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Treasure Hunting

It was the summer we emptied my grandparents’ house. My grandmother had died during the winter. Now, aunts, uncles, long-lost cousins, all descended on the house, sorting, emptying, and preparing it to be sold.

We had fun seeing one another. We worked hard. We rummaged through drawers and closets, shelves and boxes. We laughed about some of the things we found. Cancelled checks going back to the 1950’s! An entire drawer full of rubber bands.

The pile of garbage bags on the curb became a small mountain. Lots of stuff in the house was worthless junk. Some things were valuable antiques. We shed a few tears coming across things that brought back precious memories. We uncovered items long forgotten, presumed gone, but now cherished.

Every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” Matthew 13:52

These words of Jesus come at the close of a chapter chock-full of parables, and explanations of parables, and the rationale for parables. While this is the summary, maybe the pinnacle of Jesus’s soliloquy, these words never seem to gain as much favor as the masterpieces that went before—a farmer, weeds, mustard seeds, yeast, treasures, pearls and more. I half imagine the disciples scratching their heads in bewilderment, “Uhm, exactly how is this, the capstone of all that has gone before?”

Still, I have come to treasure this verse, even to the point where it frames my life and my ministry.

How is being a scribe-of-the-Kingdom like someone rummaging through a storeroom? Both tasks involve interpretation, evaluation, and appraisal. Having a flair. Mixing and matching. An eye that finds new uses for something that had seemed outdated or insignificant. Intuition. Improvisation. Insight.

I see my relatives and me sifting through my grandparents’ house. College kids who can scour a second-hand store to find the right $3 shirt to go with their $200 jeans. American Pickers and Pawn Stars have made much of the ability to sniff, to polish, to appraise, to repurpose.

We typically associate “scribe” with those bad guys who were always giving Jesus a hard time. But a scribe was simply a person whose task it was to copy and re-copy manuscripts. But because they were so immersed in the texts, they became interpreters and teachers. When there were questions or disputes, it was the scribes’ job to apply the writings to real life situations.

Flair. Intuition. Improvisation. These sound like such imprecise and open-ended terms. We are hardly comfortable using them to describe a life of following Jesus. There is amazing open-endedness to what Jesus is describing here. More fluidity, leeway, and creativity than we might expect.

At the same times scribes were those with deep familiarity and wide-ranging understanding. In other words, this isn’t just winging it. Jesus apprenticed his followers to be like householders who have worked long and hard to know what is in the storeroom. They understand not to venerate the past, but not to throw it out casually either.

How often a neglected passage of scripture or an ancient tradition suddenly becomes meaningful, sometimes even pivotal, in contemporary discussions. New and old fuse into something creative, as the past becomes a springboard to the future.

In the life of a congregation, how to find those long-forgotten treasures and then repurpose them for today? It takes an eye, a flair. Not all of them will be immediately luminous.

Treasures new and old could point us toward the wisdom of an intergenerational church, churches not for boomers or millennials. Intergenerational can’t be code for a church where five year olds are expected to behave like 75 year olds. It can’t mean that 50 year olds and 25 year olds will agree on all things. But the interplay, the mix and match, is where the creative realm of God appears among us.

Having just been at the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, I observed the usual chasing after new treasures, the obsession with being cool and relevant. The storeroom of old treasures is almost entirely neglected in the search for the latest and greatest. Obviously, we can’t dwell in the past or turn in the Kingdom into an artifact preserved under glass. But those who want to modify traditions should be those who love and understand their tradition, not those who are impatient, dismissive, and unfamiliar with what they want to revise.

And what about that thrift shop we each call our lives? Being a householder will require self-knowledge and a difficult inventory of our past. The mantra of a very formative therapist from years ago, “When have you experienced similar feelings, earlier in your life?” pushed me back into my storeroom. Can that heartbreak, long stored on the highest shelf in the darkest corner of our storeroom, ever be upcycled into a treasure of the Kingdom today?

There are also some obvious treasures which never seem to be called for—the opportunities that don’t come, the magnificent resources that are never used. I think of my wife and co-pastor’s linguistic abilities—fluent in French and Japanese. These treasures have never really been used in ministry. Maybe they never will be.

Knowing our storeroom. Inventorying its treasures. Not staying there, but walking creatively into a hopeful future filled with treasures new and old.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Michael Hardeman says:

    Thank you, Steve. These are beautiful, challenging words. I’m grateful for your intellect, your wisdom, your heart.

  • Jim says:

    This is wonderful, Steve. As usual. Profound simplicity, truth enriched and a bit haunted by experience and longing. Yours is the stuff that will last.

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