04 June 2013

the parable of the Great Pearl

Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven't had the Parable of the Great Pearl presented to you by a Godly Play storyteller, and you think you might get that chance - stop reading.

photo, used by permission, from Explore and Express
If you already know the lesson, and would like to read about my experiences with it, carry on. 

I think the Parable of the Great Pearl is one of the loveliest and most surprising of the Godly Play lessons. The Montessori principle is to Show rather than Tell, and this is a lesson of few words (Matthew 13:45-46) and many silent actions. First, the merchant searches for the Great Pearl. He enters even the empty houses in hopes of finding a pearl. He examines closely and carefully every pearl he finds, usually discovering, regretfully, that it is not the one he seeks.

Upon finally discovering the Great Pearl, he sets about negotiating and bartering for it. He carries money (several bags of coins) across, but clearly his savings are not enough. He begins to add other bits and pieces to the pile - his rug, his oil lamp... Eventually he resorts to trading his furniture - his chair, his table, and even his bed. In the end the only way he can afford the pearl is to sell his house as well.

It is shocking to witness this.

photo, used by permission, from Explore and Express (cropped by me)

Normally I think we understand the merchant to have sold "everything he could spare". The version of this parable found in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas has him selling all his merchandise for the pearl. But in Matthew 13 the words are "everything he had", and the Godly Play presentation encourages us to wonder about that wording.

My friend stf and I still talk about the time I presented the lesson to children in Finland (aged 3-6). The children had learned to keep quiet during my presentations, so it was striking that one child couldn't help but murmer "What!?!" as the merchant realized that even his table and chair were not enough and began to drag his bed across.

Then when the merchant started to dismantle (fold up) his house, the child cried aloud, "WHAT!?!"


A couple of weeks ago I presented this lesson to a group from my churches in England. Some of us at these churches live comfortably, but some do not. Just last week one young man interrupted the Sunday evening sermon to ask a question about relating his faith and his homelessness.

I'm embarrassed to say that it did not occur to me that this might affect the way the Parable of the Great Pearl would be received. But during the Wondering at our session it became clear that one person was simply furious about this story. She thought it was madness for the merchant to have sold everything - to have made himself homeless - for this pearl. Another member of the circle tried to tell her that the pearl was Jesus, but her horror and fury were too strong for her to be able to take in those words.

photo, used by permission, from Explore and Express (cropped by me)

I regret that I didn't think to Wonder aloud with this woman and the others in our circle, Why did Jesus tell this story? What could he have meant by comparing the kingdom of heaven to this?!?

What I did do, at least, was to accept this person's responses as valid. I agreed with her that it could be immoral to accept too high a price for something. I wondered, since she was still in a very literal interpretation of the story, whether the original owner of the pearl ought to have stopped the sale when it became clear that the only way the merchant could afford it was to trade not only every stick of furniture but even the roof over his head.

I wonder if anyone got angry when Jesus himself told this story?


  1. I once told this story to a group of fourth and fifth graders, all girls that day by chance, all seasoned Godly Players who knew these stories better than I did. I told it because I was terribly sick - I shouldn't have come to church at all, but finding a substitute seemed harder than just showing up. When we wondered, the girls said (knowing the "right" answers), "Yes, I could give up everything I had for the kingdom of heaven...." Right around the circle they all answered the same. However, it was right after Christmas, and one child finally said, "I could give it all up...except for my new iPod...." and slowly each girl added in one more thing she would keep instead of giving it all up. Finally, the last girl, who attended rarely and really didn't seem to "get it" at all stood up and shouted, "Oh, my God! You just don't get it! This is not about choosing from a list! This is Deal or No Deal (a game show on TV)! You either choose The Kingdom of Heaven, or you choose these cool things you got for Christmas!"

    It was the most profound moment I've had to date in a Godly Play session!

    1. Thanks for sharing that anecdote, Browniesmoke. It really is a gift when we find ourselves in a circle of people who allow and help us to explore honestly our changing responses to a lesson.

    2. I told this story to a group of 9 year olds in a school setting. When I asked, "I wonder how the merchant feels now he has given up everything for the pearl?" one child replied, "Guilty." When I asked why, she said he felt guilty because even though he had given up everything he had it still wasn't enough. Instantly one of the boys replied that in that case he had to give himself. So the merchant became the servant (not the slave) of the seller. "What about the pearl?" I asked. After discussion the group decided that if the seller was kind he would give the merchant time off to "explore" the pearl... Like Browniesmoke this was one of the most profound moments I've had in a Godly Play session.
      Sarah (Spiritual Child)

    3. To both Sarah and Browniesmoke, another reader emailed me in response to your comments, "I'm so often stunned by the depth of the children's comments to these stories. It challenges me!"

      Thank you both!

  2. I am always amazed at the range of emotions this story provokes, even in young children. From pure joy to outrage and everything in between. No wonder the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus after he told it.: ) I hope you'll get to talk to that lady again sometime.

    1. I have seen that woman since, and she said she really enjoyed the Godly Play evening. That was a great relief to me!

  3. Once when I told this parable and in the wondering time asked if the merchant had a name, an eight year old girl piped up immediately "Yes, Gollum!" (From Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). That set off a chorus of "My preciousssssss" from those who had seen the movie or read the books. It put quite a different slant on the parable!

    1. That sure is a different slant! And a good example of a time when it might be tempting to stamp out "incorrect" or "inappropriate" responses, despite our training to do otherwise! Thanks for sharing, Jessie.

  4. Yesterday I got a nice comment from Nicky at http://www.blogger.com/profile/06743038987580745482. Today I pressed the wrong button and, to my horror, deleted it. Her comment was this, "It's interesting that when you talk about this parable you make it sound like the merchant set the price on the pearl and the buyer went to find the amount, but it seems to me that the buyer sold all his stuff so willingly that he almost sets the price as his everything. I wonder if the seller could have stopped the sale, oh the layers of this little story and how wondering unravels them."

    My reply to her was this, "Thank you for that perspective. Yes, I can see that maybe the merchant sees the pearl and just knows right away that it is worth even more than everything he already has. Wonderful."


Thanks for conversing with me about Godly Play®! I do moderate some comments for the sake of the children I write about. Please be polite: to quote the Velveteen Rabbi, Whatever you're going to say in response to my posts, consider whether it's the sort of thing you would say to your host or their children if you'd been invited to someone's home for tea. If it isn't, then please don't say it here.

If you're new to commenting on blogs, I recommend that you "Comment as" Name/URL. You can use your real first name or a nickname. URL is the address of a website that you want to be linked with your name - feel free to leave it blank. Before your comment is accepted, you have to pass a spam filter. After clicking on 'post comment' or 'preview', just type in the sequence of letters you will then see (or click on the wheelchair for a recording of characters to type). Thanks for reading and commenting!