A Pearl of Great Price

Matthew 13:

44. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.

45. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:

46. Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Some are Called. Most are not; they are not allowed to have faith. When members of the Religious Right get all worked up because witches exist or atheist openly walk the earth, I want to shake them and shout, “Read the Bible! This is part of God’s plan!” But I shouldn’t, for the mistake is easy to make: the Plan is neither obvious nor easy to accept.

Luke 9:

57. And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.

58. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

59. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.

60. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.

61. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.

62. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.

Mark 9:

42. And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.

43. And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

44. Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

45. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

46. Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

47. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:

48. Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

49. For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.

50. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.

Luke 9:

23. And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

24. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.

25. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?

26. For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father's, and of the holy angels.

This arrangement seems most unfair. Why should people be denied – through no action of their own – the benefits that come from being a [true] Christian? The question is huge, requiring many pages to provide a complete answer. I start with this: The Call is not a free pass to an eternal Disneyland in the sky. The Call is not a winning lottery ticket. Preachers who paint such a rosy picture of faith and becoming a Christian are cherry-picking the scriptures.

Jesus likened the Kingdom to a pearl of great price; the merchant in the parable above sold everything he had to acquire said pearl. Hopefully, this is an exaggeration for emphasis, else I am in big trouble. Even if so, however, that which is exaggerated for emphasis should be given heed.

“Great price” can imply either expensive to obtain or great value to the customer. It could mean both, and I think it does in the quote above. Jesus was offering something incredibly valuable – eternal life and more – something you won’t find at Wal Mart or even Neiman Marcus, for any price. In terms of value/cost, the offer is a huge bargain. Indeed, its value is more than we could rightfully earn. The Call is indeed a valuable gift.

But it is a give akin to a 90% off coupon, not a free pass. In earthly terms, the remaining price of entry into the Kingdom is significant – possibly huge. Jesus certainly described it as huge. He likened it to carrying around a cross. He likened it to chopping off various body parts!

Anyone who preaches the uselessness of works or “once saved always saved” needs to take another look at these passages. Jesus repeatedly spoke of rewards, treasure in heaven, and punishment for iniquity. Christians have work to do! The Call is an offer to buy something of incredible value at a steep discount, but that something is still expensive.

Then again, the aforementioned preachers can point to certain scriptures to support their claims. We have apparent contradictions! To resolve, we must look closer at the nature of The Call.

The Nature of The Call

Why have people undergo various trials without certainty of reward in order to grant them an eternal vacation in the sky? Why create billions of people for the purpose of eternal torment? These very questions are incorrect. They presume a set of afterlife options different from those found in the Bible.

Matthew 25:

19. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.

20. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.

21. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

22. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.

23. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

24. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

25. And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.

26. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

27. Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

28. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

Let us first look at the rewards for the faithful. As I said before, The Call is not an offer of an eternal vacation. It is a job offer. Read the parables. Many of them are about servants left unsupervised by their master for a time. Bad servants get punished. Good servants get rewarded with…more responsibilities! In most jobs pay goes up with responsibility, whether you are talking about ancient civil servants or modern corporate executives, so increased responsibility is indeed a reward. The Bible gives examples of this phenomenon, such as the stories of Joseph and Daniel. But the reward is not an eternal vacation.

If Jesus were preaching today, he might liken The Call to an offer to work at an under-funded Silicon Valley startup. The work is hard, the hours long, and payment is mostly in stock options – which could expire worthless. Taking such a job requires faith; the major rewards are in the future and uncertain. But taking such a job is also a commitment to work – hard work. Slack off and those options will expire worthless.

This simile is imperfect. The Kingdom in Heaven is not a startup, and the Bible says repeatedly that it will not fail. Nonetheless, from our perspective the simile works pretty well. The Kingdom from Heaven on earth was a small, shaky startup in Jesus’ day. Today, the organization is considerably stronger, but its connection with Heaven is more subject to doubt. Jesus was performing blatant miracles; today, we need more faith. (Hopefully, this explains the extremely high standards Jesus set for his disciples. Christians today wallow in comparative luxury, but must act on less evidence of future reward.)

A better modern simile might be: The Call is like a low-paying internship at a very high paying stock brokerage. Invitations are few, and those who are invited are expected to work very hard for little pay to prove themselves worthy of getting the real job. (Think of the recent Will Smith movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” It is well worth renting if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Once again, both faith and works are called for: faith, in that the real payment comes after the internship; works, in that only those interns who work hard and show real promise get the real job that follows.

This simile also meshes with those quotes stating that we cannot earn our way into the Kingdom. In many instances internships cost the employer more than the intern generates in revenue. Most of the work is for the intern’s benefit, to gain experience enough to become productive.

Count the Cost

Luke 14:

28. For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

29. Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,

30. Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

31. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?

32. Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

33. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.

Matthew 7:

19. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

20. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

21. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

22. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

23. And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Put yourself in the shoes of an employer offering internships for positions that could lead to big responsibilities and pay. Which would annoy you more:

  • A promising potential intern who turns down the offer?
  • An intern who accepts the offer and then goofs off, or even works against the company’s interests?

If the quote in the sidebar is any indication, God is more angered at the second. Declaring oneself a Christian should not be lightly done! And as I said before, Christians should not drag the unwilling into the Church.

The Pearl of Great Price has thus two types of costs: works/sacrifices and the risk of greater divine wrath if you fail to follow through. We turn next to the subject of divine wrath, including a look into the fate of non-Christians. After covering the subject of divine punishments, we will return to the nature of this internship and look at the jobs Christians are being trained to do.