July 26, 2020; Matthew 13: 44-52; 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
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.