The pearl we give everything for is the life-long process of seeking and knowing God.

Matthew 13:45-46

In 2003, Rae and I celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary by being tourists in Broome for a few days. We learned how pearls are grown off Broome’s coast. The pearl grows in a frame just beneath the ocean’s surface, starting as a tiny irritant inside the oyster’s soft tissue and over its lifetime growing to be a much-desired jewel.

Pearling can be dangerous. In the early days of the industry the lives of indentured Malay and Indigenous divers, slaves in all but name, were held cheaply. Many died then, but even in recent times, young divers have lost their lives.

Jesus’ parable about the pearl is a jewel in itself, only 24 words long in the original Greek. This pearl is extraordinary: it can be found in a field, but the finder cannot simply pick it up and claim it as her own. The finder must want the pearl so fiercely that she is prepared to give everything she has to obtain it. Even then, the pearl cannot simply be bought by itself; the whole field must be bought.

The parable speaks of a pearl as valuable as life itself. For what would we be prepared to sell everything we have to acquire it?

This 1870s engraving depicts an enslaved woman and young girl being auctioned as property.In the world of Jesus, and in the United States from the 17th to the 19th Centuries, people owned other human beings – slaves. Trafficking in human lives is still a wicked problem in the 21st Century.

As property, slaves have no freedom to order their lives: their time and their bodies belong to their owners. Some slaves could imagine no other way of living. Other slaves were prepared to give everything they had to free themselves and their families. Some saved up money out of crumbs to buy their freedom. Some risked their lives to run. Of these, a fraction succeeded to find their freedom in the northern states; others were killed or taken back under even more harsh conditions.

The pearl, for slaves, was freedom: freedom from being owned by another, freedom to be oneself.

Jesus says wanting to obtain the pearl is ‘like the Kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 13:45). The pearl we give everything for is the life-long process of seeking and knowing God.

We have been slaves. Nothing like the actual slaves of 18th Century America, but we have been unable to choose the right actions. We have let our greed for money, for others, for selfish pleasure, rule our bodies. Our thought-patterns are permeated by the sinfulness of the world, so without choosing it, we too are racist, we too are xenophobic. We have all been there. As hearers of Jesus’ parables we are former slaves on the way to freedom from these forms of imprisonment.  The Holy Spirit works in each of us to become the person God wants us to be.

We can deceive ourselves that we are happy the way we are, or we can choose to work with the Spirit for our freedom. We can decide to keep our eyes on the prize, the pearl.

For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free

The hymn I wrote last year was sung at the Eucharist marking the 40th celebration of my ordination and that of Chris Albany and Len Firth. Len preached on Galatians 5, which comes around again in today’s lectionary.

For freedom Christ has set us free,
love’s energy to celebrate;
For freedom Christ has set us free,
love’s energy to demonstrate.

We thank you, Lord, for your good grace,
for people loved, for teachers taught;
for insights into who you are;
for all our growth in heart and thought.

We walk in step with you, good Lord,
your Spirit shows us how to live.
You grace our lives with love and joy,
and give us courage all to give.

We go in faith to live for you,
to spread your love, to preach your grace.
Take our hands and guide our feet,
and lead us till we see you face.

For freedom Christ has set us free,
love’s energy to celebrate;
For freedom Christ has set us free,
love’s energy to elevate.


  • Ted Witham TSSF 2015


No deal on debts

The most ferocious parable Jesus told was one about two debtors. The lord calls in the first of the debtors, who owed a colossal sum, and demands he pay up. He threatens to thrown the slave in prison and enslave his family. The slave begs for mercy, for time to pay. The lord has compassion on him, and gives him more than time to pay: he forgives the debt and released him.

This forgiven slave then leaves the lord’s presence and meets a fellow-slave who owes him a much smaller debt. He throttles him and demands immediate payment. The fellow-slave falls to his knees and begs for mercy. The first slave refuses to respond. When the lord finds out how the forgiven slave has behaved, he reverses his generosity and has him tortured until he repays everything he owed.

