Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 is here.)
Preparing to lead children enacting Jesus’ parable of the Pearl Merchant, I struggled to find a dramatic entrée. The parable is very compressed, just barely a story. It seems to hang entirely on a moment of purchase and taking possession of a pearl. What gestures and movements could our actors offer to show what’s happening? Paying out a price and having something in hand didn’t offer us much for a specific, wholly embodied improvisational scene.
Looking back, I realize I was struggling with an interpretation of the text I’d heard repeatedly, a formula for what we must do to possess the kingdom of God. The day before we’d be working with the Pearl Merchant, our Godly Play teacher for Friends of God Day Camp told me, “tomorrow I’ve got to tell a parable that has never made any sense to me. The man ends up with the pearl. Then what? Does he retire to look at it? Does he starve?”
I agreed with her. Over the years I’d heard fundamentalist and liberals preachers alike stick to a literalism that killed the story by preaching this parable was about “paying the price” to gain and possess God’s Kingdom as our own. And is the kingdom of God something we possess or a context for action, for living?
That evening, reading and re-reading the text, my mind kept drifting away to scenes from January, 2007, when I was with a Episcopal church lay and clergy leaders in the Mercato in Addis Ababa. The Mercato is Africa’s largest open-air market occupying many, many blocks and streets of Addis Ababa. I was trying to find a way to enact possession of the pearl, which, I assumed was the point of Jesus’ parable, and felt frustrated that my mind kept going to rich, sensory memories of the Mercato.
The Mercato wouldn’t let go. It had seized my imagination - its push of people, the noise, the smells of people, goats, donkeys, and diesel exhaust, savored whiffs of fresh roasted coffee beans and the incense vendors bins of resin. When I finally let myself enter the scene my imagination was making, a pearl buyer presented himself, pushing through the modern Mercato to find a stall where he’d heard someone new to Addis was selling precious gems and pearls.
I followed my imagined merchant down a narrow alley lined with coffee sellers. A donkey train laden with sacks of coffee pushed into the alley, swaying to its own complex music of clattering small hooves and jangling warning bells, it crushed us into coffee stalls. When they’d passed, the merchant rushed on As the alley opened out into a wider street of the Mercato, a blunt-nosed diesel produce truck beeped and just avoided him in a slow motion swerve. The crowd parted and when it came back together the merchant stopped to greet a someone pushing a wheelbarrow mounded with big sacks of tef flour (for making injira flatbread); behind his friend two women waited stock still with produce purchases balanced on their heads. The cook at some cafe is expecting those three, I thought.
As the merchant hurried on, I realized this was return visit to the stall where he’d already found the pearl and where the seller had quoted a high price. I was following him as he returned with more in his purse. After he’d bargained to the limit of the money he had in hand, realizing as he bargained that, even with the high price, he saw the value of the seller’s treasure more clearly than the seller.
I realized that, although Jesus only tells of the merchant seeking and finding the pearl, gathering more resources and then returning to buy it, first century listeners would certainly have supplied a first scene of lengthy and even heated bargaining and a second scene of renewed bargaining when the buyer returns to the stall.
And would he return and pay the last price the seller had asked? Of course not. He might even make a lower offer than the last one he’d made before! He’ll continue bargaining carefully and strategically hoping to bring the seller’s last price down further.
Real, impassioned Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bargaining means strategy, drama, and dynamic relationship. Jesus’ listeners would know the buyer’s bargaining moves, how ever they imagined them. Their experience would supply bargaining and a buyer’s eye for pricing pearls to complete this brief parable. I smiled to think that Jesus’ listeners would be as baffled by a store with non-negotiable marked prices as some of us American Episcopalians in Addis Ababa were at bargaining in the Mercato.
