Saturday, May 5, 2012

That Pearl of Great Price: Pluralism and Inter-Faith Dialogue

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-36; NRSV)

In both of these parables, the Jesus of Matthew portrays two people selling everything they have to buy something. 

The first is just some person who found a treasure. I imagine the character in this story was wandering, traveling, or working and stumbled upon something precious. This precious thing was unknown (or un/undervalued) by whoever owned the field. The main character wants legal rights to this treasure and therefore needs to own the land.

Either this person was poor or this land must have been expensive (perhaps the owner did know about the treasure). The character "sells all [...] and buys that field." I choose to see this language as hyperbole, exaggeration to prove a point. Would anyone really sell everything and then walk naked and homeless to purchase a field?

But the hyperbole prods the mind to wander: how much did this person sell? Land? Home? Livestock? Clothes? Family heirlooms? Food? Tools? Body? Children?

And what is this treasure? Does the person want the treasure to sell it bit by bit and make money or simply to own it? Treasure is like the cake you can't eat and have at the same time. Treasure is for possessing and to selling, but you can't have it and sell it at the same time. You have to do one or the other. If you have nothing, of course you are going to sell it.

The kingdom of heaven is like something for which you give up virtually everything and then sell so that you can have more stuff than you sold to get it.

Jesus's second comparison is similar, but involves a character with a little more depth: this person is a merchant. Merchants buy things in order to sell them. Certainly, this merchant could have been looking for pearls simply to possess, but then Jesus had no reason to mention this person's vocation. This merchant wanted to make money selling pearls. I feel confident in saying this scenario does picture someone selling everything with the intent of buying it and more back.

The comparison is different in each metaphor. In the first, the kingdom of heaven is like the hidden treasure and in the second, the kingdom of heaven is the merchant. In both, the treasure is valuable, because the person sold so much to get a legitimate claim to owning it. Then the person will become wealthier than before by selling this treasure. We all eventually eat the cake. Unlike cake, after using the hidden treasure, the person gains more treasure.

And the treasures gained are the treasures of others. Their money, their valuables in exchange for your valuables. The characters get the treasure and the pearl and it is mutually beneficial for them and those with whom they barter.

I imagine not only an exchange of valuables, but also an exchange of value; not only mutual benefit of economics, but of ideas and ethics. I see these parables allegorically, exchanging religious, political, social, and philosophical ideas. The kingdom of heaven is not just something you want to own exclusively, but something you want to share. The hidden treasure hoarded is not as valuable as the treasure shared and multiplied.

And the same meaning comes when the merchant is the kingdom of heave, because the kingdom of heaven is not a singularity, but something that gathers from the world, growing in complexity and always changing.

The pearls are like the hidden treasure and the kingdom of heaven makes room for those that are the most compelling, those of the greatest price. But even after giving up some ideas to make room for one, that idea, too, is critiqued and sold for others. The kingdom of heaven is one that is ever changing, ever becoming better, and ever searching the world over for pearls. 

All thought is to be critiqued and even one's most dear beliefs must sometimes be sold for other ones. I'm particularly reminded of Meister Eckhart's prayer: "I pray, God, to rid me of God." Or consider John Cobb, Jr.'s suggestion that christocentric belief is self-defeating, for faith in Christ means displacing Christ as the center. Following Christ means abandoning Christ as the only way, i.e., traditional Christianity, for pluralism and dialogue (both inter-faith and dialogue with those of no faith), which can be seen as no Christianity at all (Christ in a Pluralistic Age).

If you started this blog hoping for an exegesis, you have likely been disappointed. I have read myself into and out of these parables. You might say I have been caught in the net of the text, reading something old and finding something new, that is, finding me (cf. Matthew 13:47-52).

Really, it is no wonder that I see in both of these parables something I purport to do: to have no sacred cows in my ideology, no treasure or pearl that I wouldn't give up if need be. I think we all find bits of ourselves in the Bible and art in general, partly because of eisegesis and partly because the pursuit of God, meaning, or Truth is the pursuit of the self, of identity--of ipseity, which is another process involving the bartering of hidden treasures and pricey pearls.

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