By Christian Bergmann
Origen of Alexandria (184 – 253 CE) was one of the most influential early Church Fathers and one of the most interesting, not least because of what we owe to him on the level of Scriptural interpretation. I’ve written about this before in my previous articles, but there is a tendency today – and this is a temptation that has persisted across the centuries – to divorce Jesus from his Jewish context; to isolate the New Testament from the Old Testament as if they bear no relation to each other, or as if Jesus came to repudiate and jettison the Old Testament. The Old Testament, on some readings, represents the law and the Jewish attempt to gain salvation by their own works; Jesus, on the other hand, represents grace and a liberation from the Old Testament dependency on “works”. We also see this in people’s objection to the Bible as a whole: the Old Testament God and the New Testament God are clearly very different beings, irreconcilably so. This approach is something of a watered down version of an ancient position credited to Marcion of Sinope (85 – 160 CE), who in the second century tried to preserve the radical sovereignty of God – his goodness and his transcendence – by keeping him unsullied by the dirt of history; the living God of the Bible, who not only reveals himself in history and speaks into history, but makes covenants with his unruly and rebellious people, is something of an embarrassment to the true, incomprehensible, indescribable God of philosophy. According to Origen of Alexandria, however, today’s Gospel actually stands athwart that approach; a rebuke from Jesus himself.
This is something of a new angle to the parable of the treasure in the field I haven’t encountered before (Matthew 13:44). The key to unlocking this parable, according to Origen (in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew), is actually the final verse for today’s Gospel. Thus far, the Gospel has been saturated in the language of discipleship. The parables were framed initially by this great call to discipleship – to come and “learn from me” (Matthew 11:28-30) – but now we have Jesus talking about scribes who have been “trained for the kingdom of heaven” (13:52); that is, disciples who, in some sense, know how to think through and speak about this kingdom. And it is this verse that should bring everything into focus.
After making sure his disciples have understood the parables, Jesus says:
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
To be a disciple is not, in other words, to see in Jesus the repudiation of the Law and the Prophets, of the history of Israel. That would be, Origen says, a process involving “cleaving in two the Godhead”; on the contrary, in Book X of his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, he says that “the perfect apprehension of the law and the prophets is an elementary discipline for the perfect apprehension of the Gospel, and all the meaning in the words and deeds of Christ.” In other words, it is the most basic part of understanding who Jesus is to also understand the history of Israel. What this means in practice is seeing in the Law and the Prophets pointers to Jesus. It means seeing everything in Israel’s history as being guided by God towards a focal point in Jesus. All the promises, all the hopes of the Old Testament – in Christ they are fulfilled, in strange new ways.
It is through this lens that we can see the parable of the treasure in the field.
In his commentary, Origen says that the kingdom of heaven is not the treasure only, but, as Jesus says, the treasure buried in the field (13:44). The field holds significance, too. In the context of Jesus bringing forth to us both old and new treasures, Origen says that we can see the field as the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament – the Law and the Prophets – in which the treasure is hidden. Thus, the person who discovers this treasure – the knowledge that everything in the end pointed towards Jesus – claims possession of it. The whole thing. Part of being a disciple “trained for the kingdom of heaven” is taking possession of the entire heritage, Old and New, and understanding in deeper ways how God was always leading us towards an encounter with Jesus and his kingdom. Like Jesus talking through the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-34), explaining what the prophets had foretold concerning his life, death and resurrection, what his hearers needed to understand was the way in which the mystery of who he is had been present from the beginning, buried but ready to be discovered.
This is also an interesting way of understanding Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It was not a “conversion” as we talk about it today, as if he was converting from one religion (Judaism) to another (Christianity). Instead, it was a great awakening to the reality that in Jesus, all of Paul’s hopes and beliefs – shaped as they were by the Law and the Prophets – were fulfilled in Christ. It was this that led him to pen this line: “For however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him [Jesus]” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
To be a disciple is not simply a matter of converting to a religion. It’s a matter of becoming an inheritor of the promises of old, the promises made to Israel, as fulfilled in Christ. That is something quite different and quite a lot more extraordinary.