The last time I saw pearls in any significant quantity was at the recent civic service. Pearls, being discreet, tasteful, and expensive, were much in evidence on the many ladies whose outfits had probably been among the top end of those at Royal Ascot Ladies Day.
Seriously, pearls are wonderful, and many ladies love to wear them, quite rightly and justifiably. Pearls are very beautiful things. A perfect sphere of purest white, or sometimes pink or occasionally black, cloudily reflective with a multitude of subtle shades known as ‘orient’, a pearl is one of the loveliest things on earth.
As I’m sure that you know, a natural pearl is formed when a piece of sand falls into the open shell of the oyster. To avoid irritation, the oyster slowly covers the gritty fragment with concentric layers of smooth and translucent ‘mother-of-pearl’. If it’s less than perfectly spherical or the purity of the colour is marred, it’s much less valuable. The value comes from rarity, and from the labour of the pearl fishers, who often have to dive to great depths to bring up the oysters, only a few of which will contain a pearl. Cleopatra dissolved pearls in wine and drank it as an ostentatious display of wealth. In the Bible, Job compares the value of the wisdom that comes from God to the most expensive things he knows, “no mention shall be made of coral or of crystal; the price of wisdom is above pearls”. Pearls were bought, and sold on at a profit, by greedy merchants, until they could find a king or a princess who was willing to pay a worthy price for a perfect pearl.
So what was Jesus talking about pearls for? As we heard in our gospel reading, Jesus told a parable about a pearl-merchant who dreamt of owning a pearl of great price; when he came across one, he had no hesitation in selling off everything that he owned so that he’d have enough money to buy his life’s dream, an absolutely perfect pearl.
Jesus said we should desire the kingdom of God as much as that merchant desired the pearl. No sacrifice is too great to make, so that we may obtain the kingdom of God; the kingdom of God should be the number-one priority in our whole life. In comparing the kingdom to a pearl, Jesus is saying that the kingdom is beautiful. If you’re in love, or have ever been in love, you know that love is beautiful, precious and wonderful, above anything else on earth. The kingdom of God’s being in love with God, and knowing that God loves you.
The kingdom of God is like the pearl of great price. Many other things in life are precious and lovely. Art and music, fine clothes and good food, foreign travel, a comfortable home and a desirable motor car, controlling a large organization, providing for your children – these are all good things and worthy ambitions. God’s pleased when we appreciate them. But they’re not as important as the kingdom of God. They’re like grade-two pearls, compared to a really magnificent top-of-the-range specimen. The kingdom of God must always take priority.
A proverb quoted by Voltaire runs: ‘The best is the enemy of the good.’ In other words, to achieve the best in life, you’ll often have to reject other things which are quite good, but not so important. If a couple have found true love, they’ll gladly sacrifice trivial pleasures for the joy of being together. John Dryden, in his play All for Love, wrote, “errors, like straws, upon the surface flow; he who would search for pearls must dive below”.
But what does this mean for us, here and now?
Pearls all start with an irritant. It’s a grain of sand that gets inside the oyster. Think of the irritants that you know. Perhaps there are people who irritate you, maybe at work, in your family, in social groups, or even in church. When the irritant gets inside the oyster it gently layers it with mother-of-pearl until it becomes something beautiful. Perhaps, instead of letting irritants irritate us, we should smother them with love until we see the love surrounding them and one day discover that they’re not an irritant, but something beautiful and valuable.
Pearls are deep under water, and you have to dive deeply to find them. To find love and meaning in your life, you must go below the sur¬face to find the kingdom of God. This means that, for us, we have to work hard at finding the pearls. Building the kingdom is not going to be quick or easy.
Pearls need striving for. They do not fall from the sky into our hands, and we need to try for the best. There are many pearls, but we are looking for the finest. We need to work hard for the best, and that may mean passing second best along the way. I don’t mean that we should never do anything until we’re sure it’s perfect, or that we should pass things over in case something better comes along. But we should strive for the best that we can. When you’ve found the finest pearl, be ready to sacrifice anything, however good and important, to make God the ruler of your life. The pearl of great price takes priority over lesser goods, and whatever you’ve sacrificed, you’ll get back in other ways.
Each one of us is called to look for and work for the kingdom of God in the ways that we are able. In the gospel we read of Jesus offering us many different pictures of the kingdom of God, but they were about very small things leading to very big things: the little mustard seed leading to a huge tree, the little bit of yeast making a big loaf. And the reward was like treasure hidden in a field, like the fisherman catching every kind of fish. God knows that we are not perfect and cannot do everything, and God doesn’t ask us to do more than we can. All God wants of us is the little that we can do. But the products of that are way beyond the value of what we put in, and the reward is as great as the finest pearl.
The Bible, and today’s story of the Kingdom of God, is full of promises: that we can find what is really valuable in life – the pearl of great price; and that we can share this abundance with others.
But these stories also have challenges for us to respond to. Will we see the pearl of great price? Will we know how valuable it is? Will we invest everything to have it? Will we take the risk of sharing it with others?
Let us offer ourselves to God, here before him, all that we are and all that we have.
We need God’s help, even to do this, to let go of our self, and to give everything into his hands.
We do not want to be possessed by what we own, not even to be self-possessed, but to belong to God.
May God take us, and shape our life for good, so that in a world where ownership is all we may live in a different way and witness to a different truth.
May we give up all we are and own, to belong to God and only to God, completely possessed by his love.