One of the memories of high school is reading John Steinbeck’s classic work, “The Pearl.” The story centers on the poor Mexican pearl diver, Kino. During one ordinary workday, he finds the “pearl of great price,” a huge pearl as “perfect as the moon.”
Coming like an answer to his prayer, Kino tries to sell the pearl to pay for the medical needs of his sick son. Soon greed gets the better of Kino, and what started as a tremendous blessing intended for a good cause ends up to be a source of tragedy and pain for those he loves and for himself.
This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the images of the “pearl of great price” and the “treasure buried in the field” as images of the kingdom of heaven. These have very subtle messages in the details of Christ’s use of the imagery.
In the story of the man who discovers the treasure buried in the field, most commentaries point out that it was not an accidental discovery. Rather, he discovered it in the course of doing his daily work. Presumably he was farmer or a laborer who had to work in the field.
Treasure in our daily life
This is the first point for reflection: We discover our treasure in our day-to-day life and in our daily grind, so to speak. Yes, we search for meaning, but we also work hoping to find the meaning in or through work.
As Scottish scripture scholar William Barclay cites: “‘Raise the stone and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and I am there.’ When the mason is working on the stone, when the carpenter is working with the wood, Jesus Christ is there.”
Once found, we dedicate everything to this treasure, to this meaning in our life. This is the second point for reflection. The treasure lies in our inspiration to be able to dedicate ourselves to someone or something, a task or enterprise, which gives meaning to our life.
You have the famous story of the two workers building the Cathedral of Chartres. One saw it as tedious manual labor that provided food and sustenance for him and his family, yes, but devoid of meaning. The other saw it as all these, but found meaning in it: “I am building God’s cathedral!”
The beloved Jesuit saint Alphonsus Rodriguez was a humble porter in a Jesuit house—the equivalent of a doorman. He saw in each person he opened the door for the Holy Family looking for shelter. In the simplest of tasks he discovered the greatest treasure, welcoming Christ himself with Joseph and Mary.
Approximations of God’s kingdom
The second image of the “pearl of great price” needs some contextual grounding. In the ancient world, the pearl was a treasured possession not just for its value, but for its beauty. It was sought after and people went through all the trouble to own a beautiful pearl.
Given this context, one can imagine how this “pearl of great price” is a great treasure not just in the material sense, but almost in a soulful sense following the Greek tradition—the good, the true and the beautiful.
These images of the treasure and the pearl of great price are but approximations of the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes I think it is not what we gain that really brings us an experience of heaven, but what we are willing and are ready to give back.
The first two readings this Sunday—Solomon asking for an understanding heart to govern wisely and righteously (1 Kings 3: 5, 7-12) and Paul’s letter to the Romans (8: 28-30) assuring us that “all things work for good for those who love God”—help us deepen our reflection.
Solomon is given the “treasure” and the “pearl of great price” in the eyes of God and man. He inherits the throne of his father, David, to rule over a vast, prosperous and powerful kingdom. Yet he does not allow the worldly elements get the better of him—at the start, at least. He humbly acknowledges his “shortcomings,” his youth and inexperience.
We know how Solomon turned out to be a great and wise king, yet in the end his heart turns away for God. His wisdom and nobility are soon overcome by other worldly “distractions.” His many wives and concubines pull him away from his God and lead him more and more to idolatry.
After his reign, upon his death, the United Kingdom of Israel is divided into the northern and southern kingdoms. Like Kino, what started as a blessing filled with good intentions ended tragically.
‘Antidote’ to hubris
The stories of Solomon and Kino are what you might consider as the recurring themes across time and culture; the archetypal stories of goodness overcome by greed, the hubris, as the Greeks would call it.
The key perhaps—or the antidote—is in the Letter of Paul to the Romans: “All things work for the good of those who love God.”
The key is in what we give back. As Ignatius of Loyola put it, loving God is “returning love for love.” The real treasure, the real “pearl of great price” is what we give back out of gratitude from discovering how blessed we are, how loved we are, how good life, others and God has been to us.
What we give back out of gratitude and out of love is the treasure and the pearl of greatest price as this leads us to Christ who is our greatest treasure, our pearl of greatest price.