Uncharted | Week Three

Friends,

On Sunday, I tried to make the case that “true risk is the willingness to sacrifice, at a cost to yourself, without getting anything in return.”

Like buying a field you will never live in.

Or planting a tree that will never give you shade.

Or (and here’s the story that didn’t make the cut) … buying a pearl. 

I really wanted to share this final story with you on Sunday … but, alas, we just didn’t have time. (And who uses the word “alas?!”). That said, here it is!

I hope it causes all sorts of questions in you just like it has me. I hope it makes the things you thought you understood clearly, more blurry. I hope you can join me in wrestling with the difficult but beautiful words of Jesus. 

I hope this one gets under your skin … just like it has mine. 

GRACE&PEACE,

tim

 

STORY #3 – A MERCHANT BUYS A PEARL

The story is a story called “The Pearl of Great Price.”

Now, before we read the story, some initial thoughts.

First, a word about the genre:

This story is a parable. Parables are short stories meant to force someone to think about the deepest things; the things that are the most true. The Jewish rabbis referred to the parables as “handles” – because they understood that some things are so important, yet so large, that they need handles. The point of the parables was to force us to wrestle not just with “do I understand this truth?” but “am I willing to live it out?”

Second, a word about this particular parable:

This particular parable is told as part of a larger series of parables. In order to fully understand what Jesus is doing in this story, you really have to back up and see it in light of all of the other parables that surround it.

Which raises the natural question: Which parables surround this one and what are they about?

Well, Jesus tells a parable about a sower sowing seeds into a field, then he tells a story about a mustard seed (a really really really really small seed), then he tells a story about yeast. Each of these stories begins with the line: “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

So, these stories are all stories about the kingdom of heaven.

Third, a word about this phrase, “the kingdom of heaven.”

This phrase, in our modern English, is a bit confusing.

When we hear the word “heaven,” all sorts of images come to mind – clouds and harps, and lots of blue, and babies with wings … those kinds of things. Now, I will resist the temptation to rabbit trail on “heaven” and the afterlife (but hint: the way the Bible talks about heaven is actually MORE beautiful than we’ve made it); however, it is important for us to note here that “heaven”, when used in the context of “kingdom of heaven” is not a reference to a PLACE, but rather a reference to a PERSON (namely, God).

Jesus, when he says “the kingdom of heaven” is not talking about the afterlife, but “here and now.”

You see, Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience. The Jewish audience took the command “do not take the Lord’s name in vain” seriously. They would never say the holy name of God (YHWH) out of fear of misusing this name. So, in place of using that name, they would refer to God by a series of titles: “The Name,” “The Holy One”, “The Eternal One”, “Our Father in Heaven.”

When you read “the kingdom of heaven”, it’s not a reference to a place, that word “heaven” has been substituted for the name “God.” John, who also writes a gospel, does not use the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”, but rather, “Kingdom of God” because John is writing to a Greco-Roman audience, not a Jewish one. John needs his audience to not get confused.

So what is “the kingdom of heaven/God.”

Well, Jesus tips us off in his most famous prayer (and when you say the Lord’s prayer, you also use ye olde English, don’t you?): “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, THY WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH as it is in heaven.”

So, you could say, “the kingdom of heaven/God is the place where God’s will is done.” The kingdom of heaven/God is the place where God is understood to be king; where God has final “say so.”

Now, here’s where things get tricky: We also have a kingdom. Each of us. Some of us have larger kingdoms, others of us have smaller kingdoms, but each of us has been given a kingdom. We have a place/sphere/realm where we have influence; where we act as king; where our will is done. If you have a house, you have “say so” in that house. If you have a car, you have “say so” in that car. If you have a body, you have “say so” over that body. Even if you don’t have any possessions and are imprisoned, you own the few inches between your ears … and you have say so over your thoughts. This kingdom is your kingdom. God has given each of us kingdoms.

