17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By: John Solheid
Finding the Pearl of Great Price in a Technological Age
In today’s Gospel reading, we encounter the end of the long and famous chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus teaches the crowds in parables and then explains the parables to his disciples in private. I would like to highlight this motif, namely the different ways Jesus addresses the “crowds” and his disciples. But first, I would like to say a few things about what is, perhaps, the most well-known verse from today’s reading, the pearl of great price. We are told that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for expensive pearls and upon finding the best one, he sells all that he has and buys the pearl. What is this “pearl” about which Jesus is talking? Jesus emphasizes that it is similar to the kingdom of heaven itself, which, upon finding, the disciples would sell all that they have and buy that pearl. It is clear that Jesus is directing the disciples towards their proper object of attention: the kingdom of heaven.
There is another way to understand this pearl, however. In his commentary on the Gospel According Matthew, the third-century biblical scholar and theologian, Origen of Alexandria, refers to treatises on stones that discuss the different kinds of pearls, their provenance and their making. This treatise suggests that the continent of India has the highest quality of pearls, which are formed is mussels, or snails, who live in large groups with a leader who produces the best pearl of them all. In a brilliant interpretation of this passage, Origen likens the pearl protruding from the shell of the mussel with Christ emerges through the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament). He then says that this merchant looking for beautiful pearls is like the person searching for truth amidst different kinds of teachings, like the one searching for the best pearl out of the crowd of mussels. The merchant finds this truth in none other than Christ himself, conceived in the mussels (the law and prophets), who brings us the truth from heaven. What Origen is getting at here is that this beautiful pearl is Christ himself revealed to us in the scriptures.
I am sure that the science of pearls has advanced since this treatise was written. Nevertheless, Origen’s interpretation is incredibly relevant today, as many of us likely experience competing commitments that often distract us from the Word of God. These competing interests have become manifest particularly in our current circumstances in which we are having to navigate two pandemics. The first pandemic is the obvious one of COVID-19. The other pandemic to which I refer is the vitriolic state of our social discourse, particularly in light of the riots taking place in the United States, and the seeming inability of many people to set aside their political affiliations and have respectful dialogue. The one common denominator in these pandemics is the internet, especially social media.
We live in an age in which we have vast amounts of information at our fingertips, a reality which one might think would foster a more informed public. Rather, our technological age has made crowd mentality and retreat into political groups the norm, and we are now seeing the implications: increased violence in the streets, destruction of neighbourhoods, the abolition of local police departments as in Minneapolis, etc.
Amid these circumstances, it is so very difficult for us to determine what the truth is. What does appear clear, however, is that crowds are taking control not only of our social discourse, but also our spiritual and ethical commitments as Christians, commitments easy to forget amidst the turbulence of our global and technological world. This leads me back to the motif I mentioned at the beginning. If we pay attention to the narrative context of our reading, we notice a feature that
emerges as an important motif in the Gospels, especially Matthew: Jesus interacts with his disciples differently than he does when he speaks to the crowds, as we see in Matt. 13:36 when Jesus stops speaking to the crowds and goes into his house where he explains the meaning of the parables to his disciples in private.
If we remember that the gospels were written decades after the death and resurrection of Christ, we can infer that the writers of the Gospels understood the danger of crowds. At the beginning of the Passion narrative, when Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, he is greeted by the crowds who were laying down palm branches before him. However, these same crowds quickly turn against Jesus after the pharisees and scribes persuade them to demand the release of Barabbas, who was in prison for insurrection and murder, rather than Jesus (Matt. 27:20; Mk: 15:11; Cf. Lk. 23:18-25; Jn. 18:38-40). It is plausible to suggest that the writers were aware of crowd behaviour when they narrated his teaching of the parables. How would the crowds have responded if Jesus had explained the parables to them? Would they have turned against him? Would he have been “cancelled” to use today’s diction? That is very possible given the demanding nature of his teaching.
At any rate, crowd behaviour does not foster an ethos of discernment. Discernment, or more specifically, the discernment of spirits, is an ancient practice, perhaps most associated with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Don’t tell the Jesuits this, but the practice predates them by over fifteen hundred years. In the Greek philosophical tradition, particularly Stoicism, the practice of discerning stimuli (images, thoughts, etc.), in order to distinguish what is good from what is bad, true from false was a central practice to living a good life. This entered the Christian intellectual tradition through figures like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and the father of monasticism, Antony the Great. The practice of the discernment of spirits is not only designed to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, true from false, but is also a practice that challenges us to discern what the proper object of our affection is. Today, we read that it is the beautiful pearl, the kingdom of heaven, or Christ himself. It’s not political parties or ideological groups.
When we find ourselves bombarded with massive amounts of information, whether on the news, in newspapers, or on social media, and we are not sure how this information relates to our Christian commitments, we can follow the example of Solomon from the first reading at Mass today. God appears in a dream to Solomon, who had just succeeded David as King, and asks Solomon what he would like from him. Notice that Solomon does not ask for power, or even peace, but “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish between right from wrong” (1 Kgs. 3:9). Solomon simply prays for an understanding heart, which was the biblical term for the intellectual faculty of the soul, what the Stoics called the hēgemonikon (think “hegemony”), the faculty of the soul responsible for mental and moral decision making. Solomon reminds us to pause for a moment and to ask God for the gift of understanding so that our commitments may informed by an understanding of right and wrong, true and false, an understanding of God’s will for us. As those who are searching for the pearl of great price, may we follow Solomon’s lead and ask God to illuminate our hearts so that we too can find and grasp the pearl hiding in the midst of the vast sea of life’s circumstances.