What do you value?
A woman lost a diamond earring while she was taking it off prior to going to bed. She looked for it quite a while before giving up in frustration. She told her husband about it the next morning, and he looked around and found it several minutes later. She was amazed and asked how he did that. He replied that it was a matter of perspective: she was looking for an earring, but he was looking for a thousand dollars.
Today, Christ is asking us what value we put on things in our lives. This is an important question, since modern technology has made so many more things possible than ever before, and because as the most wealthy nation on earth we can afford more things. A celebrity decluttering expert has grown famous asking the question when deciding what to get rid of from your life, “Does it bring me joy?” This is from a secular perspective, but since joy is the same word God promises his people upon the birth of His Son, among other occasions, it can also be another way of asking the question that Jesus presents in today's parable: can we find the pearl of great price.
The first reading is a story we've all heard from our childhood. The stories of Solomon and his wisdom in dealing out justice to his people make great tales for children, easy to understand and yet powerful in their lessons. So we all remember that God granted him wisdom – the greatest wisdom ever – in acknowledgment of his humility to have sought this for God's chosen people. But what type of wisdom? The ability to always win in games of trivia? No, it is the “understanding so that you may know what is right” [1Kings 3:11]. In other words, it is a moral wisdom, an understanding of what God wants, how he wants us to live, an “understanding heart” [v. 9].
The Old Testament goes on to detail what that wisdom meant to a king of Israel. David and Solomon were rulers when Israel was at its pinnacle as a nation, building the temple which God had promised. But that wisdom did not extend to other matters, and Solomon will eventually worship other gods at the behest of some of this foreign wives, and engage in other sins, so that the Kingdom of Israel splits into two after his reign and most future kings of both kingdoms were horribly greedy despots, found by God to be unworthy. The humility of the young Solomon, despite the wisdom that God had blessed him with, was lost as he grew older, and with it an appreciation of what was truly valuable.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is also addressing value and the wisdom to see it. However, if one really thinks about each parable, there are some underlying lessons that one may miss if quickly glossed over. For instance, the first man found a treasure. Why didn't he just take it? Sure, this would have been stealing, but the owner obviously didn't know it was there and would not have missed it, since he sold the land to the man without removing it. What is Jesus telling us about the treasures from God that we find in life, and how we should go about acquiring it? A similar question can be asked about the pearl of great price. The man sold possessions to buy it, so afterward he had a pearl worth the same amount of money. He was no wealthier, at least in terms of what the world values, their monetary value. He was wealthier in his mind, since he now had something that he truly valued. Christ is therefore asking us some hard questions. Do we have the wisdom to recognize the pearl when we see it? Are we willing to do what it takes to get it? And maybe most importantly, what is the true value of the pearl when we find it?
My wife has always loved a song that I had heard before we met but to which had not paid much attention, that is until she asked that it be played at our wedding reception. It is a song that has been done by several artists, but the most famous, and first, was by Louis Armstrong. It is a powerful and beautiful song about what we value in life. The second verse, for instance, shows the wisdom of seeing the world for the beauty that is God's creation: “I see skies of blue and clouds of white / The bright blessed days, the dark sacred nights / And I think to myself / What a wonderful world.”
I think that this particular song and artist have something to say to us today. Louis Armstrong could have been a very bitter person when he recorded this song at age 67. Born in poverty and raised in the South during Jim Crow, he lived the tough life of a musician because that was what he loved to do and was the “pearl” that God gave him. He was cheated by numerous people in show business, but he would personally make sure that the session artists in the orchestra who played on “What a Wonderful World” were paid the overtime they were due because of delays in recording which were not their fault. He completed very little formal schooling, and yet agreed to represent the United State as a cultural ambassador during the Eisenhower presidency. Every time that Satan gave him an excuse to be bitter and curse God, he chose to have an understanding heart. Despite being treated his whole life as a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin not just in the South but in northern cities as well, he could sing: “The colors of the rainbow / So pretty in the sky / Are also on the faces / Of people going by / I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do / They're really saying, I love you.” Armstrong was not the songwriter for this song, and therefore did not pen the words, yet you can feel when you listen to them that he believes them, and his life bore them out in action. For instance, even though baptized a Roman Catholic in New Orleans and raised a Baptist, he wore a Star of David his whole life on a chain around his neck in memorial to a Jewish family that befriended him in his childhood and supported him, buying him his first horn when he wanted to learn to play. This tells me that he recognized a treasure found in his life, and always wanted to remember it.
My wife picked this song for the perfect moment at our reception, when we danced with our parents. It was a statement of what we value and what has made our lives wonderful: each other in the wedding vows we had just taken, and our families, who got us to that point.
Our special parish intention for this week is a focus on the special needs of the elderly. As we all get older, we hopefully gain wisdom, which is to say we've figured out the true value of things and found some pearls. Our elders often want to tell the younger people about these lessons to help them, and to reminisce. It is often too bad that when we are young we are so busy running around we think we don't have time to listen to this wisdom. This of course sets up the common tragedy of having a set of people who want to be listened to and have something to say and another set that doesn't spend the time to listen. The elderly face many problems: medical issues, living on a fixed income, transportation, and the like. Christ today is asking us to treat the elderly in our lives as a treasure we find in the field and not another task to be completed in our already hectic schedule.
I would like to say that I have the wisdom to recognize the treasure that God has put in the field in which I find myself, and with joy I go and buy the field when I have the chance. I hope that as I grow older I get closer to that ideal, but I still struggle. But Solomon struggled. Peter denied his pearl three times on Holy Thursday. Louis Armstrong was married four times. Clearly the wisdom of these otherwise exemplary people was still subject to human frailty. As we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let us ask God for his continued blessing on us, not only providing the treasures of the world, but the wisdom to appreciate their true value. God truly has make this a wonderful world, and it is up to us to realize it.