STORIES JESUS TOLD: ALL IN
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 16, 2015; Non-Lectionary Sermon
Ruth 1:6-18; Matthew 13:44-52

“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.”
Matthew 13:45-46

There was a remarkable news story last week. I don’t know if you caught it. It was about something very precious that was lost for 35 years, then found again.

It was a Stradivarius violin, nearly three hundred years old, crafted by that most renowned of violin makers. It belonged to Roman Totenberg, one of the world’s greatest concert violinists. Totenberg was a Polish Jew who fled to America on the eve of World War 2, at the height of his career. You may recognize his name if you listen to NPR. His daughter, Nina Totenberg, is their legal correspondent.

Mr. Totenberg’s Stradivarius was stolen in 1980, after a concert he gave at the Boston music school where he taught. The instrument was never seen again — until just a few months ago.

A California woman contacted a violin appraiser, asking him about an old instrument her ex-husband had given her, just before his death in 2011. She’d put it away for a few years because she couldn’t open the combination lock on the case. Finally, curiosity got the better of her, and she broke the lock. When she opened the case, she realized it was an antique instrument.

The appraiser recognized it immediately. He alerted the authorities, who called the FBI. The woman insisted her husband never told her the violin was stolen. She surrendered the instrument, and has not been charged.

Her late husband was a lesser-known violinist by the name of Philip Johnson. He’d been hanging around backstage on the night of the crime. Mr. Totenberg had suspected he was the thief, but could never prove it.

The instrument is worth millions, but to Mr. Totenberg, it had no price. He told his daughters after the crime, “It’s sort of like having your arm taken from you.”

It’s a shame Johnson’s wife didn’t take it to the appraiser a little earlier, at the time of her husband’s death. Mr. Totenberg – who died in 2012 at the age of 101 — was still alive then. Remarkably, he was still playing, still teaching students up until a few days before he died. He might have played his prized Stradivarius once again. But sadly, it was not to be.

The Totenberg daughters stand to realize millions from the sale of the instrument, but they’re determined not to sell it to a mere collector. As Nina Totenberg put it: Great violins “are meant to be played by great artists…. [It] will eventually be in the hands of another great artist, like my father, and the beautiful, brilliant and throaty voice of that violin, long stilled, will once again thrill audiences in concert halls around the world.”

*****

The parable of Jesus we’re looking at today is known to many as “The Pearl of Great Price.” In many ways, though, it’s misnamed: because that pearl — like Roman Totenberg’s Stradivarius — likewise has no price.

You might not think so, from what Jesus tells us about the principal character: a merchant. The parable’s just one sentence long. It goes like this:

“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.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

Clearly, this merchant is a dealer in luxury items. He buys and sells fine jewelry — including pearls, which in biblical times were the most costly and sought-after of all.

He’s a high roller, no doubt about it. He’s used to laying out hundreds, even thousands, of denarii — and earning back even more as he resells his pearls to members of the nobility.

To him, it’s all about the money: until one particular day, the day he comes upon the most perfect and beautiful pearl he’s ever seen.

Jesus tells us what he does, in response: “He went and sold all that he had — and bought it.”

Now, there are some who think he went to such lengths because he felt confident he could turn around and sell this exquisite pearl for even more. If that were true, then his purchase was a calculated risk, a shrewd business decision.

But Jesus doesn’t tell us that. The story is about his purchase of the pearl and no more. The parable leaves us hanging. Did the merchant go on to resell it? And if so, how much did he rake in?

We’ll never know. Jesus isn’t interested in how much the merchant may have earned. The parable’s about the buying, not the selling. And the most amazing aspect of the story is this: the merchant sold all that he had in order to buy it.

The Greek is unambiguous. The merchant didn’t just open his piggy bank. He didn’t borrow money from friends. He didn’t go down to the bank and take out a home-equity loan. No, he sold everything: house, land, clothing, probably even his kids’ toys. In the quest for the great pearl, he was all in. He was willing to pay such an extraordinary price because that tiny, iridescent sphere exerted a magnetic attraction on his spirit.

Amy-Jill Levine taught me something about the parable this week, as I was reading her book. For the merchant to pay such a jaw-dropping price means he’s fundamentally changed by the transaction. If he sells off his entire pearl-buying business — not only his stock in trade, but also every bit of his working capital — it means he’s no longer a merchant. He’s ceased to be a buyer and seller. He’s become just a buyer — and, more than that, an owner. So captivated is the man by this flawless jewel, he’s willing to remake his very life in order to possess it.

*****

There’s a word that comes up very often in the study of the parables. That word is: allegory. An allegory is a type of story that has clearly-defined symbolism. If you interpret a parable allegorically, it means every person in the story, every important object, is a symbol for something else. In order to untangle the meaning of a parable — according to this way of thinking — you have to have a key: a list of real-world characters who correspond exactly to those in the story.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, the son who goes off to the far country symbolizes a backsliding believer, the son who stays at home is a stuffed shirt who takes his salvation for granted, and the father is God.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite symbolize the religious establishment, the wounded traveler is some poor sinner, and the good Samaritan is Jesus.

The traditional allegorical interpretation of this parable is that the pearl symbolizes the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s the fundamental Christian message of salvation. There’s no more important thing to do in life than to hold that pearl in our hot little hands. No sacrifice is too great, if by making it we gain the ultimate reward: a ticket to heaven.

