HomeCommentaryThe pearl of great price

The pearl of great price

(A different view)

Once there was a woman who was walking on the seashore. Unexpectedly, she saw a bottle that seemed to be speaking. Its top was tightly covered with a cork. She took out the cork and, tadaaaaan, came out a Genie.

The conversation went this way:

Genie: “Out of gratitude for liberating me, you are allowed to make two wishes and it will be given to you.”

Lady: “I know these stories. I know there are supposed to be three wishes. Why only two this time?”

Genie: “Have you not heard of inflation? Think long and hard before you make your first wish.”

At first, the woman wanted to be noble, wishing not for herself but for the less fortunate.

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Lady: “I want the kilo of rice to be reduced to 20 pesos, and gold to be distributed to the poor.”

Genie: “That’s impossible. I am good but not that good. I cannot fulfill the promises made by someone else. Now you only have one more wish. Wish for something more doable.”

The lady thought harder than she did at first. This time, she thought of making a wish for her own.

Lady: “I want a husband whose interest in sports cannot be greater than his interest in me and in the family, a husband who is not embarrassed to wash clothes and dishes, and who thinks not only of his own satisfaction but my own too.”

Genie: “That is even more difficult. Maybe, we just have to go back to your first wish.”

What indeed, if someone powerful will tell us that we can ask anything and it will be granted? What would be our wish? Whatever our answer will reveal what our values are, the values that we hold so dear that they would subordinate all other values.

In today’s first reading, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon did not ask for riches nor for a long life but for an understanding heart.

Becoming king at a young age, he felt his inadequacy and thus he wanted wisdom above all. Surely, his values were in the right place.

(On a personal note, I feel the enormity of the challenge whenever I sit at the confessional box and I make Solomon’s prayer my own, “…give me wisdom that sits by your throne and do not reject me from among your servants. For I am…a man who is weak and short-lived and little understanding of judgment and of laws…”)

Is there any parallelism between the prayer of Solomon and what the merchant did in today’s Gospel? This merchant was searching for pearls, and when he saw a pearl really valuable, he sold everything he has to buy it.

The merchant is often presented as the epitome of Christian discipleship, sacrificing everything for the reign of God. But here I would deviate from the usual interpretation and follow one exegete, Amy-Jill Levine in her thought-provoking book “Short Stories by Jesus.”

Indeed, in the parable as presented by the evangelist, the merchant is someone a contemporary disciple must emulate. But here’s the rub: Is it possible to go behind the meaning conveyed by the evangelist and go to the meaning Jesus originally intended?

The question is still what is it that we consider the supreme value that would subordinate all other values. As far as the evangelist is concerned, the merchant is someone with the right answer.

But is it possible that Jesus criticized this merchant for his valuation of the pearl? In ancient times and even today, pearls are symbols of ostentatious displays of wealth. They are jewels that only the super-rich can have. Ninety-nine percent of humanity will not be able to see a pearl in their lifetime.

The Book of Job teaches that “the price of wisdom is above pearls.” The First Letter to Timothy instructs women to dress themselves modestly and not to wear pearls.

In view of all these considerations, is it not possible that the merchant is not the bida (protagonist) but the kontrabida (antagonist) who simply seeks pearls? What is he to do with the pearl? How much money could have been given to the poor instead of buying the pearl?

Contrast the merchant with so much money buying a pearl which does not in any way alleviate the plight of the poor on the one hand, and Jesus feeding five thousand with just five loaves of bread and two fishes on the other hand.

Solomon wanted wisdom, not for himself but to serve the people. The merchant simply wanted to have this pearl. Wisdom is more lasting. Pearls can be stolen.

I often tell young people (including my nieces): Develop your intelligence and your integrity, rather than physical appearance which is extremely fleeting.

I also tell seminarians aspiring to be priests. “Do not make priesthood the end-all. If you simply aspire to be a priest, what else is there to aspire for once you get ordained? Rather, aspire to be a good priest, always in the service of God’s reign. In that way, the aspirations will be open-ended.”

Solomon is our model, not the merchant.

Fr. Ramon D. Echica is the Dean of Studies of the San Carlos Major Seminary. He obtained his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in 1998.

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