I wrote this piece several years ago after an “Aha!” moment. I’d been wrestling with the meaning of two of Jesus’ Kingdom parables–the very brief ones about the treasure hid in a field and the pearl of great price. As metaphors for giving up everything in order to have the Kingdom of God, these terse statements didn’t quite work for me. I kept wondering things like, “Whose treasure was that, buried in the field? Are there ethical concerns there?” “Did the merchant pay fair market value for the pearl?” If he had to give up all he owned in order to purchase it, I picture him standing there with nothing but the pearl, thinking, “Now what?”
It reminded me of the auction scene in Oklahoma!, where the cowboy Curly sells his gun and his horse in order to keep Jud Fry from winning Laurey’s picnic hamper. At the end of the night, all he has is the hamper…and Laurey. And that seems to be enough. As I continued to think about the foolishness of this picture, a new thought began to form in my mind. I wonder if this is what Jesus intended all along.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46 KJV)
Shlomo the merchant walked quickly through the marketplace. His rapid pace and his impressive bearing both hurried lesser folks out of his way. But he could always hear the whispers in his wake, as if the breeze he created with his robes stirred up the old rumors every time.
Such a prosperous man, nu? Well he may appear that way…but what I’ve heard is that, his parents…? They were slaves. No, it’s truth! As I live and breathe…
Outwardly serene, even cold, the merchant heaved an inward sigh. Yes, his poor parents: they worked to earn their own freedom, then slaved on to earn his…and to pay for him to be educated in Greek, Hebrew and Latin. “Fools,” they were called. Lavishing the fruit of so many years’ hardship on their only child. But they ignored those voices. Then it was time to apprentice him to a trade, another expense. Shlomo was intended to be a jeweler, a craftsman in gold, silver and precious gems. Early on it was obvious he had the eye: keen and discerning, seeing every flaw in every stone. He could have made diadems for princes, become a legend of artistry. But Shlomo knew one thing: never would he earn enough to buy one of the gorgeous pieces that he could make for kings. Nor would he be able to set his parents in the kind of comfort they deserved.
So, quietly, he began to horde every shekel and to talk in corners with other craftsmen. Would you like to sell your work in other cities? Would you like someone to get you better quality stones? When his apprenticeship ended, he astonished his master and his family by announcing an entirely new profession.
Shlomo chuckled to himself, remember their reaction. “What are you thinking? You’re a fool! You can’t just decide to become what you are not…”
But foolish or not, he set out on his first buying trip. And returned successful. And went again. He prospered, in fact. His reputation grew, and more and more those who knew of Shlomo would buy gems only from him. Craftsmen with fine work to sell would sidle up to him, hoping to please him with their wares enough that he would condescend to buy from them…and resell at a profit to himself.
His wealth increased alongside his fame. His parents lived, and died, in luxurys they never would have dreamed of for themselves. But Shlomo still pressed on, driven to achieve something that no one could quite put a finger on. It was obvious that he was not content. But what more could he possibly want?
Shlomo knew what he wanted. What he dreamed of, night after restless night. He wanted to find and possess a single blood-red gem without a flaw. He’d heard street talk, tall tales about jewels of enormous size and exquisite beauty. He took dusty side-trips on his journeys, miles of discomfort out of his way, to talk to dealers in stones who were reputed to handle “only the best.” Every time, Shlomo found a flaw. Some defect, however small, which marred the perfection of the stone. Had there never been any perfect gem?
So Shlomo persevered, his hopes fading with the years, although his eyes were still as keen. And then, on a common day, in a common back-alley souk, with heat and smells and voices all around him, he found it: a perfect blood red gem. He stood and stared at it, turning it over and over in his fingers, holding it to the light again and again, afraid to believe in what he saw.
“How much for this?” he asked the dealer, who was smiling quietly, patiently on his bench.
“Ah, respected sir, I don’t know whether you, even you, have wealth enough to purchase that stone…though I have held it back from other eyes so that you could see it first.”
“I thank you for the honor…but the price?”
So much. A price beyond his means, indeed. Perhaps even a bit inflated? But no, for such a perfect stone, there was no question, that was a fair price. What to do?
“How long will you be in this town? Will you stay awhile in my home, so that I may gather enough to buy this stone from you?”
The dealer agreed. And the merchant went to work, not buying now, but selling, hurrying from place to place with the things he had amassed. But as shrewd as Shlomo was at buying jewels, he was no con man when it came to selling his own goods. His camels, his few personal jewels, all went for less than he’d have liked. Frantically, he realized that it would take much more of his assets than he’d imagined.
Over their wine that evening, Shlomo and the dealer talked about the gem. “What would you say to taking all my household furnishings in exchange for the stone?”
“Where would I put such fine things, even to store and resell them? I deal in jewels because they’re small, sir. And–no offense, your home is very fine–but I’m not sure the value of your goods is equal to the stone.”
“No. You’re right. Well…what if I offered my house and the goods? My wardrobe, too…I have far more fine clothes than any man needs. I have a servant. He would be yours also. What say you now?”
“Done! That is an offer I think very fair.” And before the neighbors had time to do more than speculate as to where Shlomo could have gone with only the robe and tunic and cloak on his back, and long before they got the name of the new tenant in the fine house, Shlomo was gone, the beautiful red gem in his hand. And nothing else.
He walked and walked, conscious only of possessing his heart’s desire. Finally, he stopped and looked about him. He’d left the town behind and night was coming down damply on his shoulders. He had no home, no bed, no attendant. No money in his sack, no sack to put it in. No livelihood because no stock in trade and no way to buy any new…except of course for IT. He opened his hand and looked at it gleaming dully in the light of the rising moon. No. He would never sell that.
So. What was he then? It came to him that perhaps he was a fool. And all at once he laughed, and went on laughing as he walked on into the night. When he came to another town, he’d hire himself to some prosperous citizen, as a worthy household slave. Yes. That would be fitting. Clutching his treasure, Shlomo the fool walked on.
“I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish…” — Phil. 3:8
“We are fools for Christ…” — I Cor. 4:10