There’s something appealing about an allegorical interpretation. It’s simple. It’s cut-and-dried. Once someone gives you the key and you know which character stands for what, you can take that knowledge to the bank — right?

Not right. There’s one rather large problem with that approach. There’s little evidence in the Bible that Jesus meant his parables as allegories. Sure, there are a few times when the Gospel-writers have Jesus supplying an allegorical key after he tells a story, but such cases are few and far between. A great many scholars of the New Testament have concluded that those after-the-fact interpretations owe more to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John than they do to Jesus.

If there’s one thing the Gospel-writers say again and again about the parables, it’s that they’re hard to understand. They were hard for that first generation of disciples, and they’re hard for you and me today. Their meaning’s not always obvious. The plot-lines take unexpected turns. Sometimes thoroughly disreputable characters end up telling the gospel truth, and conventionally religious people sound like fools.

The purpose of the parables, more often than not, is to set us off balance, to pull us out of our theological comfort zone, to shake up the ways we typically think. Allegorical interpretations do none of those things. They’re simple and obvious as can be (once you have the key, anyway).

If you take the allegorical route to interpreting the parable of the Pearl, then the pearl is the kingdom of heaven, the merchant is an earnest believer who will do whatever’s necessary to get in there, and that’s all she said. The parable’s packaged up very nicely for you to take home, put in the freezer, and pull out like a TV dinner whenever you’re hungry for a little good news.

There’s only one problem with that allegorical interpretation in the parable of the Pearl. It’s not what Jesus said.

If you pay close attention to the very start of the parable, what you’ll hear is not “The kingdom of heaven is like one pearl of great value.” What Jesus actually says is this: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.” Now, if you were strictly following an allegorical method, you’d have to say the kingdom of heaven is the merchant, not the pearl. And that makes absolutely no sense.

What Jesus is saying, I think, is a lot closer to this: “If you want to sense the nearness of the kingdom of heaven — which is already breaking into this world, just as it’s fully and completely present in the world to come — you’ve got to do as that merchant did. You can’t just sit home, doing business as usual. You’ve got to get up and go into the world and search the kingdom out. Examine every pearl you come across. Note well its beauty, its symmetry, its shining iridescence. The more you come to know the good things God has created, the more ready you will be when the great day comes, and you discover the pearl that is so perfectly a pearl that it has no price. Every other pearl you can buy and sell, but not that one. That pearl has a hold on you. Such a pearl demands everything you have and are, and you will give all those things up cheerfully, just to have it.

*****

One of the greatest Christians of the twentieth century, when it comes to following Jesus with whimsy and wonder, was a woman by the name of Dorothy Day. She grew up in Brooklyn, in a well-off Protestant, middle-class family, but didn’t connect with her faith until she was an adult. Dorothy had a powerful conversion experience, became a Roman Catholic, and dedicated her life to serving the poor of New York City. In the depths of the Depression, she founded the Catholic Worker House, where anyone could come for a bed and a meal and a listening ear. Even more than that, she became a social activist, agitating for a better deal for working people and for the unemployed. She was so good at stirring things up, at speaking truth to power, that some called her a Communist — though, in truth, she was all about taking Jesus’ teachings seriously: especially the ones about selling all you have and giving to the poor.

They tell a story about her that’s a parable in itself. It was a kind of parabolic action she performed one day. A wealthy woman came into the Catholic Worker House, and Dorothy gave her the grand tour. The visitor was quite taken with the whole operation, and at the end of the tour she took out her checkbook and made a generous donation. She started to walk out, then turned around, and — on impulse — pulled a diamond ring off her finger, and gave it to Dorothy.

Well, one of Dorothy’s associates saw it, and thought this was a wonderful thing. The organization was chronically short of money, and she knew that ring could be sold for a tidy sum. Imagine her astonishment, later that day, when she spied that very diamond ring sparkling on the finger of a woman from the neighborhood who had come into the Catholic Worker House for help.

Well, the staffer went up to Dorothy and asked her how that client had gotten hold of the diamond ring. “I gave it to her,” said Dorothy, matter-of-factly

“What were you thinking?” asked the staff member. “Don’t you know that, if we sold that ring, we could pay that woman’s rent for a year?”

Dorothy just looked at her for a moment. Then she said that, as far as she was concerned, the woman could do whatever she wanted with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or she could take a trip to the Bahamas. Or, she could simply enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her finger like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

Now, I know her decision makes no logical sense. By any worldly standard, the staffer was absolutely right. The sensible thing to do was to sell that ring, and record the proceeds on the black-ink side of the balance sheet. But people of deep spiritual sensitivity like Dorothy Day don’t always see things the way the rest of us do. Once you’ve glimpsed the pearl that has no price, once you’ve seen it shimmering in front of your very eyes, it’s hard to assess anything else in God’s creation according to the cold calculus of dollars and cents.

*****

That’s what a good parable will do for you. It opens your eyes to spiritual truth you’d never see otherwise. The more you let Jesus’ simple-but-offbeat stories live with you, the larger they grow in your imagination — and the more you come to see how this world is shot through with heavenly light. With such vision, a diamond ring on the finger of a welfare recipient is the most natural thing in the world. And a Stradivarius ought to be sold not to the highest bidder, but to someone who can make it sing.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.