The Pearl of Great Price
October 15, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan
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(Short Stories By Jesus Sermon Series)
“The Pearl of Great Price”
October 15, 2017
Rev. Melanie Homan
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Fine pearls. Not something that I’m really drawn to. Sort of like diamonds and gold and really any sort of jewel. Anytime I’ve had a nice piece of jewelry, I’ve lost it. I’m not good at keeping track of small things, and the stress of worrying about losing something of great value – it’s not worth it. When Brennon and I were talking about getting married, but before he had a chance to even propose, I told him, “PLEASE do not get me a diamond. I do not want a diamond. If you get me a diamond it will stress me out and I will lose it and I will feel terrible.”
My wedding ring is a lovely band. It’s simple, and it’s perfect for me. I couldn’t imagine selling all that I have for a jewel. There would be no joy in it for me. In fact, a jewel having “great value” would be the reason I wouldn’t want it! So, what are we to make of this merchant who searches for fine pearls, finds one that he especially likes, and sells everything he owns in order to have it?
“In the first century Mediterranean world, pearls often symbolized the highest good”.[i] According to Pliny the Elder of the 1st century, “pearls were considered the most valuable of goods, having ‘the first place’ and ‘topmost rank among all things of price’”.[ii] Nothing held more value than a pearl.
Based on this, it’s easy to see how this parable has been interpreted to mean that the kingdom of heaven IS the pearl. The kingdom of heaven is that “thing” that holds more value than anything else. But, that’s not what the parable says. The parable says that the kingdom of heaven is like the merchant, who sells all he has for one fabulous item.[iii] (Levine, page 146). Once he sells everything he has for this one item, he is no longer a merchant. Its purchase completely changes who he is – and his identity.
The merchant raises some important questions for us. It is easy to see how we might be similar to the merchant, “continually seeking, whether the object is fine pearls, a new job, another degree, or spiritual fulfillment.” Each time we find our goal, we discover it only lasts for a short time. “There is always a new necklace, a new career, a new form of study, a nagging sense that we have not done what we need to do.” Something is missing. “We flit from desire to desire, never permanently fulfilled, always somewhat discontent.” Something is missing.
Levine asks, “Will we know what we truly want when we see it?” What is your great pearl? Another way to ask the same question is this: What is your “why”? What is your ultimate concern? What thing would you set aside all that you have, in order to obtain? What is your pearl of supreme value? What, really, do we want? When it feels like something is missing, what is it that we are looking for? What are your priorities and how are you living them?
When Levine asks this question about “ultimate concern”, I am reminded of Paul Tillich and his words in the book Dynamics of Faith, where he says, “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.” From this perspective, it could be argued that everyone has faith in something. Each and every one of us has something we are ultimately concerned about.
Whether or not God is our ultimate concern is another question. Tillich describes idolatry as unlimited devotion to something that is finite, whereas our faith should be in what is infinite. Our unlimited devotion belongs to God, but we are tempted to offer our devotion instead to things like power, riches, “the good life.” And these things risk becoming our god.
Perhaps it was this human condition to which Christ was speaking to. Jesus offers his listeners, and us, a warning. Do not put your faith in things of this world! If your foundation is based upon the things of this world, if you deceive yourself into believing it is a stable foundation, you will be lost when it comes crumbling down! You will always have that nagging feeling that something is missing until your ultimate concern lands on God. What is your pearl of great price?
In our Wednesday night study group, one of the participants shared a story that illustrated how we get clarity about our priorities and values. I’m going to attempt to share his illustration with you here. I need a volunteer:
Ask: Would you walk across this 2 by 4 if I gave you $100.
Ask: Ok. Would you walk across this same 2 by 4 if it was on the 50th level of a high rise building, and you had to walk from one end to the other, between two buildings?
Ask: What if I gave you $1 million dollars?
Ask: Okay. So, what if I’m in the other building, and I’m holding your child captive. Would you walk across the 2 by 4 in order to get your child?
The kingdom of heaven is like a person who discovers what holds the most value in their life, and then prioritizes their life accordingly. Our spiritual life is one of bringing these questions into focus and answering them for ourselves.
Bono sings about the same thing in a song that many music critics say is one of the best songs ever written –
I have climbed the highest mountains I have run through the fields I have run, I have crawled I have scaled these city walls Only to be with you. But I still haven’t found What I’m looking for.
I have spoke with the tongue of angels I have held the hand of a devil.
But I still haven’t found What I’m looking for. I believe in the Kingdom Come When all the colours will bleed into one But I still haven’t found What I’m looking for.
When it feels like something is missing, what is it you are looking for? What is your pearl of supreme value, your ultimate concern? Let’s ponder these “big” questions with U2 and this gospel choir from Harlem.
Through your connection and participation in this community of faith, may you find your pearl of great price. Amen.
[i] New Interpreters Bible, page 314.
[iii] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, page 146.