I have to admit that neither parable in today’s gospel is particularly close to my personal experience. I have never worn any kind of jewellery. I actually used to use a metal detector, but only for a short period of time and searching for a very specific ‘treasure’, namely for arrows I had shot into the turf in the early days of learning archery. I’m a practical man and things I have must offer practical use, otherwise they are clutter and I’m happy to get rid of them. So, in order to understand properly these two parables, I had to do some research.
Pearls, like gems and any other kind of jewellery, play mainly a decorative role. Jewellery enhances and underlines the natural beauty of the wearer and adds a touch of glamour. In the not-so-distant past, before the era of mass-produced cheap imitations, jewellery was also a symbol of status. Finally, buying gems, pearls and jewellery was a relatively safe investment, easier to turn quickly into cash than real estate investments. So, we have three aspects symbolised by pearls: a safety net, a symbol of status and the quality of life enhancer. Three things we all crave.
The other part of the story is ‘the kingdom of heaven’. It appears as something so precious and valuable that it’s worth selling everything else and investing in this one thing. What is this ‘kingdom of heaven’ then? The full explanation exceeds massively the scope of this sermon, so I’m going to sketch it out to give us an overall picture.
The first words of Jesus’ public ministry recorded by St Matthew are these: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (4:17) So Jesus proclaims the kingdom as an existing reality, not something reachable in the future. The way to become part of the kingdom is by repentance. The Greek word, metanoeinte goes much deeper than a superficial change in moral standing. Repent is a call to change your mindset, your way of thinking, your perspective, a re-evaluation of your priorities. Any moral change then comes about as a result of the metanoia. It’s a risky example and not completely relevant, but the Prime Minister’s brush with death by Covid-19 has dramatically changed his views on the pandemic, from frivolously lackadaisical to gravely serious. Metanoia is an even deeper change of heart and – more importantly – it’s a positive change. We tend to think about repentance as the rejection of evil – which is obviously true – but in Jesus’ teaching it is more about choosing better over good; it’s about aiming ever higher.
Today’s two parables precisely call us to grow in trust in Jesus, who is basically the kingdom of heaven incarnate. He is our most reliable safety net, He restores us to our original status as God’s sons and daughters, He ultimately enhances our lives. When we rely on Jesus we are free to use those pearls of ours – material, human and spiritual – for the good of others and thus build up ‘an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.’ (Preface for Christ the King)