It’s a good thing the old days are the old days. Risking your life?—that’s insane! But they did it, right up to the turn on the twentieth century. It was the only way to get them—the only way. They were so rare. They were such things of beauty. You did what you had to.
For some it was not about the object itself, but about what the result of finding it. They were the very poor, or slaves, and they had hopes of finding one big enough that they could say goodbye to their shackles. They risked their life, in order that they might find their life. It was a long shot; only a one in ten thousand chance of finding a pearl at all, let alone one of great value. You can see why it was easier for the one who had nothing, for the slave, to take the risk. Even one chance in 10,000 at life is better than no chance at all. John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl comes to mind, where poor Kino and Jauna, whose sick son was turned away by the village doctor, dived to find a great pearl in order to obtain wealth and have what others had.
But for those who already had, for those who had some semblance of life already, well—those waters were deep, and the dangers were real. Pearl diving isn’t for everyone. And there are other paths to take—broad and wide paths with a gentle slope and plenty of shade.
In the Caribbean slaves who dove for freedom were routinely torn apart by hungry sharks, but the most common death from pearl diving was drowning. Pearl divers were a special breed who had trained their bodies to hold their breath for minutes at a time, allowing them to descend to depths up to 125 feet. That is where the choice oysters are found—the ones most likely to produce the pearl of great value. It seems it is always in the deepest darkest spots that the beauty emerges. One of the techniques used in diving to such great depths is hyperventilation. Before a diver holds his breath he first over breaths (hyperventilates) in order for oxygen to reach its highest possible saturation in the blood. A troubling side effect of this over breathing is an artificial lowering of CO2 in the blood, which is what gives a person the desire to breath. As a result many coming out of dives preceded by hyperventilation experience shallow water blackout. It comes upon them suddenly. They make no sign of struggle. They do not cry out for help. They give no warning. They simply lose consciousness and sink down into the inky abyss.
But still they dove. They greased their bodies to protect from the cold. They put greased cotton in their ears. They plugged their nose tight with a clamp. They held onto heavy rocks to quicken their descent. And they did it all to find the pearl of great value—the single pearl that could change it all. In Japan it was the women who did it, for it was believed that their bodies were more protected by insulating fat, and that their lungs could hold air longer. They were known as the Ama Divers. The tradition of Japanese woman divers is long and venerable—but it has come to a close. There are only a few left who dive, and they do it simply to please the tourists who come to see them.
We can thank one Kokichi Mikimoto for this. He developed a technique for the production of synthetic cultured pearls. ‘Pearl farming’, as it is known, now produces millions of pearls a year. At first they were crude imitations of the real thing, but as farming methods got better the pearls from Mikimoto’s farms became indistinguishable from the natural pearls of the sea.
Suddenly it was no longer necessary for people to risk their lives. Pearls were no longer rare. Their abundance robbed them of their luster. Oversupply became a problem, and prices plummeted. The pearls of great value became pearls of lesser value. The merchants who came looking for pearls were fewer in number. No merchant thought it wise when finding an exceptional pearl to then sell all that he had to buy it. No, there will be another such pearl next month, or next week, or even tomorrow. In order to help, Mikimoto staged publicity events where he burned large quantities of pearls he deemed unfit for the market. He opened up stores in all the major centers of culture and fashion—Paris, New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Shang Hai, Bombay.
In spite of Mikimoto’s refined farming techniques he constantly had to fight off allegations that his pearls were not the real thing but makeshift imitations. Even with the existence of scientific reports that showed no verifiable difference in the farmed and naturally occurring pearls something just wasn’t the same about them—what was it? They were made of the same stuff, they shined just as brightly, they were just as smooth, they held the same shape, they were both born in the belly of an oyster—what made them different?
When Jesus says that “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” he must have been talking about the old days. That’s the problem with much of biblical hermeneutics—it’s seems always about the old days. In the old days there were slaves. In the old days the Japanese men said the women made better divers and they should take the risks. In the old days pearls were rare and you did what you had to. Why, in the old days even merchants had to be careful. In the province of Sulu in the Philippines every pearl of great value discovered by the divers belonged by law to the sultan. Selling them could result in the death penalty for the seller. Granted it was a time long after Christ, but those days still feel like the old days. People in Europe paid big money for illegal pearls from the province of Sulu. Every pearl came at such cost—“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.” Was this merchant running from the Sultan? Did he know the divers? Had he ever seen a diver pulled lifeless from the murky depths?
