This time of year everyone is looking forward to new beginnings – kids back in school, the heat of summer nearly over. The neo-Pagans are celebrating the harvest festival of Lammas, a religious observance of the mowing of the summer wheat, the first harvest of the calendar year. Hasn’t the gathering of grain always been a symbol of prosperity and spiritual sustenance?
The growing of grain and the making of bread are spiritual metaphors in all the religious traditions I’ve ever encountered (unless the culture was non-agricultural). The grain represents a god who grows, dies, his body eaten and drunk, and is resurrected the following year to do it all again. His sacrifice is to keep the people alive, or sometimes just happy! (The story is beautifully told in this old folksong sung by the band Traffic: “John Barleycorn Must Die”)
The Parable of the Hidden treasure
In a more general sense, working in a grain field is a spiritual exercise. In the New Testament, Matthew 13:44, Jesus tells the parable of the Hidden Treasure:
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. – Matthew 13:44 New International Version
If that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, don’t worry, that’s why it’s called a parable. Most of the sayings of Jesus in the New Testament are inscrutable because the person who wrote them down was just taking notes. Could you imagine someone two thousand years from now reading notes you took in a high school class? Would it make any sense to them? I don’t think so. Notes are intended to jog the memory of someone who was in the class, who knows the whole story. This short parable is not the whole story.
What we can reasonably be sure of is that the “kingdom of heaven” is a state of spiritual enlightenment (see my post Free Your Mind and Save Your Ass), so Jesus is giving instructions on how to achieve that mental state. Otherwise, the little parable makes no sense. Why would someone leave a great treasure in a field they didn’t even own? Why not just re-bury it in his own backyard and save himself the trouble?
It gets a little clearer when we see this verse in the Gnostic gospel of Thomas:
Yeshua (Jesus) said, The kingdom is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field. He did not know it, and when he died, he left it to his son. The son did not know about it. He took over the field and sold it. The buyer was plowing and found the treasure, and began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished. – Gospel of Thomas: 109, from the Gnostic Bible, edited by William Barnstone and Marvin Meyer
Now we see that the one who discovers the treasure inherits it by accident, after he already bought the field and was plowing it. This extra information was preserved for us because the Gnostic Christian texts were buried in caves in the Middle East in the early centuries of the Christian era and were only rediscovered in the early part of the 20th century. The story makes more sense, but we are still left wondering how you can accidentally discover spiritual enlightenment.
But we have other sources that do one better.
The Parable of the Greedy Sons
The Sufis, the monastic mystics of Central Asia, have a longstanding oral tradition of teaching parables, and many of the sayings attributed to Jesus are also found in Sufi lore. This expanded tale is attributed to the Sufi sage Hasan of Basra, who lived around 800 AD:
There was once a hard-working and generous farmer who had several idle and greedy sons. On his deathbed he told them that they would find his treasure if they were to dig in a certain field. As soon as the old man was dead, the sons hurried to the fields, which they dug up from one end to another, and with increasing desperation and concentration when they did not find the gold in the place indicated.
But they found no gold at all. Realizing that in his generosity their father must have given his gold away during his lifetime, they abandoned the search. Finally, it occurred to them that, since the land had been prepared, they might as well now sow a crop. They planted wheat, which produced an abundant yield. They sold this crop and prospered that year.
After the harvest was in, the sons thought again about the bare possibility that they might have missed the buried gold, so they again dug up their fields, with the same result.
After several years they became accustomed to labor, and to the cycle of the seasons, something which they had not understood before. Now they understood the reason for their father’s method of training them, and they became honest and contented farmers. Ultimately they found themselves possessed of sufficient wealth no longer to wonder about the hidden hoard.
Thus it is with the teaching of the understanding of human destiny and the meaning of life. The teacher, faced with impatience, confusion and covetousness on the part of the students, must direct them to an activity which is known by him to be constructive and beneficial to them, but whose true function and aim is often hidden from them by their own rawness. – Tales of the Dervishes, Idries Shah
This Sufi story shows us that enlightenment is a long slow process, and the only way to get there is by working and discovering at one’s own level and pace. The sons in the story did not know the true nature of the treasure – they learned about tilling by digging around hoping to find gold. But as their skill in farming developed, the wealth appeared along with it. So it is with our souls – we don’t recognize that our mundane lives are teaching us on another level until we realize we have changed.
The Sufis have a great sense of humor, often referring to their great masters as “The Dyer of Wool” or “The Palm Weaver” instead of giving them religious titles. For them it is perfectly sensible that Jesus should be simply referred to as “The Carpenter.”
Happy Harvest, my friends and followers!