In this season of creation, it’s good to remember that Jesus engaged with creation in all sorts of ways. In fact, John tells us that all things were created through the Christ and the incarnation itself – the very birth and life of Jesus – speaks of how God united with creation in the one who was God-in-flesh. And then we might talk about Jesus’ teaching, where he would often talk about God and God’s kingdom by referring to the natural world; often in parables – his sideways stories that would confuse and confound, engage and enthral audiences so they’d have to actually think about what he was saying – something that many religious people don’t always like to do!
Well today – like it or not – I’m going to encourage us to think about two parables or stories that take place in the natural world. We’ll discuss one from Jesus in a minute but first, remembering that God still speaks through people and stories today, I’m going to share one story that I heard in a woodland last month and, with both these stories, I encourage us to consider what they might say to us, each of us, about God, ourselves, and the world.
This first story, then, is an old folk tale, a version of which was told to me by the Out of the Box team at Greenbelt and they, like Jesus, tell stories to create space to breathe, trust, listen, feel, wonder, play and love. They have a distinctive way of telling stories that I think we could engage with as a church but for now, one story they told at Greenbelt went like this…
A girl went for a walk in the forest. And she found…a stick. She played with the stick. She waved the stick around. She threw the stick in the air. Then the stick got stuck in a tree. The girl scratched her head. She decided to throw something to help get the stick down. So she threw her comb up at the stick. But the comb got stuck in the tree. She threw a shoe up to get the stick and the comb down. But the shoe got stuck too. So she threw up a…bin?! A badminton racket! A giraffe…up into the tree. But the bin, the badminton racket, the giraffe, all got stuck too. Then…she saw another stick on the ground. Picked it up. Played with it. And skipped off on her way…
I wonder what you liked about this story.
I wonder what you didn’t like about this story.
I wonder what the story reminded you of.
Let’s go into our groups for five minutes – or put down the script if you’re reading this at home – and consider – What did we like about the story? What didn’t we like? What did the story remind us of?
Okay, this first story was to help get us wondering. So let’s continue that wonderment now as we come to the parables of Jesus. And in the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, we get a slew of parables of creation. Parables of sowers and seeds; weeds and yeast, mustard seeds, trees, fish…and nestled in amongst them is a two-verse tale about a pearl…
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
Hmmm…I wonder what that short sideways story is all about. What do you think?
Sometimes it’s said that Jesus is talking about himself here. That he’s the merchant who gives everything – including his very life – for the sake of the kingdom. Could be that.
Or maybe Jesus is not the merchant but the pearl. That we go about seeking fame, success, money or whatever else but when we truly see Jesus, we can give up everything else for him. Could be that.
And I do believe that at different times, the Holy Spirit can use these stories – can use of all of scriptures – to share with us different things that we might need to hear for that moment, that situation in our lives. So if, today, you need to reminded that, in Jesus, God gave up power and security to take on our flesh, die our death, and rise again, all to show how much is the wonder of God’s love for us and all creation – hear that. Or if you need to hear the challenge to give up your comfort, ego, or refusal to change, for the sake of God’s kingdom, then hear that.
Others of us might not need to hear that today and might see these interpretations of the parable as a little obvious or unimaginative, which doesn’t fit with the general point or form of Jesus’ parables, which are always meant to surprise us and confound expectations. For those people, let me touch on three things:
Firstly – Is there a reason why it’s a ‘merchant’ who sold all he had to own the pearl? Could it have been a King, a fisherman, a widow? Perhaps – like shepherds or tax collectors – the profession of merchants came with certain connotations that we wouldn’t be aware of today. Could well be…after all, in the Jewish ethical-teachings book of Ecclesiasticus, (or Sirach as it’s also known), written shortly before Jesus’ ministry, it’s said that ‘a merchant can hardly keep from wrongdoing’ (Sirach 26:29). Possibly, then, Jesus’ audiences would have sat up and taken notice of the main character in the story and might not have had a positive view of him. How might this interpretation affect our reading of the story?
Secondly – pearls. What was their reputation in First Century Palestine? Hmmm. Now this one is harder to work out. On the one hand, pearls come from oysters – which are not kosher – and, according to Paul at least, women are forbidden to wear them in church (1 Timothy 2:9)…which might be a surprise to the twin set and pearls brigade! So maybe some of Jesus’ first listeners would have been surprised at their mention in this parable.
