Updated: Sep 11
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
In our modern society, it’s very easy to pursue a variety of interests and hobbies, especially with the internet as a resource. You can learn a lot using YouTube. While skills, nonetheless, require frequent practice, guidance, at least, is plentiful—and free—online.
Now, when someone pursues a breadth of interests, there’s the potential of awakening a passion for one thing, that that person might embrace for the rest of his or her life. That’s the hope, anyway, of many parents who enroll their children in many different sports or activities.
But dividing one’s attention across a spectrum of interests can also have the opposite effect. One can become addicted to novelty, or the excitement that comes with the next best thing, which can unfortunately come at the expense of expertise in a single discipline or specialization.
There’s a book called, Essentialism, which has an interesting premise. The author studied a number of different businesses, which were successful up to a certain point; and then they began to falter. The author suggests that, ironically, the leading cause to failure in these businesses was their success. When they were small, they were forced to focus their resources behind a single effort. But with success came new opportunities, which spread their resources across too many initiatives, making them vulnerable to smaller but more focused competitors.
In our gospel today, we hear Jesus tell his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”
In neither of these examples do we find men with seemingly disposable wealth. Neither the merchant nor the treasure hunter are so overflowing with cash reserves that they can simply buy the object of their passion. Rather, they each had to go all in.
They weren’t the wealthiest of men. But they were the most committed, like someone who buys one thing at an auction and can’t afford anything else. Rather than nickel-and-dime their wealth away across many interests and even necessities, everything at their disposal is used to acquire the one thing that mattered. They sold everything they had: their house, their property, their belongings, maybe even things they were actually wearing in that moment. Those things only had value to them to the degree that they could be used as currency to obtain their true passion. Everything else only had transitory value.
That capacity of going all in is part of the genius of humanity. Leonardo De Vinci specialized in art, but he was knowledgeable in science and anatomy. Michelangelo is remembered for his paintings and sculptures, despite his talents in medicine and architecture. Einstein is remembered for his contribution to physics; not for his poetry.
What’s true for these giants of history is especially true for the rest of us. When we spread ourselves too thin across a spectrum of interests, we turn our backs on that very specific gift of mankind: the ability to put all of our resources behind a single activity. We can become "so well-rounded that we become pointless".
I’m reminded of that quote from Admiral Yamamoto after the attack on Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The power that comes about through focus is terrible indeed, for better or for worse. The disciple who harnesses all their resolve and effort behind their faith is very prolific indeed. When a saint walks upon the earth, the world is changed. We saw that with Pope Saint John Paul the Great and Saint Mother Teresa.
Jesus encourages us to go all in for the Kingdom of God. It’s a recurring theme in his teachings. Jesus praised a poor widow who put in two small coins into the Temple treasury. He praised her because she went all in. She gave everything she had; she held nothing back. To the rich young man, Jesus said: “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor; then come and follow me”. He was being called to go all in. In another parable, Jesus praised the dishonest steward who used everything at his disposal to earn him a place of welcome elsewhere, after being dismissed from the master’s house.
That challenge is ours to embrace today. “No one can serve two masters,” says the Lord. “He will either love one and hate the other; or hate one and love the other”. Not even other people should take away from our discipleship to Jesus. He told his followers that anyone who loves mother or father, son or daughter, more than him is not worthy of him.
Despite the challenge, the truth is that we would welcome these sacrifices with joy, if our hearts were in the right place. It was with joy that the treasure hunter sold all that he had to buy that field. It was with joy that the merchant exchanged all of his possessions for that single pearl.
That joy came from being experts in their field. That’s how they were able to discover the treasure and the pearl, and immediately recognize their value, and sacrifice all things with joy for the sake of their passion.
As Christians, if you and I are not yet willing to go all in for the Kingdom of Heaven, it may be because we are not yet experts in our field. We’re not yet “experts” at discipleship. Our attention might be distracted still across a breadth of interests; which are ultimately vapid, light, and prone to dispersal by any wind of fate.
Rather, you and I were made for the solid reality that is the gospel. In this Mass, may our Lord inspire within us true passion for the faith which we profess, the zeal to become true experts at discipleship, and a real desire to sacrifice all things with joy for the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Parable of the Merchant and the Pearl, by A.N. Mironov, oil on canvas [Public domain]