Two parables in two sentences; probably some of Jesus’ most efficient descriptions of the Kingdom of Heaven. And initially they appear to be incredibly basic and self-explanatory. The lesson being, when you find something of incredible value, you cannot help but sell everything to possess it because it’s that valuable. And what I love about this message is how pointed it is. It makes me want to become a treasure hunter, searching for something that will captivate me so much that I am compelled to sacrifice everything in order to have it. It’s a nice thought. But, what I’m curious about is this pearl. What is it? Why is it so valuable? And how do I get it?
Perhaps the most obvious answer would be that the pearl is God or Jesus. Which is a really pretty image. It’s this perfect image of God being worth it all, worth giving everything up for, worth it. This image drives much of our contemporary Christian culture. We become rich when we accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him. But, if we know anything about Jesus, what he says is usually clearer than what he means:
So let’s put the message into a story. This one comes from a writer name Peter Rollins and was inspired by a reflection of philosopher Soren Kierkergaurd on these parables.
A crowd had gathered by the shores of 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 powerless, 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 assemble 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 you a story,” He replied. “There was once a rich merchant who spent his days searching for fine pearls. Then one fay 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.
“The 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 walk 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 on rich but rather will reduce the one who has sacrificed 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 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 it’s 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.”
Maybe, as the author of this story suggests, the pearl isn’t the point, we are.
It’s so easy to be captivated by the perceived value of something because once we are in possession of __________ we will be happy, because having ___________ also means having the status __________ brings. This is all over our culture. When I was in school it was those shirts and sweaters with the smiley face that was on fire. If you had one of those shirts, you were part of a special club; the cool kids. I remember begging my mom to get me something with the flaming smiley face on it. Needless to say, that never happen. Because I think she knew that this week it would be flaming smiley faces, and next week it would be something else. Yet, I was and still am caught up in this idea that if I wear this brand or this style people will see me this way. If I live in this place, people will think this about me. If I say this or do this, people will believe this about me.
If we know anything about Jesus, what he says is usually clearer than what he means. His message flips this ideology upside-down. Because in Christ’s Kingdom, in the Kingdom of Heaven, those who are meek are the ones that are blessed, the ones who are last are the ones that come first, and those that have nothing are actually the ones that have everything.
When I think about stories of saints, I think of people who have entered into the upside down world of the Kingdom of Heaven and brought it to earth. Try to find a saint’s biography that doesn’t challenge the social and cultural norms of the time. Think about a friend or family member who you regard as an incredible example of a human being. We all know them. These are the people who not only enter the upside down world Jesus’ speaks of (conscious of it or not), they bring it into our world. That is why we look up to them. They inspire us.
But, back to the pearl. This is a question I really wrestle with. I see the pearl. I know it’s there. I probably even hold it on occasion. From time to time I may have even experienced it’s worth in a way that I would call tangible. But, here’s the thing: have I actually given up everything for it? Have I actually sacrificed anything to have it? Because that seems to be what Jesus is getting at. And if I was perfectly honest, I don’t know if I’m able to do that.
And if that is the case, am I like the rich young ruler? Captivated by Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven, but not able give up everything for it. I think much of church culture points this: We become rich when we accept Jesus. We become part of the elect. But, there’s a lot of weight in the word “rich” because if we know anything about Jesus, we know he isn’t talking about “rich” as we know it.
I see Jesus’ parables as an invitation to try on a new pair of glasses. Jesus says, “This what you see. But, here’s what I see.” We’re looking at the same thing in two different ways. What if living in this upside down world were as simple as putting on a new pair of glasses? A pair of glasses with a strong and sobering prescription. What if living the Kingdom of Heaven was to acknowledge what has always been there. The last were always first. The poor were always rich. Not by our world’s definition, but by the definition of the One who created the world.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in their joy they go and sells all that they have and buy that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, they went and sold all that they had and bought it.”
– Matthew 13:44-46
May we continue to seek the pearl. Not for what it will bring us or makes us, but for what it is: a world upside down inviting us in.
Scripture Referenced: Matthew 13:44-46, Matthew 10:17-27, Matthew 20:16
“The Pearl of Great Price” from The Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins