The Pearl of The Kingdom

Sunday 24th July 2005
Year A, The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 13:44-52

There is one grain of sand, any grain of sand, one of countless grains of sand, more grains of sand than we can ever imagine; so many grains of sand that if you counted them all there would be too many zeros ever to take in. But one of these grains of sand enters the digestive tract of an oyster; and this creature, nothing more than a piece of jelly and a tiny, primitive, nervous system, which spends all its days processing sea water to gain its nutrition, this creature, irritated by the grain of sand, coats it with a layer of saliva; and then another; and then another; and then another.

Somewhere else in the ocean the same thing happens. Another oyster, irritated by another grain of sand, makes another pearl. Some pearls are tiny and not worth anything in the market place. Some are large but misshapen; a very few are both large enough and well shaped enough to be sold for a great price; and now and again there is a superb pearl that makes us draw in our breath as we wonder whose rich, famous or royal form it will adorn.

Think of the pearl for a moment. It is not mined, hewn, cut and polished, like a diamond or an emerald; it is not the pride of human technology; it does not show off; neither does it shine because of the external light.

A pearl is a smooth, round, natural product, patiently built, layer upon layer upon layer by the humble oyster. Instead of the flashiness of the diamond, its beauty is in its intense interiority; you think you can see into it but you can't really see into it. The pearl is tangible but it is altogether a mystery.

That is why the pearl was such a good image for Jesus to use to represent the Kingdom of Heaven. In his time metal jewellery was widely used from golden trinkets which were also currency, valued by weight as well as by craftsmanship, down to cheap market bronze and even a kind of oxide-flecked pewter exported by Ethiopia. There were also many precious stones in circulation, not the diamond which is our byword for precious stones; precious stones are frequently mentioned in connection with the ritual garments for temple worship; those specified were: the ruby, topaz and beryl; the turquoise, sapphire and emerald; the jacinth, agate and amethyst; and the chrysolite, onyx and jasper. (Exodus 28:15-10) but there were no doubt more by the time of Jesus as first the Greeks and then the Romans opened up trade to India and Iran in the East.

Large, natural pearls were and still are relatively rare; warm water pearls are almost always seed pearls. So when the merchant found this one pearl, you can see why he wanted it; it was a great rarity.

What we usually remember about the merchant is that he sold everything he had for the prize of the pearl which Jesus uses to represent the Kingdom of Heaven. He did not say that he would very much like the pearl but only if he could hang on to everything else he had; he was prepared to sell everything in order to get that pearl.

Now you are all such great sermon aficionados that you think you know what I am going to say next. What I am going to say, you think, is that you should behave like the merchant and be prepared to give up all that you have in order to merit the Kingdom of Heaven. Well, I'm not going to say any such thing.

What I want to say is this. Whatever goods and good fortune we have are the gifts of God and we have them for a purpose; but what we all must do is Contemplate the mystery of the pearl, contemplate the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven; sit quietly and think of the Kingdom of Heaven in the same way that we would contemplate a great work in an art gallery. Usually we do not rush past a wonderful painting we have never seen before, we stand and look at it carefully, perhaps sitting down for five minutes to absorb its form and its message. The mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven is well worth that kind of contemplation, as simple and uncluttered, as clear but yet as mysterious as the pearl.

And when we have contemplated the Kingdom, we must ask ourselves the question: What is it worth? What would I give up for it if I had to? Most of us are given rather light burdens to carry by Jesus; we are not asked to give up much; we are not called upon to be martyrs, we are not persecuted for our faith though nowadays we are frequently ridiculed or counted for less because of it; we do not go without food to pay our priest and we do not build churches with our bare hands; but would we do these things if we had to? We never know when we might be asked so it is as well to know what price we would be prepared to pay.

But this is not just a hypothetical question; we need to know how much the Kingdom is worth because so often it gets ranked amongst the other things of this life; so rarely does it come out so far on top that there is nothing close. We can't make it to church on holiday, we are too busy to say our prayers, we brush aside our sinfulness in the welter of daily activity; we have a myriad of reasons why the Kingdom of Heaven is just one more element in our lives, one of the many things to be dealt with in the mix, one of those optional extras that so often has to take its place behind our many other preoccupations.

So, I repeat; my message to us is not so stark as that in today's Gospel; few of us will ever behave like the Merchant, not even for a day, let alone through, for example, Lent and of course, as human beings, we cannot hope to live our lives like the merchant. Still, as a culture which knows how much everything costs, we need to work out how much we are prepared to pay for the pearl of great price. Our problem is not that we are wicked, not that we don't care but that we slip into indifference, we lose concentration, we let our priorities become muddled, we develop bad habits or we lose the good habits we promised ourselves to keep.

A pearl is not a big building or a complex picture; it is so simple and yet so mysterious, small enough to take in our hand but so large that it is beyond our human grasp. Let us try, just now and again, to imagine that we are the merchant, seeing the pearl for the first time, filled with rapture and Heavenly desire.