As a child, I wore necklaces made of pop beads, which resembled pearls but were plastic. Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a real pearl—so valuable that a man trades everything he owns to possess it. This is an apt comparison. Pearls were expensive. Most of them came from the Persian Gulf, where men risked their lives to collect them from oyster beds. A diver, nose clipped closed with turtle shell and ears plugged with wax, sank to the bottom, weighted with a stone. Using fingers protected by leather caps, he filled a basket and then tugged on a rope to signal he was ready to be pulled up. Pearling was the chief industry of the United Arab Emirates until the Japanese invented cultured pearls.
In the time of Jesus, pearls were lovely and mysterious. Pliny, a first-century writer, claimed that pearls rose to the surface and swallowed dew to make them lustrous. It was proposed that lightning striking an oyster produced a pearl.
A young woman I know paid for a pearl necklace with money saved for schooling. Her mother was disappointed to say the least, especially because the pearls were not worth nearly as much as her daughter paid.
Like the merchant in the parable, all of us are seeking our heart’s desire, what will make us completely happy. Our “pearl” might be goals such as winning the lottery, appearing on Jeopardy!, being Miss America, or finding the perfect mate. Obtaining them is good. The young woman was happy with her pearl necklace. She didn’t realize what she was missing.
Spending our life focused on lesser or imitation pearls is wasting it. The pearl par excellence is possessing God. He alone is worth sacrificing everything for. The Trappist Thomas Merton wrote, “Anyone with a grain of faith realizes that to have God and nothing else besides is to have everything in Him.”
An alternate interpretation of this parable is that Jesus is the merchant and we are the pearl. Jesus definitely gave his all for us as Scripture points out: “You were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). Jesus “emptied himself…and became obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:7–8). That’s how precious we are to him!
You probably know people who are looking for happiness in the wrong places, or people who don’t realize what St. Augustine said to God, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” They don’t know what they are missing.
RCIA programs culminate in becoming new members of the Church or simply being rejuvenated in the faith. They are your chance to offer someone the pearl of great price. Who can you invite?