*SCRIPTURE READING Matthew 13:44-46 DLNT Jeff Vaughn
Please stand as you are able for the Gospel. Reading from the Disciples’ Literal New Testament
44 “The kingdom of the heavens is like a treasure having been hidden in the field, which having found, a man hid. And from his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of the heavens is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls. 46 And having found one very-valuable pearl, having gone, he has sold all that he was having, and he bought it [the pearl].
LEADER The Word of God that is still speaking.
ALL: Thanks be to God.
MESSAGE A Parable that Disturbs: The Pearl of Great Price
A parable is meant to disturb. As Jesus told parables to his disciples he expected them to understand. And when they didn’t, seemingly frustrated, sometimes he said, this is what the parable means. But mostly if they didn’t get it, he left them wondering, trying to figure it out.
But the crowds, those who barely knew him? He expected them to go away, scratching their heads, whispering among themselves, “what do you think he meant?” Their time would come later to figure it out.
A parable is meant to disturb. The parable of Pearl of Great Price is meant to disturb us to ponder, what is THE thing so important to each of us that we would give our all for it? What do I see that is, to me, so important, like the man, the merchant, that he saw in the pearl – that it is worth divesting myself of wealth or status or practices? What is your pearl of great price?
Parables, as Amy-Jill Levine said in Short Stories by Jesus,
“ serve.. as keys that can unlock the mysteries we face by helping us to ask the right questions: how to live in community; how to determine what ultimately matters; how to live the life that God wants us to live.”
To restate what she said, parables challenge us to ask the right questions to unlock the mysteries of how we can live together, find what matters and live with God.
Parables are not answers but invitations to think. And, when Jesus taught in parables, he was preparing us to be ready for the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven in our community and our lives.
Parables can make us uncomfortable. They can make us laugh. They can challenge us to be better, and often they can provoke us to resist.
Too often, we domesticate them, as Levine calls it, when we gloss over the parable by stopping at surface level with the obvious or the broad, overarching answer.
For the pearl of great price, this surface level answer is some combination of the importance of church, or faith, or Jesus. It is often seen as an allegory for Christian discipleship, or several other surface level answers like the pearl is knowledge (this one from the Gospel of Thomas), or the pearl is sacrifice (this one a modern one). Christ is the Pearl of Great Value and we are the merchants seeking eternal life. The conclusion of this one: when we find Jesus, it costs us everything.
Hum, but does it literally? Are we all to sell our homes, quit work? Abandon family? Surely not! Maybe for those who take up the monastic life. But for most of us, this is not what is expected.
Now, these interpretations of Christian discipleship, whether it is about the church, God or faith, or the other interpretations of finding knowledge or sacrifice, each of these interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but it just confirms what we already knew or implies an expected sacrifice that few are able and willing to make
More to the point, they let us off the hook for deeply considering what discipleship means in doable ways in our particular lives and in our church.
Instead, the parable is meant to provoke us to search deeper for the specific pearl that relates to our particular circumstances. It is not enough to say our pearl is Jesus or Christian discipleship without unpacking what this really means in day-to-day living.
And my pearl is not yours. And yours is not your neighbor’s in the pew.
Digging deeper into how Jesus spoke this parable. First off, most translations start by saying, The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking a pearl. But the Greek says something different. Our translation read today was closer to the literal Greek in saying first that he was a man, then adding that he was a merchant. He was first and foremost a man. This sounds redundant but it is not. If he, as a merchant, sells all he has to purchase one pearl that he is seeking when he intends to keep and not resell, he would no longer a merchant. But he remains a man with one pearl.
Pearls were more valuable than gold or rubies in during Jesus’ life. The historian Pliny called them the topmost rank among all things of price. Most people in Judea would never have seen a pearl. Owning a pearl was the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.
What might be an equivalent today? Maybe controlling a mine rich in lithium?
But the man is not intending to use the pearl to feed or clothe himself. Here lies the contrast between it and the Parable of the Treasure hidden in a field, which we also heard today. In this parable the man finds the treasure, hides it, then purchases the field so it will be is source of wealth for the future. Unlike the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price, where the man intends to keep it, the man who finds and hides the treasure in the field is presumably doing so to provide for his future needs.
If the pearl is not obtained by the merchant to provide his needs, to feed and clothe him, why did he give up his all to get it? Levine notes it must offer some other supremely important value.
Another scholar, M. Eugene Boring, suggests what the merchant did “may not have measured up to everyone’s understanding of common sense.” And scholar Pheme Perkins states, “most of us cannot image taking such risks.” He seems to be off track by the standards of his day and still would be today. He is going against the grain of the culture then and now. But, he has decided it is the choice for himself.
So the question becomes, how do we see this man who is no longer a merchant, but has redefined himself. Levine asks the question,
“What is he? What do we make of his example? What does the former merchant “do with a pearl?” She ends with the question, “How do we locate ourselves in the parable?
Levine comments, knowing one’s pearl obviates all other wants and desires. Will we know it when we truly see it? Or, will it pass us by? Are we willing to go all in for an ultimate concern? Are we willing to step aside from all we have to obtain what we want? She told about people she had met who had. And I think hearing about them helps us frame in our own minds what the pearl is that each of us might be looking for, OR have already found.
One woman was a minister’s wife but found her marriage ending. When it did, she turned to achieveing her long-standing desire. This “desire for the PhD in religion was an irritant of sorts” for many years. She got it! It was her pearl of great price.
Another account came from Levine’s side job of teaching theology at a nearby prison. When she asked a man there what his pearl was, he responded with a single word – freedom. Yet another man at the prison responded – safety.
Education, freedom, safety. Three people who could identify their pearl of great price that would allow them to prepare for living in the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in their lives.
This parable, indeed, disturbs. Because it causes each of us to think about what is our pearl. Have we already have found it? Can we name it? Are we still seeking?
There is a Jewish tale known as “Joseph Who Honors the Sabbath” and a later version of it in the middle ages. Reading from Levine’s commentary:
“A certain wealthy gentile heard from Chaldean fortune-tellers that ‘Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbaths” would come to obtain all his property. To protect his personal wealth, the gentile ‘went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone’ with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge, the wind blew his turban off and cast it into the water, where a fish swallowed it. The fish was subsequently caught and brought to market late on the Sabbath. The fish seller brought the fish to Joseph-who-honors-the Sabbaths, who bought it. Opening the fish, Joseph found the jewel, which he sold ‘for thirteen roomfuls of gold denarii.’ The moral: ‘He who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays him.’”
Or to restate: he who lends to God, God repays! Yet in ways we never expect. Or, perhaps, God repays not necessarily in riches (like in the tale), but in other forms of riches. In miraculous ways.
Again, it causes us to think. It causes us to wonder, what is our unique pearl of great price that we are seeking as we strive to live as disciples of Jesus. Amen.
 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories of Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” (HarperOne, A Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014,), 275.
 Ibid. 277.
 Ibid. 127-128, 139-140.
 Ibid. 129.
 Ibid. 133-134.
 Ibid. 137-138, quoting from footnotes 22 and 23 to Chapter 4.
 Ibid. 138-139.
 Ibid. 148-149.