The Merchant and the Pearl

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 12)
July 27, 2014
The Church of the Holy Spirit, Massachusetts
The Rev. Adam S. Linton 

From the very rich gospel reading that we just heard, I would invite us to direct our attention to two of its verses. These two verses contain one of the short, amazing parables of Jesus. So here they are, once more:

“Again, 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.”

A merchant in search of fine pearls who finds one and gives all to acquire it: For some time, I have eagerly desired to open this parable with you, and seek to hear what God—our good God—has to say to us in it and through it.

Let’s start by recollecting the teaching of A. J. Levine who was with us just a few weeks ago at the Church of the Holy Spirit. Amy Jill Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar, teaching at Vanderbilt University. She has done remarkable work in particular on the parables.

I’m going to begin by noting for us some of the observations and insight she brings to bear on this very one. After that—I should hope with the Spirit’s help—I’m going to invite us to take an additional step.

Dr. Levine reminded us that the parables of Jesus are not innocuous.   They don’t simply restate the obvious. They’re often highly subversive.   So the Parable of the Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls tells us a good deal more than merely saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is valuable. Well yes, of course; this we should know already. Jesus didn’t need to say a parable to say only that. The Kingdom of Heaven is certainly valuable and worth desiring, but Jesus is saying more. So let’s bring the story back to mind.

There’s this pearl merchant. He already has many pearls; lots of them. They’re his business. He buys and sells them. But he finds one; one that he sells everything else to acquire. Now, what is he going to do with that one pearl? He can’t make much of a meal of it, and as Dr. Levine said, if he’d try to wear it, it wouldn’t cover very much at all, either. But he stakes everything—everything he has—to get it.

As we live ever more deeply into the reality of God’s Kingdom, we are summoned—we are empowered—to ponder how we actually order our lives: How we value things. We’re invited to notice in ways that maybe we never noticed before, just what is it upon which we are staking everything else. Sometimes we do so wisely, and sometimes—as we all know too well—we do so foolishly. There are times when we stake everything on something that isn’t worth it; that is not, in fact, our true hearts’ desire.   Life in God’s Kingdom calls us to ponder such realities. What is it upon which we’re staking everything? Really? That can be either a hard or an enlivening question to face. Maybe both. Maybe we’re afraid that we couldn’t stand the answers. But this is an “enabled-in-the Kingdom” kind of question, from which we no longer need to pull back.

Now, I’ll invite us to take the additional step:

The seed of the Kingdom is the Good News. And the Good News given to us in this teaching story, as all Good News is, is a matter of who God is—and what God is doing. The Gospel is not a matter of mere human moralizing. The Gospel is not a message which says, simply, “Try harder.” Or somehow conjure up within ourselves more appropriate feelings. That leads nowhere. The human project, by itself, and in itself, does not lead to life.

Now, as I think many of you know, Lori and I just got back from our three weeks in Northwestern Montana, Glacier National Park, early yesterday morning; and it’s good to be back. Yet as we emerged from our three weeks in the Montana woods, where we didn’t have TV and didn’t listen to radio and didn’t have access to email or internet, we again heard the news of the nation and the world. And as we hear that news, it is evident that not much has changed.   More violence. More heartbreak. More manifest and injurious human failure.   It seems as though this world-community of ours is broken up into competing utopianisms, each so self-righteously and imperviously infatuated with its own sense of right. It doesn’t lead anywhere very good, does it?

So we should know, at these deepest levels, that the Good News has to be much more, and the Good News has to be radically different, than merely more of our human “stuff.” So as we hear this little parable, let’s ask how we learn of the Good News in a fresh and powerful way. In it, let’s look first for the indications of who God is and what God is doing.

In fact, in this little teaching story, the parable of the Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls, Jesus is telling us something he considers essential that we know about the God’s character.

Where is God in this remarkable story?

Suppose that it’s not just another bit of pious moralizing. Suppose in this story, that it is God who is the reckless merchant in search of fine pearls. Suppose it is God who is willing to make a reckless acquisition.

And if it is God who is the merchant in search of fine pearls, what then is the pearl of great price?

Well, dear ones; that would be you.

It is you, in the story, who are the pearl of great price—that God is willing to stake everything to call us to life, to call us back to fellowship.

God’s love may indeed be foolish by the world’s standards. It may be reckless. But God’s love is not unmindful, because God knows the cost of this enterprise.

So this story that we may have thought was innocuous, in fact points with sure indication to the utterly sacrificial love of the God we meet in Jesus. This little parable points to the chasm of love found before the Cross of Christ. So, it is we who are the pearl of great price.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear that message, when I try and take it into my spirit, there’s a big part of me that says “You’ve got to be kidding Lord. Am I worth that? In my fallibility, in my inconstancy, in the smallness of my life?”

The word of grace that we meet in Jesus says, “Yes. I meant what I said, and I mean what I am doing.” And if we can come to see ourselves in this new and astounding light—everything changes. Maybe suddenly. More often incrementally. But we can no longer see ourselves, or anybody else, in the same light. Because the others, too, are also Pearl of God’s Great Price.

This isn’t mere niceness. It’s the remaking of the universe.

“Again, 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.”

As I was pondering this message—Yes—the words of a poem came to my mind.   And I was drawn specifically to a poem of George Herbert the great English priest and poet. Some of us know it, I’m sure. But it’s worth hearing again. The title of the poem is “Love” and it’s the third poem of Herbert’s so titled, and I’ll conclude by sharing it:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

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