A Pearl of Great Price
44 "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field.
45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls.
46 When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything 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 atheists 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.
57 As they were walking along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."
58 Jesus said to him, "Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
59 Jesus said to another, "Follow me." But he replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
60 But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
61 Yet another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to my family."
62 Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
42 "If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.
43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to have two hands and go into hell, to the unquenchable fire.
44 (TEXT OMITTED)
45 If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.
46 (TEXT OMITTED)
47 If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out! It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,
48 where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.
49 Everyone will be salted with fire.
50 Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."
23 Then he said to them all, "If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
25 For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself?
26 For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father 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 gift akin to a coupon for a serious discount, 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 may be 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.
19 After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them.
20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, 'Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.'
21 His master answered, 'Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.'
22 The one with the two talents also came and said, 'Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.'
23 His master answered, 'Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.'
24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, 'Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,
25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.'
26 But his master answered, 'Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn't sow and gather where I didn't scatter?
27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest!
28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten.
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 watching 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
28 For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn't sit down first and compute the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?
29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish the tower, all who see it will begin to make fun of him.
30 They will say, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish!'
31 Or what king, going out to confront another king in battle, will not sit down first and determine whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?
32 If he cannot succeed, he will send a representative while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace.
33 In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions.
19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.
21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the kingdom of heaven — only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
22 On that day, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?'
23 Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!'
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.