing. The demands Jesus is making are unreasonable. The parables themselves are unbearable to think about too hard.
So we’re tempted to ignore these parables – treat them as mere stories. But we can’t because we’re Christians.
So the other option would be for me to berate you with them. To beat you over the head.
I could insist that we need a stiff upper lip. We need to be willing to pay the cost, to make the sacrifice, to do our bit for Jesus and his kingdom. I could give a stirring speech, like a general on the eve of battle, to strengthen our spines, to brace ourselves, to follow Jesus whatever it costs.
But that won’t do either. There’s a big problem with it. Do you imagine that the man who found the treasure needed a stiff talking to? There he was, about to run away because the field would cost too much. Until along came a friend, a retired sergeant major, who talked to him about being a man and paying the price. Hardly! He couldn’t get to the bank fast enough.
The same with the pearl merchant. Nobody had to tell him to put his chin up and brave the bill. This was the moment he’d been waiting for all his life, and never quite dreamt would come.
Jesus does indeed lay out a high price for those who would follow him. Verse 44: “He sold all he had”. Verse 46: “He went away and sold everything he had”.
We mustn’t pretend those sentences aren’t there. But neither must we beat ourselves up with them.
Instead, let’s look more closely. I want us to notice two details in the way Jesus tells the parables that point us to these stories being unbelievably good news.
The Ambiguity about the Cast
First, there is ambiguity about the cast in the story.
Ask this question: Who is the man who discovered the treasure in the field? Who is the merchant looking for fine pearls?
So far, we’ve assumed that it’s us. And it may be us. I’m not saying that we’re not meant to identify with the men in the two stories. I’m saying it’s ambiguous. Parables are meant to make you ponder. Let’s chew over these ones a little.
Look at all the other parables in Matthew chapter 13. To use a technical term you’d meet in drama or English as you analyse a story: Who is the protagonist in the parables of Matthew 13? Each one tells a story? Whose story? Who is it that is trying to achieve something? Who’s project is the story following?
Well, let’s look. The parable of the sower. A farmer went out to sow his seed. Who is the farmer? In the first instance it’s God, or the Lord Jesus. Then comes the parable of the weeds and the wheat. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. Who’s he? Verse 37: “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.” It’s Jesus.
Last week, we had two short parables, the parable of the mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. We’re not each likened to a mustard plant. The kingdom of heaven, all down the ages, is likened to a single tree. Who planted that tree? Why – it’s Jesus of course.
Then we had the small amount of yeast that a woman mixed into a great big dough. Again, Jesus’ kingdom, around the world, for 2000 years and counting, is like a single batch of dough. Who mixed the yeast in and kick-started the growth? Again, it’s got to be Jesus.
So all the other parables in Matthew 13 are a story about what Jesus is doing. One key principle in reading the Bible properly is to remember that it’s not first and foremost a story about us. It’s a story about God and his plan. We fit into God’s story, but it’s his story not ours. And that’s true of Matthew 13. Jesus is building his kingdom, by sowing his word, and we are invited to be a part of it.
Which means our first guess when we read these two parables should be that they are also about Jesus. Jesus sold all that he had and bought the field, because he wanted that treasure more than anything else in all creation. Jesus saw a single pearl that set his heart alight, and he wanted that pearl more than anything, so he sold everything he had and bought it.
Which means that we are the treasure hidden in the field. We are the pearl of great value.
If you are a Christian, Jesus Christ looked at you, and decided that he wanted you in his kingdom more than he had ever wanted anything. The only way he could have you was to give up everything he had. That was the price he would have to pay to buy you.
We might turn to Philippians chapter 2, a famous passage: “Jesus Christ, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
In Acts chapter 20, the apostle Paul addresses the leaders of the church in Ephesus. He tells them to “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his blood.” To buy that field, to buy that pearl, a massive sum of money was required. To buy you, the price that Jesus paid was his own blood. That was the price tag, and he paid it joyfully. Matthew 13, verse 44: “In his joy, he went and sold all he had and bought that field.”
These two short parables tell the story of the whole Bible. The story of a God who wanted to rescue you and me so badly that he left the royal courts of heaven, and lived on this earth as a humble human being. That he suffered a humiliating and painful death to pay for your sin, before taking you to live with him forever, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.
Someone I know is sometimes asked to summarise the story of the Bible in one sentence, and he says this: Kill the dragon, get the girl. That ancient dragon, the devil, deceives, spoils and kills. Jesus went out on a rescue mission. He inflicted a mortal wound on that dragon when he died on the cross, and so rescued the girl, the bride he loves, his church, his people, you and me.