Our group’s Ethiopian guide (who had visited the U.S. more than once) was well aware of this cultural difference and asked us to leave our sense of “price” behind. She told us “price” in Ethiopia meant something quite different than the display place in a U.S. store. Neither buyer nor seller thought the opening offer should name an actual market value. The first asking price began a game and initiated a relationship. “The merchants feel disrespected when you don’t bargain. If you pay the first asking, the seller feels offended that you think he actually believes his inflated asking is a real value. The seller’s first price is only supposed to start a conversation. When you don’t take it that way, they feel personally rejected, as if you were saying, ‘I’ll pay you more than both of us know this is worth so I can avoid having to really deal with you.’”
At the beginning of our trip, she’d bargained for us so we could learn to bargain ourselves. When we saw something we wanted to buy, she explained, “Note it carefully with cautious glances, act you might be interested in something else. Then be a little disappointed or distracted as you walk away. Come and find me. Point out what you’re interested in discreetly, and then watch carefully while I get you a proper Ethiopian price.”
A good-hearted artist in our group protested, “I’m happy to pay the first price they ask because I know their prices are absurdly low. Even paying their full asking price, I feel bad because I’m paying so little. Bargaining just seems rude to me.”
Our guide shook her head “no.” She was a fierce bargainer, proud of what she could do bargaining on our behalf even with sellers who were old friends of hers. Rudeness would be seeming not to care about the price and buying casually.
That last day in Addis, when one of us showed her a lot of crosses and small icons he’d just purchased from one stall, she asked what he’d paid. She was outraged at what she heard and said, “NO!” and took our American friend back to the stall shouting at the merchant in Amharic. For a while the seller shouted back, but eventually he got quieter and just listened. Finally he gave her a handful of cash that she took with a nod of acknowledgment and handed to our friend.
Later, when I asked what she’d said, she replied,
“I called him a thief. I said that if he charges prices like that, I’d never bring my guests to his stall again. I said that when our friend compared what he’d bought with what his friends had bought, he would learn he’d been cheated. I told him that hurts me and shames Ethiopia. I named him a fair price, and told him if he didn’t pay back the difference, I’d tell all the other guides what he’d done.”
Remembering her teaching and how she enforced traditional market values of respect and relationship (our relationship with the merchant and the merchant’s with our group and guide) began to open up the Parable of the Pearl Merchant for me.
I started to wonder -
When there are no price tags, who decides what’s a fair and legitimate price?
What’s the bedrock of relationship between seller and buyer?
And what does the buyer do when the seller doesn’t seem to realize the full value of what he’s selling?
Next day at Friends of God Day Camp, before making ourselves pearl merchants and pearl sellers, I talked asked the children whether they’d seen their parents bargain in flea markets or antique markets, the remnant of ancient practice in our country. They had seen how different those markets were from regular stores. From experience of flea markets, the children explained offers and counter offers to me. They knew your opening offer should be much less than you were willing to pay. Then we wondered whether in the parable, the merchant would literally sell everything to buy just one pearl - did he sell his house? his furniture? his clothing? everything? really everything? Just what has he gained?
The Pearl isn’t the kingdom of God. The kingdom is like a merchant who has learned to live in the wisdom and freedom of graced moments of chance and choice. The pearl merchant enters, lives into, the kingdom as he seizes the moment of grace. Being able to buy that pearl and knowing how to buy it changes his life completely - that’s the kingdom.
Of course he’ll sell the pearl a few days after he’s bought it. He probably knows who he’ll offer it to when he’s buying it. Someone who will see its enormous value, is passionate about pearls, and has the money to pay for this one and more. The day of his purchase, our merchant has bought the winning lottery ticket, he has become an important person, suddenly he has wealth enough to see to the needs of family and friends, and his work as a pearl merchant will be changed for ever with this huge boost in his own net worth. His word will have real weight. People will send new pearl lovers to buy from him because people will know that he’s an astute buyer and seller of pearls.
When we got to playing the market scene and the children imagined they’d sold nearly
everything they owned to make a better offer on the pearl, I asked them if they offered everything they now had available for purchase. “No way,” they responded. I know I’ll pay it if I have to, but I’ll start out offering less.”
Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, the kids were becoming pearl merchants in the kingdom.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.