The Pearl of Great PricePosted: August 7, 2016
The Pearl of Great Price
SLIDE 3: TREASURE IN A FIELD
The Gospel of Matthew contains two mini-parables placed right next to one another about things of value. The first story is about a treasure hidden in a field. When a person stumbles across the lost fortune, he covers it up, keeps it secret and then goes and sells his other possessions in order to be able to buy the field and claim the treasure. Some people are uncomfortable with this story, because the treasure hunter seems unscrupulous, for he finds the fortune and does not tell the owner of the field before bidding on the land.
The Gospel of Thomas has a different take on the story of the treasure in the field: “The kingdom is like a man who had in his field a hidden treasure, of which he knew nothing. And after he died he left it to his son. The son also did not know; he took the field and sold it. The man who bought it came and as he was ploughing found the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.”
SLIDE 4: THE COMMONWEALTH OF GOD IS IN YOUR MIDST
In the Gospel of Thomas the previous owners did not know anything about the treasure, and neither does the man who buys the field and then discovers the treasure. The point of the Gospel of Thomas is that the treasure is there all along, but it is worthless to the owners of the field until someone discovers it. The Gospel of Thomas seems to pick up on Jesus’ statement that the Kingdom of God is not here or there, but the Kingdom of God is now in the midst of you, for those of you who can perceive its presence. In both versions of the story the discovery of the treasure is accidental. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that the discovery of God’s presence in our lives is serendipitous. The experience of the Holy is grace. We can’t make it happen.
SLIDE 5: GRACE — SERENDIPITOUS — IT JUST COMES
It is sort of like the story of a business man who was on his first visit to the South, and he ordered breakfast, 2 eggs over easy, some bacon and whole wheat toast. When the waitress delivered his order, he looked down at the plate and saw a glob of white stuff in addition to the eggs, bacon and toast. The man inquired of the server querulously, “What’s that?” pointing to the white stuff.
The waitress replied, “Why them’s grits!”
“But I didn’t order any grits,” replied the businessman.
“Oh, you don’t order grits,” responded the waitress, “They just comes.” We don’t order the experience of God, we can’t make it happen. It just comes, like stumbling across a treasure buried in a field.
SLIDE 6: WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH GRACE?
Of course once we have experienced grace, once we know the treasure is in the field, we have to decide what we are going to do about it. Do we cover it up and leave it buried? Do we steal it? Just knowing where the cache lies does not change our lives. We have to be willing to appropriate the treasure, make it part of who we are in order to benefit. So now we have to begin the discussion of priorities, and here is where the treasure hidden in the field and the Pearl of Great Price come together. So let’s spend a couple of moments with the story of the Pearl.
SLIDE 7: PEARL OF GREAT PRICE
A merchant was seeking fine pearls. We can begin by noting that pearls in the ancient world were among the most precious of gems. In modern times we have learned how to culture pearls, and so they have become relatively cheap in comparison to the ancient world, where pearls were so expensive, most people in First Century Israel had never even seen one. To imagine a merchant who dealt almost exclusively in pearls was to fantasize about fantastic wealth.
According to the narrative, when the merchant discovered one very large and perfect pearl, he sold his entire stock in order to be able to buy that one pearl. Now as Amy Jill Levine points out: “Our merchant has obtained his desire: a beautiful object, but one that cannot nourish, or shelter or clothe. . . . apparently impoverishing himself to acquire something supremely valuable which he could admire and display but could not make a living unless he sold it again.”
SLIDE 8: A TREASURE THAT DOES NOT DECAY
How does this help us in understanding the Commonwealth of God? Here perhaps the version of the Merchant and the Pearl in the Gospel of Thomas can help us: Jesus said, “What the Commonwealth of God resembles is a merchant who owned some merchandise, and then learned about the existence of a certain pearl. That merchant was shrewd, sold the merchandise, and bought the single pearl. You too, then must seek the ceaseless and enduring treasure, where moth does not approach to eat nor worm to destroy.”