And, by the way, would you agree, “most of the world’s problems have occurred when ‘your’ kingdom has bumped into ‘my’ kingdom?” Isn’t that where we find all sorts of tension? When I have my will/desires and you have your will/desires and our wills/desires disagree?

But, Jesus insists that we have a choice. We can surrender “our kingdom” over to “God’s kingdom.” Essentially we can give God more and more “say so” – over our stuff (our house, our car, our xbox) and over our thoughts and bodies.

Wow, how does this work?

Well … slowly. This happens slowly as you begin to trust God more and more. And that is a concept that is hard to understand … it could use some handles. It could use a story.

Learning to surrender to God happens slowly … like yeast working its way through bread. Like a mustard seed growing in the ground. (Do you see how brilliant these parables are?!)

And if our hearts are open to this slow but beautiful work of our God in … if we choose to surrender … our personal kingdoms can be given over to his kingdom. We can give him “say so” over our lives. But if our hearts are not … if the soil of our soul is hard, or rocky … well, God will not force himself upon us. Which Jesus also brilliantly describes by telling … a story. (I know, right?!)

Fourth, a word about growth.

I have read this parable dozens of times. Seriously. I grew up reading this parable. I have written papers about this parable. I have preached sermons about this parable.

And until about two weeks ago, I think I may have missed Jesus’ whole point.

But, we are always growing, right? It’s okay to be wrong, because that’s how you grow. You do allow yourself to be open to new understandings of things, right? Your heart is open to change, isn’t it?

Recently, I came across an interpretation of this story by the Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard … and I haven’t been able to shake it.

Honestly, my first thought was: “This will really fit well in my sermon.

My second thought, upon reading it, was … “oh man, what do I do with this for myself?” And I don’t know. I honestly do not know.

So let me read you one last story, offer you the interpretation that I read … and then, we’ll be done.

And now, for the Parable, “The Pearl of Great Price.”

These are the words of Jesus from Matthew 13.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

That’s the story.

Well actually it’s two stories.

Jesus tells two two-line stories.

The first is about a man who is looking for treasure … finds it, buries it back in the field and then … buys the field.

But then … almost like he knows that first story will totally get misinterpreted, he immediately tells a second story … which is almost the same, but with just one detail different.

This time … in the second story … he drops the field from the story.

Now, if all we had was the first story (the one that includes the field detail), it would be easy to misunderstand what Jesus is saying here. We might even read this story as a consumer would (because we have been raised to consume, haven’t we?).

If all we had was the first story, we might assume the point of the story would be something like this:

“A man finds a pearl. Thinks to himself, ‘Hey, the pearl is worth some money, so I will risk, sell everything I have to get this thing that’s worth more.’ He then takes a risk, but it pays off because he buys a field that is worth more than the stuff he sold.”

This is the assumed interpretation I had my whole life.

And, I think it may be fair to believe that some in Jesus’ audience would have had the same one: “Jesus is talking about a smart business move.” “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”

But then Jesus tells another parable. It’s only a sentence. But, in one sentence, Jesus upends EVERYTHING we might assume about that first parable. In fact, if this second parable is true, then Jesus is not talking about consumerism at all, but something totally different. Something far more risky.

Here’s that second parable again:

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Now, allow yourself to ask the questions:

If a merchant sells everything he has for one pearl, what is he left with?

Just that pearl.

What else does he have left?

Nothing.

You can’t eat a pearl.

You cannot feed a family with a pearl.

A pearl cannot provide shelter from the rain.

If you sold everything you have for the pearl, well, all you would have left is … the pearl. That’s … it.

Now, you’re thinking what I’m thinking: “Well the pearl has great value. You could sell the pearl.” True. But then what wouldn’t you have anymore? The beautiful pearl. And having the pearl is the whole point.

So it’s either “all your stuff” or “the pearl.”

Jesus seems to be laying before his first audience (and now us) a choice.

And then, he just leaves that choice … and all the tension that surrounds it

… … … … … … … … … hanging there.

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