I’m not a huge seafood person, but my most recent reading of the Gospel of Matthew has me thinking about clams. Nestled near the end of the thirteenth chapter, after Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven with some of the most recognizable parables in the Gospels – The sower and the seed, The weeds among the wheat, the Mustard Seed, Flour and Yeast – Matthew gives us a few shorter parables from Jesus under the relatively innocuous heading of “More Parables.” Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, or a net thrown into the sea, or even like a pearl of great price. It’s this third parable, only a couple of verses, that had me captivated – what’s so important about a pearl, this product of our aquatic crustaceous friends, that Jesus would mention it, and Matthew would include it in his Gospel?
Why is it that pearls are so valuable, especially this one, which compels the person in this parable to sell all he has in order to buy it? While I’m not a marine biologist, it’s my understanding that there are a few different sorts of pearls; natural pearls, cultured pearls, and imitations. Imitation pearls are man-made, fake pearls. These pearls could be layered mollusk shells, metal coated in a pearlescent substance, or generated through some other industrial process. These wouldn’t have captured the imagination of a pearl merchant, and certainly aren’t worth the high price that Jesus seems to recommend in Matthew’s Gospel. Another form of pearl, and the type that I’d like us to think about, is the natural or cultured pearl. When an irritant, a grain of sand or some other outside material, makes its way into the interior of a clam, it can become layered with fluid over time to create something quite beautiful – a precious pearl. The substance that builds up over time, the very thing that turns the irritant into a work of art, is called the mother of pearl.
Maybe you, like I, have been experiencing some irritants over the past few weeks; unforeseen challenges in our spiritual lives, or roadblocks in prayer with seemingly no way forward, sickness, or the passing of someone close. It can be easy for us to look at our unexpected suffering and challenges and feel like we’re no longer progressing in our spiritual lives, or that we’re just simply treading water, or that there’s no way forward for us. Why, as followers of Christ, are we sometimes faced with such insurmountable trials? Like the rich young man, we may be saying, “Lord, I’ve done all of what you’ve asked me from my youth, what more do I need to do to inherit the kingdom?” It’s the humble clam that’s made me remember that my challenges and suffering can be transformed into something beautiful, not through our own power, but through the intervention of Jesus
I’d like to propose that Mary, the Mother of God, serves in our lives as the Mother of Pearl, as the catalyst we can look to for hope amidst our challenges. Mary is a model who prompts us to recognize and open ourselves to the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Her Son. Mary is no stranger to suffering, to challenges, or to irritants. She joined herself to the suffering of her son, and if Mary – the preeminent disciple, the Mother of God, the one who sold everything to buy that field – participates in the suffering of Christ, should we really find it shocking when we’re faced with unexpected difficulties, challenges, or unforeseen roadblocks in our spiritual journey to become more like Jesus? Even at the beginning of her maternal mission Mary gets a taste of the affliction and rejection that her son will endure – she gives birth to Jesus without the opportunity to provide a warm place for his delivery, far from the safety of her home. The message of the nativity, beautiful and tender, foreshadows the message of the cross. This is the message that Mary keeps and ponders in her heart, and comes to understand more fully over time as her family progresses toward the crucifixion – irritation and suffering is transformed into beauty through the power of the cross.
If we’re not careful, if we don’t strive to keep and ponder God’s salvific activity every day, we run the risk of overlooking the deeper meaning of the events in our lives. Mary, the Mother of Pearl, reminds us that God is always trying to teach us something, he’s always trying to bring about that pearl in our lives, and sometimes especially through the irritants, the roadblocks, and the challenges. Mary, the first and perfect disciple of Jesus, reminds us that God knows us, He sees us for who we truly are, and He loves what He sees. God, the Holy Spirit, is active in your life, right now, at this moment. He’s preparing for you pearls of great price, and ultimately the pearl which is the Kingdom of God, and we can begin to uncover that pearl by keeping and pondering with Mary, our Mother.