‘And so,’ concludes Jesus, ‘will my heavenly Father do to you if each of you does not forgive brother or sister from the heart.’ (Matthew 18:35)

Kenneth Bailey describes the economic back story. In each village in the Middle East a principal landowner controlled all the cropping and grazing in the village. This abu or sheikh was like a feudal lord. Every aspect of economic life in the village derived from the sheikh.

Jesus makes first a comparison between this village economy and the economy of God. The lord in the story demonstrates a generosity that goes far beyond justice when he ignores the request for time to pay, and instead releases his servant and forgives the debt. This lord is not behaving as a prudent sheikh would behave. A prudent sheikh would be generous by making a deal. This lord reveals instead the divine generosity, which gives total freedom to those who seek it.

The expectation is that those who are graced with freedom should reveal the same generosity in dealing with others. The forgiven slave in the parable acts in the opposite manner than the lord expects and so receives the worst punishment the lord can inflict on him.

But as in the challenging parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus foregrounds the absolute generosity of the lord, the sheikh of the village and not so much the behaviour of the servants. Can you imagine the sheikh of your village forgiving the debt absolutely? If so, can you imagine a little of the extraordinary generosity of the divine economy? Once you start to get this picture of God you can begin to participate in the generous economy.

Imagine if we treated our sister or brother not simply with justice, but by releasing everyone from all the claims we might make on them. Our village, our community, would be marked by a wonderful freedom and genuine intimacy one with another.

At its best, we can glimpse this divine economy at work in our church and even in other communities.

But this parable holds up a mirror to the messy world of commerce as well as God’s economy.

Jesus’ attention is caught by the differential between the first and second slaves. The first slave owed his lord ten thousand talents. My Bible notes that a talent was equal to 6,000 denarii. One talent is what a labourer could earn in 6,000 days. The debt, 10,000 times 6,000 denarii, is in the order of eight billion dollars in contemporary money. Let’s not forget that this is a parable, and there is an element of exaggeration, but even so, the money owed by this slave is tying up at least the economic operation of this village, or more. The Gross National Income of our neighbour East Timor is only 2½ billion dollars.

Jesus contrasts this figure with the debt of the other slave: 100 denarii. This is about $14,000. It is not a trifle for someone who might earn only 300 denarii a year, but it’s a possible debt. The sort of debt I know people have on the credit card or in car finance. If I owed $14,000 and was asked for immediate payment, I could make it, but with difficulty.

Note the contrast in the debt: billions to hundreds. The economy of a nation contrasted with the economy of a small household. The first slave owed six hundred thousand times what the second slave owed.

This differential rings bells: the Institute for Policy Studies says that CEO’s are paid 340 times the average worker in 2011, compared to 42-1 in 1980. (The Institute calls itself a ‘progressive think-tank’, which probably means that is to the left politically, but its figures are compelling.)

Jesus understands the economic system where the sheikh holds the life of every villager in his hands. Everything is the ultimately the sheikh’s gift, and villagers can suffer enormously under greedy or incompetent village management. But surprisingly, Jesus does not criticise the system. His fierce words are for those whose greed exploits the system whatever it is, for those who feel entitled to hundreds of thousands times more resources than his fellow-citizens.

The system, Jesus seems to say, may evolve and repair itself slowly. But whatever the system the urgent wrong to right is the exploitation by the rich of the poor.

The system itself will reward greed: what is asked of us is to express our moral outrage that people feel so entitled.

In the end, Jesus does suggest a subversion of the system: rather than make generous deals with debtors, debts should be forgiven so that no member of the community is beholden to another. The existence of power of one brother or sister over another especially through indebtedness threatens the free functioning of a just and loving community.

We are challenged to make sure that we do not have claims over other people’s lives. Are there debts we can forgive? If there are we should forgive them now. Do we hold a sense of entitlement to things that should belong to all? What does it mean that I can live modestly on $30,000 a year and over a billion of my brothers and sisters are struggling to live on less than $2 a day? How can I let go of that claim?

When the parable is held up as a mirror to the messy world of commerce, these are some of the questions that are revealed. The big question is: How do we parallel the generosity of God?

Jesus tells the parable of the two debtors