Joshua Grace has Polish and Irish roots. He and Martha live with their two teenage daughters in the Delaware River watershed, specifically Philadelphia. He has been pastoring with Circle of Hope since 2004 and recently graduated with an MAIS from the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS). He loves music, gardening, playing baseball and liturgical protest.
This piece was submitted as part of The Mennonite’s series on being shaped by Scripture. Read more reflections in the October issue of The Mennonite magazine.
I’ve been following Jesus for my entire adult life and all but the first month has been rooted in the same faith community: Circle of Hope in Philadelphia. The Holy Spirit has been using two of Jesus’ parables to speak to some of my growth edges, pointing right to questions I ask God regularly. What can I do with my pain? What can I do about my fragile sense of belonging ? I hope my musing can offer some spiritual ibuprofen for your journey, especially if you struggle with trust, resentment, alienation, apathy, compassion fatigue or identity.
Matthew 13 moves the scene from Jesus speaking to crowds on a boat to a presumably smaller conversation in a house with his disciples. He does more detailed explaining of both his pedagogy and the meaning of some of the parables. I love parables because they have implicit meaning and require reflection and interpretation as well as application. Dialogue makes the lessons come alive. By using this communication method, Jesus engages the imagination of the listeners to reflect on several levels.
In the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, a person surprisingly buys a field rather than walking away with the provenance. In the parable of the merchant in search of a pearl, a merchant gives up their livelihood to enjoy this beautiful thing they’ve discovered. These two parables illustrate Christ’s call to wholeheartedly embrace the Kingdom of Heaven (the reign of the skies, the reign of God, the divine re-ordering of reality happening right now). They have quite different set-ups, showing disparate lifeways becoming convergent paths into the Way of Jesus. In both parables, Jesus illustrates the cost or sacrifice of the disciple. In both, Jesus gives us a rather curious ending to consider.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, they went and sold all that they had and bought it.” Matthew 13:45-46
Let’s examine the parable of the merchant in search of fine pearls. Even more so than today, in the 1st century Galilean countryside, pearls are rare, expensive and beautiful. Mother of pearl has been a major contributor to the artisan traditions of the region for millennia. Most of the pearls they had seen likely came from the Red Sea, where mollusks would produce the naturally occurring gem. They could not be manufactured or even refined. If someone were to own a pearl, it would often be used as a contemplative tool, evoking wonder. A rich person would also flaunt a pearl as a symbol of wealth. But finding a pearl of great value (likely a certain size, color and roundness), the merchant in Jesus’ story liquidates all their assets–perhaps even all of their possessions–to gain possession of it. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to me.
It’s safe to assume that this new pearl will never be sold, thus its pricelessness becomes simultaneously worthlessness. The merchant is no longer a merchant. The discovery and connection to this beautiful thing has redefined value to the point where personal sacrifice may not know a limit. The pearl is worth everything to the merchant, who has seen many other pearls.
When an irritant (a parasite, usually–the grain of sand story is a myth) works its way into the soft tissue of a clam, oyster or mussel, the mollusk blasts it with defensive fluid. This nacre is discharged layer by layer over time, often creating a perfect sphere of remarkable beauty. Most pearls these days are plastic, glass or are made from irritants placed within the animals. Even in those instances, a mollusk needs to be three years old and the pearl can take three years to become mature. A pearl of value will be found in less than one in 10,000 pearl oysters.
Forgiveness is a way to allow irritants of the past to be transformed into something beautiful and strong. When we forgive, our reflective processes are open and full. Even if the irritant is present, it gets daily doses of God’s love, changing our experience of it. Unforgiveness gives us permission to keep our pain in the present at best, and at worst for the irritant to deform or destroy us. When we hold onto our right to be avenged, we can’t quite allow God’s spiritual nacre to do its work in us. For most of us, holding tight to or neglecting our own pain becomes the very thing that blocks us from understanding the good lessons of the past and appreciating their guidance in the present. Our unforgiveness keeps lessons locked up and our pain remains an irritant. By allowing Jesus into our pain, the Spirit can bring a marvelous demonstration of work we cannot manufacture or replicate.
The merchant of a pearl could be like someone who has seen many processes of what to do with pain. Some are admirable, some have lessons to teach. The merchant saw the naturally occurring gift of transformation offered by Jesus, where not our achievements and strengths, but our wounds, become the places of our greatest beauty. Faith in transformation like this was worth trading in everything else for.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in their joy they go and sell all that they have and buy that field.” Matthew 13:45
Perhaps the actor in this parable is also a seeker. I suspect that while passing through a field owned by someone else, they happened upon the treasure. As a listener, I have to ask myself what I would do in that situation. My first instinct would be to haul away the treasure, and of course use it for good, with at least 10 percent of it going to the Lord’s work.
Could I be missing the field for the sake of the treasure? What kind of joy would it take for me to stop fixating on having treasure and to make a bold investment in land? I’m reminded of the kind of faith that has turned off so many people in Philadelphia (and North America) to Jesus. It’s not just the anti-science faith that shuts down questions rather than encouraging them. I’m talking about the overly individual faith that on the one hand claims access to eternity and on the other hand allows extraction industries to poison the water supplies of our most vulnerable neighbors. It’s the kind of faith that assumes ultimate rightness because of claiming Jesus, while simultaneously ignoring the call to repentance coming from Indigenous peoples fighting for state recognition and land rights or from black folks marching to end to the racist application of laws. This faith rests safely in dominant cultural normativity and comfort while at least tacitly supporting wall-building on the US/Mexico border, perpetual preemptive war abroad and a widening wealth gap. It’s a faith that claims moral superiority, yet is known for its robust lack of compassion to queer people and protection of men who exploit women.
Why not buy the whole field?
If Jesus spoke this to a person in my gentrifying neighborhood, I can easily imagine them bringing up two words: lead smelting. According to a recent Philly.com article, Philadelphia was known as the “World’s Workshop” and once boasted 36 smelters (New York was next with 21, Baltimore and Boston third with 9). Sixteen of them were in my neighborhood and now the over-development of new construction is unearthing lead dust, causing fear and also damaging young children’s brain development. “Buying the field” in Kensington means adopting the problems that you personally didn’t cause.
I think if we are to “buy the field,” it means that sacrifice can get us to the treasure, but that the real treasure lies in the community that comes with the purchase. Your passions and problems now belong to a biome, and the gifts and struggles of that place likewise become yours. Buying the proverbial field challenges me to find a place of belonging where I am part of the larger Movement: I’m consciously connected to this land and the people of this land. I don’t own it all in the sense that I’m responsible to make it all better or I’m condemned, but rather I’m invited to grow into fullness as I co-mingle in the community of creation as a partner with Jesus.
We don’t have to get it all right in our heads or in practice. Actually, it’s in our limits, mistakes and willingness to change (weakness) that pearls are formed and God’s strength is revealed to all (made perfect). Our sense of belonging cannot be limited to people who we think are getting it right. In this field, we need all the help we can get to be healthy and whole. And why not? There’s enough treasure in it for all to enjoy!
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