What really gives a pearl its great value? Is it not the rare beauty that drives people to risk their lives? People want that beauty against their skin—in their possession—they want to touch it. That is what makes the merchant stop in his tracks, and examine all that he has—house, cars, job, savings, holdings, pension, toys of leisure—and decide that owning the pearl is better than all of those things.
Do you think the merchant in Jesus’ parable is going to turn around and sell the pearl? Do you think what he paid for the pearl he is hoping to get back and then more? Do you think the merchant is hoping to flip a profit? That’s what merchants do right? Or do you think the pearl ‘s magic has mesmerized even the one whose whole life has been the buying and selling of things of great value. How special is this pearl? Did someone die to find it? Was it by sharks, by shallow water blackout, did the Sultan have them killed? Was it found by the last of the venerable Ama divers? Is its color unusual? Is its shape perfect? Is it strangely large? Was it artificially inserted with a pair of surgical tweezers by a white coated lab worker and then thrown into a temperature controlled man made pool along with thousands of other impregnated oysters to grow to maturity under the watchful eye of the scientific pearl farmers just to be shipped to some outlet store in the fashion capital of the world. We are given none of the answers. Parables are purposefully ambiguous—just keep asking, searching, let the glint of the pearl catch your eye too.
And why is it that in the parallel parable, seemingly identical in meaning, the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, but in the case of the pearl the kingdom of heaven is like the merchant? Did you ever notice that? Is the kingdom the object of desire, or is the kingdom the one who desires the object?
And if the kingdom of heaven is like the merchant—are we the pearls? If so, what kind am I? Am I a pearl of great value? Am I still sitting on the floor of the ocean, waiting for the divers that never come any more? Am I sitting on a shelf in a pretentious store in Paris? Or am I a defect that Mikimoto burns for a publicity stunt?
If I am the pearl then I know that in the good old days people died to retrieve me. Risking their lives?—that’s insane! But they did it, right up to the turn on the twentieth century. It was the only way to get them—the only way. They were so rare. They were such things of beauty. You did what you had to.
No need now though. In modern times we have little and big churches that dot the country side and artificially impregnate people with words of the kingdom and throw them into a shallow, temperature controlled pool of discipleship, until they reach maturity. And the divers—they’re long gone. And the merchants complain about the falling prices. And something…well…something is not right.
All the people who desired those pearls beyond anything else are looking at all of us and they are complaining and hurtling accusations are way—“you’re nothing but makeshift imitations.” We deny it. We have scientific reports that show no verifiable difference in the farmed and naturally occurring pearls—we’re just like the first century church, we can recite the early creeds, we pray in Jesus’ name, we proclaim the resurrection, we follow the common lectionary, we love God and neighbor? What’s the difference? “It’s worth it,” we say to them, “sell all you have, come take up your cross, and follow Jesus.” And they just walk away.
They say the faith is nearly dead now in Europe, and that the U.S. is not far behind. I should have got a degree in computers, or the internet. I wonder what I will be doing in thirty years? I’ll be an Ama diver, a relic with a venerable tradition. I will be old and worn then. Maybe I can get a job putting on a show for tourists. I can remind them of the good old days, when finding a pearl meant freedom, and a chance to live, and when people risked death to find life. I can remind them of the time when there were no outlet stores in Paris, New York, and Shang Hai—and when no one passed by a pearl of great value without pondering if it was worth all that they had. I will remind them that things are different today when you can have all your possessions and still have enough liquidity to buy a full string of makeshift imitations. I will even produce my own string, and show them—“See, look what I have, this is why no one dives anymore.” And they will scratch their heads, and hear the faint echo of a forgotten parable, and it will have many meanings, and they will have many questions, and for a moment they will wonder what it was like and then they will snap out of it, shake the dream from their eyes and say, “It’s a good thing the old days are the old days.”
But maybe one in ten thousand will have a different response. Maybe one in ten thousand will linger for a while longer, staring at the oyster brought up from below. And maybe that one, for reasons she can’t explain, will shed a tear for all that has been lost, and she will know something true about this life, from that point forward and for ever more, and she will reject shallow pools and makeshift imitations in order to turn toward the treacherous sea. And she will learn to dive for her life and freedom, and for the life and freedom of others. And the kingdom will live, and the hope of the kingdom will continue. For the kingdom of heaven is just like her. It is like the one who gave up everything for the pearl of great value—and there is no way to fake it. It’s the only way—the only way. You do what you have to do.