We sing about this in our hymns. If you had enough of a church upbringing to know some old hymns, you might know “The Church’s One Foundation.” “From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.” Or we sing: “Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown, when thou camest to earth for me.” “I will sing the wondrous story of the Christ who died for me. How He left His home in glory for the cross of Calvary.” “Oh, who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?”
These are not in the first place parables about what Jesus asks you to give up for him. They are parables about what he has given up for you. To ask someone to give something up would be madness. To ask someone to give up everything is insanity. Jesus’ love for you drove him to an act of divine madness. Welcome to the love of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“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. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
That’s the first detail to notice in these parables. The ambiguity about the cast.
The joy of the finder
The second detail is to notice the joy of the finder. The joy of the finder.
As I say, it’s ambiguous who the finder is. If it is about Jesus, it’s also about us. This isn’t a zero-sum game, where to the extent that it’s about Jesus it’s not about us. It almost certainly is a case of “both-and”.
I say that because the theme of being willing to pay a price for being in Jesus’ kingdom is one we’ve met before. In the parable of the sower, some seed fell on rocky ground, which stood for the fact that following Jesus doesn’t make all your problems disappear. In fact sometimes they get worse, so that you pay a heavy price for choosing to be a follower of Jesus. You need deep roots if you’re going to keep following him, even when trouble or persecution comes because of the word.
And some seed fell among thorns. The worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. This was the person who prized their possessions, their family, their career, whatever it was, more highly than being a follower of Jesus. They had things they weren’t willing to give up.
So when Jesus tells these two stories, we already know he’s talking about us. Here are two people who saw something that was so wonderful they were transfixed. Their eyes lit up. They couldn’t take their eyes off it. No matter what it cost, no price would be too much to pay. No matter how much they might suffer. No matter what they would have to give up. They just had to have it.
That’s the emotion, the dynamic, the mood of this story. It’s not a story to beat ourselves up with, telling us to pay a price we don’t really want to pay. The men in the stories had to give up everything, but it did not feel like a sacrifice. They’d got to have that treasure chest. They’d got to have that pearl. Nothing is too much to give up to have the treasure, the pearl of your dreams.
The joy of the finder.
I don’t know why, but as I was preparing this, The Proclaimers came to my mind. My Scottish accent is appalling, So excuse me for reading this rather than signing it, but you may know the song: When I'm working, yes I know I'm gonna be the man who's working hard for you. And when the money, comes in for the work I do I'll pass almost every penny on to you. When I come home well I know I'm gonna be the man who comes back home to you. And if I grow-old well I know I'm gonna be the man who's growing old with you. But I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more just to be the man who walks a thousand miles to fall down at your door. Da da da (da da da) Da da da (da da da)
There’s a girl he wants. He’d walk from one of the British Isles to the other, and back, if he could have her. He’d give up every penny to have her. Is it a sacrifice? It’s a joy. He’s given up a lot. But it’s a joy to do it.
The joy of the finder.
Maybe you read these parables, and your reaction is the mechanic’s sharp intake of breath. You find yourself thinking, “sounds expensive”. The solution is not to beat yourself up. The solution is not masochism. It’s not grin and bear it.
The solution is to look again at the Lord Jesus. To read his word. To look at him from every angle you can. Until you begin to see more and more of his beauty. Until he becomes the one thing, the one person, the one God that you simply have to have in your life, because you’re so captivated by him.
Who could want anything more than the opportunity to know the one who made the universe? To be called a child of God, in his family, more loved than anyone could ever be? To be totally forgiven, perfect in the eyes of God. To have God’s Spirit live in you so that he’s always near you, to change and transform you from within, so he can pray when your words run out. To have a sure and certain future living with the Lord Jesus in a perfect and unspoilt world.
To be attached to this Jesus. To know this Jesus. To see this Jesus. To live for this Jesus? What could possibly be better? Do you have anything in your life that is more precious than that, more precious than him? Surely not!
See those two details in the parables. The ambiguity about who this is talking about. Who gives up everything? Not us, but Jesus. And the joy of the finder. His joy at finding you. Your joy at the chance to know him.
Those two details come together in Hebrews chapter 12. It would be a good chapter for anyone who’s looking at what following Jesus might cost them, and thinking it through.
Here’s verse 4: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
Things could be a lot worse than they are.
But here’s the way to think about things. Hebrews 12, verses 1-3: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”