A Pair of Parables
July 24, 2011
Matthew 13: 44-52
Every parable has multiple meanings. And when you put two parables together, even more insights emerge. This is what our liturgy does for us today. In our gospel we have two small parables: the parable of the treasure hidden in the field and the parable of the pearl of great price.
In both parables a person finds something of immense value: a cache of gold that was buried in the field or a pearl that is so exquisite that it puts all other pearls to shame. Clearly in Jesus’ preaching the treasure and the pearl stand for that which is most important, that which could bring us the most joy. Ultimately they stand for our salvation, for our relationship with God. So these two parables are a way of showing us how we find our heart’s desire. Clearly the characters in the parable know this. When they find what is most important, they both sell everything that they have in order to possess it.
Recognizing the similarity of the parables allows us to discover a truth in their differences. In these parables each of the characters finds that which is most important in a different way. The merchant finds the pearl of great price by constant effort. The parable tells us the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. On the other hand, the man finds the treasure in the field by chance. He is not looking for it. He just comes across it in the course of his work. So when you put these two parables together, they tell us that sometimes we find the kingdom of God by looking for it and other times it comes to us even when we are not looking for it. Sometimes we find our heart’s desire because we are searching for it, and other times we simply stumble upon it.
Does this not match our experience? How have we found the most important things in our lives? How do people find a spouse, someone with whom to share their life? Well, some people do it by constant effort, by going on on-line dating services, by talking to friends, by going out to the appropriate social mixers. Such people sometimes find the person they are looking for. But other people have a chance conversation at a party, and the rest is history.
How do couples who are having difficulty conceiving give birth to a child? Some use every possible medical advance to increase fertility. Sometimes it works and they are successful. But I cannot tell you how many times I have talked to a couple who have tried everything without success and finally have resigned themselves to the fact that nothing is going to work. And then it does.
How do we draw closer to God? Sometimes we do it by saying our prayers, by reading the bible, by serving the poor. Such efforts allow us to feel God’s closeness. But other times we cannot pray. We feel that God is absent. Perhaps we are even angry at God or doubt God’s existence. And then there comes a call from a close friend or a particularly beautiful sunset, and suddenly we know God is with us.
These two little parables of the kingdom relativize our approach to salvation. They remind us that obtaining the most important things in life is not a process over which we have control. It is a process over which God has control. And God is not bound to use our wisdom or our efforts. Now, should we go for what is the most important thing? Should we seek our heart’s desire? By all means—with all of our energy and strength. If we try sincerely, sometimes like the merchant searching for fine pearls, we will find it. But on those days when our energy runs out, on those days when our searching seems futile, on those days when we can not even think of another thing we can try, the gospel reminds us not to give up hope. God still intends to save us. God still intends to give us our heart’s desire. And it is possible to stumble on the most important things, like finding a treasure hidden in a field.
Therefore, we should live with confidence. God is in charge. Whether we are looking for God or not, God is looking for us. And God is always successful.
Searching for Pearls
July 27, 2014
A 17-year-old boy was playing basketball in his driveway with his friends. In the course of the game he lost one of his contact lenses. He searched up and down the driveway to find it without success. So he gave up and he went in the house to tell his mother. She undertook the cause and went out to look. In just a few minutes she came in holding the contact lens in her hand. “I don’t get it,” said the boy. “I looked everywhere. How did you do that?” “Well,” she explained, “we were looking for different things. You were looking for a small piece of plastic. I was looking for $300.”
What we value determines the search. This truth is captured in today’s gospel parable of the merchant. In a few words Jesus presents us with this man whose life is dedicated to searching for fine pearls. They are his heart’s desire. He is enchanted by their beauty and smitten by their perfection. No effort is too great nor no distance too far for him to search for them. Others who are not as fond of pearls might believe that his dedication and excitement are excessive. But this merchant knows what he values. He knows what he wants. And when he finds a pearl of great price, he will sell everything to have it.
Now the scandal of this parable is that God is the merchant, and God is searching for us. There is no explaining why God is so determined to find us. God has already given us our lives, our minds, our abilities, our families and friends. God has already given us his Son and the promise of eternal life. But God wants more. God wants to possess us as his own.
We are the ones who usually pass on this opportunity. We believe in God, and we know that all good things come from God. Yet we pray, “God, thank you for all that I have received—for my life, for my job, for my family and friends—but could you please remain a giver from afar? Why do you have to come so close? I am not really ready to be all in. Can’t I just live a moral life and go to church on the weekends? I love you, and I will praise you. But I really don’t want to be your possession.” Yet despite all of our protests that we are too busy, that we are too fearful, that we are too sinful, God keeps coming. God keeps searching for an opportunity to catch our imagination, to break our routine, to open our hearts so that he can have us. No effort is too great, no distance is too far to keep God from coming, always hoping that we will be willing to go deeper, that we will be willing to hand ourselves over. Then we would see what satisfaction there is in following the gospel, how much sense it makes to forgive our enemies, what energy we would have to work for justice, and what joy would be ours to be God’s own.
