Voltaire’s Candide is a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a young man filled with youthful idealism. The young man leaves home on an epic journey, intending both to discover the beauty of the world and to contribute to the beauty of the world. Much to his surprise, he discovers that the world is not always beautiful, true, or welcoming. After a long and convoluted series of hardships, deprivations, and life-threatening experiences, the young man abandons his pursuit of adventure and settles down to tend a small, humble farm.
Candide illustrates a popular cultural myth in western society. It is a parable that depicts youthful idealism being tamed and dulled by the harsh realities of adult life. I’m sure there are people who can identify with the experience of having their youthful ideals tempered, or even rejected, by a world that seems unsympathetic to high ideals. I wonder how many people look back over their lives and reach the conclusion that the careers they pursued, the relationships they nurtured, or the accomplishments they achieved are much less than what they had hoped for in their youth. If one is not careful, the stable, settled life of middle age can look as if one settled for much less than was possible or desirable.
Today’s Gospel reading presents a completely different perspective on the decisions and experiences that lead to a stable, settled life.
The three short parables in today’s selection from Matthew’s Gospel describe the task of judging relative value when making decisions. The fortunate man who finds a buried treasure sells all his belongings in order to possess the treasure. The fortunate merchant who finds an exquisite pearl likewise trades all his wealth for the superior pearl. The parable about the catch of fish differs slightly from the previous two but it, too, is a story about distinguishing between objects of lesser and greater value. The three parables are followed by a wisdom saying that addresses the same theme as the parables.
These three parables and the wisdom saying can be applied to almost any decision in life. Most decisions are not a choice between good and evil; rather, most decisions are a choice between varying degrees of good. These three parables counsel one to choose the greatest good that is possible. The Gospel author, however, is not concerned with generalized decision-making; the Gospel addresses itself to one, specific decision: the choice between following God’s will or ignoring God’s will. When understood as teaching about the choice to follow God’s will (or not), this selection of Matthew’s Gospel speaks directly to the surpassing value of a stable life.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the cost of discipleship. (Mt. 16:24-26) He says that one must be willing to forfeit everything for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. These three parables acknowledge the cost of discipleship, but they focus primarily on the great reward of discipleship. The parables say that those who forgo all other commitments and activities in order to obey God’s will receive the reward of habitual joy in this life and in the next.
Please note how discipleship is defined. Matthew’s Gospel says that true disciples of Jesus are those who are committed completely to him and remain so for their entire lives. This definition of discipleship excludes the possibility that occasional religious practice has any efficacy. It excludes the possibility that ad hoc devotion inspired by want, need, or crisis suffices for authentic faith. The cost of being truly faithful is to be completely and always faithful; the reward for true faithfulness is being completely and always filled with peace and joy. Further, the rewards of faithfulness will be perfected in the afterlife but are not reserved for the afterlife; the rewards of faithful discipleship are experienced daily by those who live a disciple’s life daily.
These three parables and the wisdom saying about finding the greatest good portray the surpassing value of a stable life. A stable, settled life is not the result of making compromises; rather, it is the result of an uncompromising commitment to seek and find God’s will. A stable life is not the result of settling for less than is possible or desirable; it is the result of striving for the unique distinction of single-hearted devotion.
If you look back on your life and see opportunities that you rejected in order to remain faithful to God, this is cause for rejoicing. If you look back on your life and see stable relationships that resulted from choosing not to pursue your own self-interest, this is a sign of virtue. A stable life of discipleship is a treasure of incalculable price. This priceless treasure of living in peace with God and neighbor is available to anyone who is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to attain it; those sacrifices, however, pale in comparison to the joy of a life settled in God’s will.