SLIDE 9: WHAT IS IT WE REALLY WANT?
The Gospel of Thomas changes the meaning of story. The merchants is shrewd, rather than a stock of pearls, he has an assortment of merchandise some of which may be perishable or at least subject to deterioration and decay. The merchant is clever, for he sells his perishable assets in order to invest in a jewel that does not lose its value. The implication is that following the way of Jesus leads to an eternal reward, thus pointing the listener to think about priorities. Do we become attached to wealth and things of material value, or are we investing ourselves in developing spiritual assets? So Jesus is asking us, “What is it we really want?”
SLIDE 10: WHAT ARE WE WILLING TO GIVE UP?
What are our priorities? What are we willing to give up or lay aside in order to find spiritual happiness — joy? When Jesus invited the rich young ruler, “Come follow me,” he turned went away disappointed, because he would have to part with some of his material wealth in order share with others. Jesus was inviting him into a community of relationship, but his material wealth was more important than the prospect of relationship with others.
SLIDE 11: MISER
I am reminded of a young pastor who was soliciting for the fund for the homeless, and she was assigned to call upon the town miser. After she had made her pitch, the miser said to her: “Young woman did you know that I have a brother who is completely disabled and unable to earn a living?”
“Well no,” replied the pastor, “I did not.”
“And did you know,” continued the miser, “that I have a nephew with no insurance, who needs a very costly operation, or he will die in six months?”
“Oh no,” the pastor commiserated.
“And did you know,” railed the miser, “that I have a niece with eight children whose husband has died and left her penniless?”
“I am sorry,” replied the young pastor, “I was unaware of the extent of your burdens.”
“Well, good replied the miser. Because since I am not giving any of them anything, you’ll understand that I am not giving you any money for any of those other dead beats.”
SLIDE 12: WHEN MONEY COMES BETWEEN US AND OTHERS
When our material wealth prevents us from being able to respond to the needs of others, we have become impoverished spiritually. But even more than money many of us are misers with our time. Relationships are costly. We have to be willing to invest ourselves. We have to be willing to devote time to nurturing a relationship whether that is a relationship with an individual or a community of people. Ninety percent of life is showing up — showing up for work, showing up for church, showing up for the people we love. We invest our time in people and activities that are important to us.
SLIDE 13: INVESTING OURSELVES IN SUCCESS
Especially when we are young, we are often attracted to investing ourselves in the accumulation of material things, or fame, or professional success. We want to be recognized and lauded for having attained “something worthwhile,” some legacy that will result in some kind of immortality — a book published, an endowment bestowed, educational degrees, a picture in the hall of fame, our hand prints and foot prints in cement, a public park, “successful children or grandchildren.”
SLIDE 14: THE JOY OF RELATIONSHIP
As we grow older we learn that life may have regrets. But few people on their death beds regret that they didn’t have a larger house or a better car to drive. In the end no one regrets they didn’t spend more time at the office. Most often as we approach the end of our lives our regrets are about relationships. Gee I wish my relationship with my kids had been better. Or I wish the relationship between my children was healthier. Or I wish I had spent more time caring for others. As our family gathered for Beth’s birthday in Illinois, and I experienced children who were actually getting along and able to talk about meaningful things civilly, even when they disagreed, I had a new appreciation for the joy of relationship.
SLIDE 15: THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY
So often in our rush for immortality we forget about relationships, like the father of the two lost sons. In the quest for individual fame and fortune we can overlook the importance of community — a collection of people who make a difference. My greatest admiration is for Bill and Sara Green, who for almost sixty years now have nurtured and nourished the relationships that have become the dream of a United Church of Christ in the Tennessee Valley — a place where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here! I am proud to have shared in those relationships and that dream.
SLIDE 16: WHERE YOUR TREASURE IS THERE IS YOUR HEART
So, as we come to a close today I ask you what is your Pearl of Great Price, or where is your treasure? Remember the words of Jesus where your treasure is there will your heart be also.