On the other hand, pearls were well-known in Jesus’ day as being very precious and, in another provocative statement, Jesus recommends not throwing pearls before swine – which some take to mean ‘don’t give what is precious, perhaps even holy, to someone who doesn’t understand its value’. So maybe the pearls in the passage were just meant to symbolize something precious? I wonder how each of these interpretations might skew our understanding of the parable.
Finally – before we’ll have another group discussion – this time with some feedback…let’s take a second to think of the merchant’s actions. He is in search of fine pearls – plural…for what, for whom, we don’t know…but to buy and sell might well be a fair guess – so he’s off to find some fine pearls; finds just one of great value; and sells everything he has to own it. Everything. Is that a generally wise move? Selling everything one has – one’s home, one’s clothing, one’s provisions for yourself maybe even your family – all to purchase a pearl? The pearl can’t offer companionship, nourishment, or heating! So are we to see his actions as heroic or foolhardy? Do they resonate with Jesus’ words about losing one’s life to gain it or with his warning about storing up treasures on Earth?
What are we to take from all this?
Again – that’s not rhetorical!! Let’s think about it again – and discuss if you’re online or sitting next to someone on the bus!!! – as I invite you to think:
- What, if anything, does this story say to you about God, the world, the kingdom?
- What, if anything, does this story say to you about how to live as followers of Jesus?
Well, as ever, the nature of parables means it would go completely against the grain for me to ‘listen to your ideas then correct the heresies’ as one church leader honestly once said to me about their church discussion group!
Instead, let me just share this. I wonder if there’s a link between our two stories today. I wonder whether the story of the girl with a stick tells us how we can get obsessed with something; or we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re losing something so we put all our energy and focus and time into trying to get it back…only later to realize that there are other sticks to be had! Perhaps there’s more abundance in God’s kingdom than we’re aware of.
And I wonder whether the story of the merchant with the pearls says something about what is we are actually looking for. About what’s important, and what’s not. What to keep and what to divest. About what’s a risky investment, and what’s of true value. Perhaps, individually and collectively, we might want to reflect on how, what, and where we’re putting our energies, investing our priorities, making sacrifices. Are we prioritizing God’s kingdom or other ones?
And I wonder whether, beyond all this talk of us seeking and finding, losing and gaining, selling and buying, we might need to remember that it is God who finds us when we feel lost; God who loves us extravagantly, radically, recklessly; God who gives up everything to welcome us home, whether with pearls in our pockets, sticks in our hands, or simply a longing in our hearts. Amen.
Prayers for ourselves and others
In love You created us, and in love You sustain us, day after day. So it is with confidence that we bring our prayers to You, knowing that You hear us, and speak to us too…
This morning, we have reflected on the words of scripture and listen out for your voice. Help us seek what is true, good, life-giving. Help us find our home and our hope in you. Short pause.
We pray too for those of us who seek affirmation or love in unhealthy places. May they instead find their worth in your love. Short pause.
We pray for those of us who suffer hurt, harm or sadness, that they might find healing. Short pause.
We pray for those of us afflicted by situation, state or habit that they might find freedom. Short pause.
We pray for those of us oppressed by life, circumstance or others, that they might find release. Short pause.
We pray for those of us impoverished in terms of wealth, education or lack of compassion, that they might find increase. Short pause.
We pray for those of us who hate, harm and do ill, that they might find their humanity and that of others. That they might repent and seek forgiveness. Short pause.
We pray for all for there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Only ‘us’ and ‘we’. So help us be ever aware of our interconnectedness with all people and all creation. Short pause.
And, knowing that words can never convey all our hopes, fears, needs…we rest in a time of stillness in which we bring to you all our personal prayers, thinking of those known to us who are in particular need today… Short pause.
Gracious God, we search and find and lose and buy and sell and worry.
You love and love and love and love and love. Praise be to you!
We thus bring these prayers together in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, saying, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’
May the One who told stories that would change the world; the One who delighted in creation,
the One who championed the poor, fill us with His Spirit, that we may seek what is truly life-giving,
challenge all that oppresses, and care for God’s world today.
And the blessing of God, Creator, Christ, and Comforter
be with us all, now and evermore. Amen.