Sunday 24th July 2005
Year A, The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
1 Kings 3:5; 3:7-12
Romans 8:28-30
Matthew 13:44-52

I remember many years ago being shocked on my first visit to Canada by the simultaneous appearance on my plate of bacon and maple syrup, of the savoury and the sweet, which today is a commonplace of eating, exemplified in its nastiest guise in the doughnut.

I sometimes think of this when I approach the three Readings and the Psalm for Sunday which often remind me of the quiz programme where cooks are given an unlikely list of ingredients with which to make a tasty meal: a tin of pilchards (there are almost always pilchards or sardines), pineapple chunks, a tube of mustard sauce, some leftover pasta, a box of sunflower seeds and a yam.

Well, today isn't like that. The three readings actually all fit together: prime fish from Matthew, well cooked pasta from Solomon and an unusually judicious sauce from Romans.

Solomon is asked by God what he would like as his one wish, something like the genie in the bottle but more serious. There are various versions of the Aladdin story but all of them have one thing in common; Aladdin never wants to be wise, he just wants to be rich.

Imagine you are asked the same question: if you were only allowed one thing, what would it be? Many of us, like Aladdin, would choose a house or a holiday, a car or a computer; but Solomon was much brighter than Aladdin. Instead of asking for one thing he asked for the means to have anything he wanted. When you choose the house or the holiday you only get the one thing; when you choose the means of creating wealth, you get more than one thing.

In this case, Solomon chose wisdom which would enable him, as king, to sort out all his problems; and God, recognising Solomon's wise choice said that because Solomon had chosen the right thing he could have anything else he wanted as well. The lesson, then, from Solomon, is that we should think about fundamentals instead of things that are superficial.

How does this fit with the parables of Jesus told by Matthew? The first says that if you see something you really want, you must give up everything else you have to gain it; the merchant sees the pearl of great price and sells everything he has. When we see the pearl of great price in the prospect of the heavenly kingdom we think that we can gain it while hanging on to everything we have got; we think we can get the pearl and give up nothing. This is very strange because we live in a world of enthusiasts - some would say fanatics - who give up everything to sail round the world, climb mountains, collect vintage cars or, in our humbler sphere, win a gardening award or complete a course. We will go to enormous lengths for these tiny little pearls, valuable in themselves but not in the same league as the one, great Pearl of the Kingdom.

If we think, then, that we can behave differently in our spiritual lives from the way we behave in our earthly lives, if we believe that we can have the Pearl of great price without giving anything up, we run into the danger of being the wrong kind of fish in Matthew's second parable where a fisherman catches a net of all kinds of fish and he sorts out the good from the bad and throws the bad ones away. As these then swim off while the good ones are cooked and eaten, I have my doubts about the parable from the fishes point of view; but the image being conjured up here is the same as that of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment in which case the fish are either eaten or burned. Which only goes to show that some analogies are confusing.

The main point to notice here is that we must work in our lives to be chosen by God; it doesn't happen automatically but neither does it happen instantly. Being a Christian in a secular world can be very difficult and tiring. But St. Paul then tells us that if we do live faithfully, in search of the Kingdom, if we do work in our lives to be saved, then everything will come good in the end.

In their different ways, all three passages are asking us to think about our inner spirit. We are advised not to rush but to take our time in choosing what God wants us to do; we are to take our time in coming to know which is the true way to the Kingdom. Where we might be tempted to wish for something instant, like Aladdin, we are to take our time and choose like Solomon. Where we might be tempted by superficial sparkle of cheap jewellery, we are to be careful only to choose the pearl of great price. Where we might be tempted to give up on our pilgrimage towards the Kingdom of God we are to persevere because God's love will ensure that everything is for the best.

And we are not expected to search for the pearl alone. The merchant in our story had to be sneaky. When he found the pearl he must have been frightened that somebody else would buy it before he could sell up all his goods and buy it himself; and you have to wonder why he wanted it; did he take it out at night and gloat like a miser? But the pearl that we seek in the kingdom does not belong to individuals who have to complete for it; the Kingdom of God is a collective, corporate entity and it is not reserved for our kind of Anglican, nor only for Anglicans, nor even only for Christians. To be Christian is to be privileged to know God through Jesus, a privilege which brings its own extra responsibilities; but there are many other ways to God who wants all of those He created to share the Pearl of His kingdom.

But we all know how a pearl is made; it starts with the irritant of the grain of sand in the primitive system of the oyster; and the pearl is made to assuage the scratching of the sand. And so, for us to win the prize of the Kingdom we will have to put up with a little discomfort on the way.