We can always say no. We can always resist this deeper relationship. But God does not give up. What God values determines the search, and to God we are not a small piece of plastic. We are a pearl of great price. He wants us to be his. And so in the end it is both sensible and wise to give in. In fact, it is our salvation to let ourselves be found.
July 30, 2017
Being a farmer in first century Palestine was not easy. There was a constant struggle to make ends meet. Starvation was always around the corner. So when Nathaniel heard that his grandfather had died, and left him a plot of land, he was ecstatic. Perhaps he could plant some wheat on that land, and gain some security for his family. But when he went to look at the land his heart sank. It was small, very rocky, without water, and without shade. Nothing would grow on this land. It could not even support a few weeds for sheep to graze. Nathaniel’s inheritance was worthless. He quickly decided to sell the land, if he could. But even though he set the price low, very low, no one was interested. It had been on the market now for five years without a single offer. Then one day a neighbor of Nathaniel’s came to his house. He was excited and plopped down the full asking price. “Nathaniel,” he said, “I want to buy that field of yours.” “Of course,” said Nathaniel. He quickly signed over the deed. As his neighbor left, Nathaniel counted his money. He knew that he was fortunate to sell the land. But he couldn’t help but wonder why would anyone pay good money for this barren piece of real estate. He went out to look at the land one last time. It was the same that it had always been. “Yes,” he said, “I’m fortunate to get rid of it.” But then he wondered, “Is there something I’m missing, something about this land I do not know?”
Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel tells us what Nathaniel didn’t know. There was a treasure buried in that field, a treasure that gave the land immense value. Jesus gives us this parable to tell us that there is a treasure hidden in our lives and in our world. And that treasure is the treasure of God’s grace. Jesus wants us to believe that in every person and in every circumstance God is present, often in a hidden way, but active and working to bring about what is just and good.
Of course it takes faith to believe that God is active and working in the difficult situations of our lives. When we look at the rancor and partisanship that characterizes Washington or Columbus, it is easy for us to conclude that the people we have elected to serve us have become dysfunctional. Jesus’ parable tells us that hidden in that dysfunction God is still active, still moving minds and hearts, so that a situation that seems barren might in fact bear some fruit.
You might know a friend or a family member that others have written off because of the mistakes they made or the attitudes they carry. Jesus’ teaching tells us that there is a treasure in that person, the treasure of God’s love that is continually active, moving the person towards change and growth. So that a life that seems without value might eventually be able to claim its true worth.
You might have received a difficult medical diagnosis, and you know you are facing months of pain and treatments. The gospel that we believe tells us that buried in that pain God is still present, giving you courage to move forward, making you thankful for the people who love and support you.
Faith makes a difference. Faith changes things. People and circumstances that seem bleak and hopeless look different to those who believe that God is active and present in our lives. A barren field that no one would buy becomes a valued property, when we understand that the treasure of God’s grace is hidden within it.
Owning the Pearl
July 26, 2020
Matthew 13: 44-52
Our country is presently in the midst of a wide-ranging discussion on racism. The news cycle keeps reporting demonstrations in cities throughout our nation. There’s a lively debate on whether to remove monuments that some believe enshrine racist principles. We continue to discuss the purpose and the effectiveness of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. One result that emerges from this upheaval is the growing awareness that racism is not limited to individual moral choices. Racism is embedded in our legal and cultural systems.
This awareness has both positive and negative consequences. Positively, the more people who realize the pervasive nature of racism in our society, the better. We cannot address an issue that we can’t see or understand. But negatively, when we understand the pervasive nature of racism, we feel helpless. It becomes clear that racism will not be defeated by x-number of people suddenly being nicer to one another. The defeat of racism involves the reimagining and reinvention of aspects of our government, our police force, and our economic system. When we see how vast this effort is, it is easy to throw up our hands and say “It’s too much. Racism is too big to undo.”
But here is where the parable of The Merchant and the Pearl, which we find in today’s gospel, can help us. Because this parable insists that change, radical change, is possible. Now when we first look at this parable, its point seems rather straightforward. A merchant is willing to spend a lot of money for a pearl that he wants. But the message of the parable goes much deeper. Listen to what it says: “When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes out and sells all that he has, and buys it.” Now if this merchant goes out and sells all that he has, he is no longer a merchant. He can no longer buy and sell pearls because all that he has is tied up in this one pearl. So what the parable is telling us is that not only is the merchant willing to pay a huge amount for this pearl, he is willing to change who he is. He is willing to stop being a merchant and become a man who possesses a single pearl of great price. That is change, that is radical change; not a change in what we possess but a change in who we are. The parable tells us that change is possible if the pearl means enough to us.
When we apply this parable to our discussion of racism, it tells us that we can change our society and we can change ourselves if the outcome means enough to us. If we are people who truly value justice and equality, we can find the power to change, the power to leave behind the way we live in order to make change possible. If on the other hand, justice and equality are merely nice words that we speak, or values that we adopt when we can find a place to squeeze them in, racism will continue. But people who truly want to build a better society will find the strength to change, the strength to leave behind privilege and personal comfort in order to make something new. The gospel calls us to be such people, because whenever anyone can embrace that kind of change, he or she moves the world one step closer to the kingdom of God.