The Pearl of Great Price

March 3, 2010

The Pearl of Great Price

A crowd had gathered by the shores of the Galilee to catch a glimpse of Jesus and to hear him speak. People from all walks of life had turned up, from the powerful to the homeless, the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick. Jesus looked upon them with compassion and began to speak of God’s kingdom. Then from among the assembled people a man dressed in fine clothes shouted out, “Tell us Lord, to what would you compare the kingdom of God?”

Jesus paused for a moment before looking out towards the sea.

“Let me tell a story,” he replied. “There was once a rich merchant who spent his days searching for fine pearls. Then one day he found a pearl of such beauty that he immediately went away and sold everything that he possessed so that he would have enough to purchase it. This pearl is like the kingdom.”

The crowd looked satisfied with this definition of the kingdom, especially the rich young man who had asked the question, for it addressed itself to the desire that lay deep in his heart.

This kingdom must really be valuable, he thought to himself, if a wealthy merchant would sell everything that he had in order to possess it.

While all this was going on, however, there was a young woman who stood at a distance from the crowd listening intently to what Jesus had said, all the time with a smile on her face.

Jesus turned from the crowd and walked toward this unknown spectator. Then he spoke to the woman, saying, “Others listen to what I say, yet fail to hear, for the noise of their heart’s desire drowns out my meaning. They forever listen but never understand.

“You, however, have listened and understood.”

“All I know,” said the young woman, “is that if this kingdom you speak of is like that priceless pearl, then the sacrifice needed in order to grasp it will not make one rich but rather will reduce the one who has sacrificd to absolute poverty. For you are saying that one must give up everything for the pearl, yet the pearl is itself worth nothing unless you find someone to buy it. And if you do find someone then you will no longer have the pearl. So although you may appear to be the richest person alive while you have the pearl, in reality you will have nothing to live on until you give it up.”

“Yes,” Jesus replied.

“What use then is this pearl?” replied the woman.

“Well,” replied Jesus, “the pearl has no value if all you seek is its value. But if you renounce the value of the pearl and give up everything simply because you are captivated by its beauty, then, and only then, will you discover its true value.”

————————–

Honestly, I’m still a bit shaken from watching The Lives of Others to think too deeply about this parable right now, and the day was busy enough that I didn’t mull it over before pulling it out just now. I think I can pull a couple of thoughts together.

This story is about redefining value. (It is also about how slippery parables are, remember me mentioning that yesterday?)

We define what we value every day. A dollar is only worth a dollar because we all agree that it is. A diamond is just shiny carbon until we all agree that it is really pretty and looks good with shiny yellow metal. Every time we buy cheap food from Wal-Mart we define what we value; every time we drink a cup of coffee we define what we value. This story is the same thing, but it is about subverting that value.

The merchant early in the story is pleased, because on the surface the parable within the parable (we’re getting a bit meta here, aren’t we?) reinforces his view that the Kingdom of God is essentially mercantilist. Understanding his mindset makes it easier to understand how a person could think that God must be a capitalist. Jesus explains a clever subversion of that. In order to obtain this fantastically valuable thing, this pearl/kingdom, a person must be willing to give up everything for it. Doing so will surely seem like madness, “the message of the cross is foolishness,” but the seeker after the pearl is rewarded in their sacrifice because they value the pearl for its worth on its own, not its worth to others.

The pearl is the reward, sufficient in itself.

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