Dutch people are more often known for being – let’s say frugal – rather than being spendthrifts. But apparently even the Dutch can get carried away from time to time. Back in the winter of 1636-7, the Netherlands was seized by a mania centered on the price of tulip bulbs. The price of bulbs suddenly skyrocketed. Bulbs were trading hands up to ten times a day. At its peak, a single bulb was selling for ten times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman, or being trading for twelve acres of land. Then just as suddenly the price collapsed in February 1637, and some people lost everything. All for a flower.
Economic bubbles like this have happened again and again in history, and they will certainly happen again. People like to be a part of the action; no one wants to miss out. And the lure of easy money is difficult to resist. But the only value anything has is what we choose to give it. Think of money – there is almost no inherent value in the paper our money is printed on – and yet these pieces of paper can be used to buy anything – simply because we agree that they have value.
In our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus tells a couple parables in which he describes the kingdom of heaven. These two short parables have a few things in common: both involve a person who finds something valuable, and then sells everything he has in order to acquire it. One is a treasure buried in a field; the other is a pearl “of great price”. Clearly the person in both parables recognizes that what he has found is worth far more than everything he owns. And he takes immediate action, doing whatever it takes to acquire the item.
Jesus tells us that these parables are about “the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven – what is this kingdom if not God’s love? Jesus is telling us that nothing we have is greater in value than God’s love. No material object or physical thing – nothing – is worth more than God’s love. And even better, we already freely possess this love. Or rather, God already makes His love available to each one of us. He desires that we accept this precious gift. Although the gift of God’s love is freely given, like the people in today’s parables who take action to acquire what they have found, we have a part to play. We are not just passive recipients. We have to receive the love that God desires to give us.
When we think of receiving a gift, most likely we think of a rather passive action. Someone hands us a present, we take it from them, hopefully we thank them for it, we open it up, that’s about it. Receiving the gift of God’s love is a little different. Certainly, it is less passive than receiving a birthday present for example. We know this because Jesus makes it clear in the parables that the people who find the treasure and the pearl take action: they go and sell everything they have to acquire these valuable items.
We receive the treasure that God freely offers us first by getting rid of anything that would prevent us from receiving it. That means rooting out the selfishness in our hearts, the pride, the bad habits, the anger, whatever vices we might have that keep us from God. We ought to actively strive to change. We also receive God’s love by putting it ahead of everything else – that is, putting everything else in its proper perspective. We should try to keep present in our minds that God should come first in our day. Nothing else should get in the way: not work, not money, not our busy agendas – no matter how important they might seem to us.
Putting God first in our lives doesn’t mean neglecting everything else though. It doesn’t mean sitting around waiting for someone to feed, clothe, and shelter us. We all have a responsibility to provide for ourselves, for our families, and for those who are truly in need. But we can put God first in our lives even as we fulfill these responsibilities. Whatever you do, do it first for the Lord. Offer it up to Him. And make sure there’s always time for prayer.
A final thought: it can be easy to take God’s love for granted, or to feel unenthusiastic about it. But Jesus is telling us in these parables that nothing – nothing – is greater than this. Think of the things you love, the things you desire, the things that bring you joy or happiness: they are all infinitesimally small compared to God’s love, a treasure that is always there for us.