It is time to leave everything behind. This is the Lord’s calling to us in the Gospel today: to risk everything to follow Him. He presents us with the image of the merchant who sells everything that he has in order to obtain the pearl of great price, and in doing so, Christ is calling us to be spiritual entrepreneurs.
The 20th and 21st centuries have given us great examples of entrepreneurs, people who have risked their financial livelihood on a great idea, developing those ideas into companies worth billions of dollars. They start with an insight – something they know that others don’t. The person who discovers the treasure in the field buys the field as soon as possible before others find it; he know something that no one else does. The merchant who discovers the pearl leaps at the chance to divest himself of all of his other assets to obtain this great pearl – ostensibly because the one selling it does not know its true value and has marked it down to a low price. The entrepreneur always starts with an insight.
Investments advisers would tell us that we ought to have a diversified portfolio to protect ourselves from the fluctuations of the market. But the merchant who finds the pearl of great price ignores this accepted wisdom in order to take a risk. Any investment adviser will tell you: there is no reward without risk.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our Lord is telling us today that He wants us to be spiritual entrepreneurs. Like the merchant who finds the pearl of great price, we too have an insight to which many others are not privy, that is not known by the world. We know that the truest happiness does not lie in material things, but in a life lived in conformity with Christ’s truth and with eternal life with God forever in Heaven. And like the merchant who sells everything to buy the pearl of great price, we will be accused by the investment advisers of this world of having a risky, un-diversified portfolio. A little religion is okay, the world would tell us, but you need to avoid being an extremist! Or, it’s okay to be religious, as long as you don’t try to force your religion on others.
This is a privatized and small vision of religion that fundamentally misunderstands what Christianity is all about. The world sees Christianity as a value system. People will say, “I want my kids to grow up Catholic so that they have a structure for understanding the world and so that they have good values, like putting others first and treating others how they want to be treated.” But there is nothing that requires you to be a Christian to see the value in putting others first and treating others how they want to be treated. Christianity is most emphatically not a values system! It is a love affair with a God who loved us so much that He became man, taking on our human frailty, and suffered, died, and rose from the dead for us.
This, my brothers and sisters, is the pearl of great price: our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. All of us here, in some way, have found that pearl, or at least we are aware of its existence. For the entrepreneur, there is usually a eureka moment when he or she decides that it is really worth it to take the risk – mortgage the house, cash in the 401k, whatever it is. Have we had that moment with Christ? Have you really decided that it is worth risking everything to follow Him?
Now, this isn’t a Protestant church, and I’m not about to do an altar call for all the people who have never accepted Christ into their life before and want to get saved today. We know that this is not just a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a moment when you get saved and then you never sin again. But it is still important for us to have the sense of having made a decision. Maybe for you, it was when you were confirmed, or when you got married, or when you had your first child baptized, or during a time of crisis in your life, or when you went on a retreat. It would be good to remember that moment and remember the commitments that you made to God and yourself.
Or maybe you haven’t had one of those moments – maybe you’re still waiting for God’s grace to break in. If that’s true for you, then maybe today is the chance to ask the Lord to give you a greater sense of zeal and commitment.
The greatest danger, though, is those whose Christianity is too safe. These are to ones who maintain a diversified portfolio, who dabble in other spiritual practices or place their trust in the things of this world instead of the Gospel, who prioritize money – the great American pagan idol – over the truth and over a relationship with Christ. If Christianity does not feel risky or dangerous, you are not living it correctly.
What would it mean, then, to live Christianity as this exciting and risky adventure of entrepreneurship? This is something where the result will be different for each person. For the young, it could mean being willing to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. It could mean being willing to accept another child into your family instead of saving for a new car or a vacation. It could mean being willing to speak up for the truth when it is being questioned by your friends, family, or coworkers. It could mean being willing to refuse to attend an event that is contrary to the Church’s teaching, even if it constitutes an important life event for someone you care about. It could mean making the sacrifice to support the poor and needy rather than eating out. It could mean being willing to risk your children’s affection in order to tell them “no” and teach them virtuous habits rather than placating their demands for things that you know will harm them.
The risk and the adventure will be different for every person who undertakes it. But for everyone who is willing to sell everything to obtain the pearl of great price, no sacrifice will be too great for the immense treasure that is obtained. I was recently talking to some friends of mine, a young couple in their early thirties with children who are taking a big risk to open a new business. Of course, there are many reasons for which they could be scared at the prospect of losing their savings, their house, etc. But when you talk to them about it, what comes through most of all is their excitement. They are excited about the product that they are making and when you talk to them about it you cannot help but be excited too.
The infectious excitement that animates all good entrepreneurs ought also to be the hallmark of our spiritual entrepreneurship – our willingness to risk everything for Christ. My friend is passionate about the product he is making – in this case, hard cider – and we ought to be even more excited about what we have to offer to the world: Christ Himself.
Economists would tell us that business works because of scarcity. The merchant seeking pearls sells everything to obtain the pearl of great price because there are very few pearls of this quality, and he wants to be among the very few who have one. While this helps to illustrate the importance of spiritual insight for the spiritual entrepreneurship to which the Lord is calling us, the example falls apart at a certain point. You see, there is no shortage of the Kingdom of Heaven. God has not called only 144,000 people to Heaven, as another religion claims. Rather, God desires this pearl to be obtained by all of His sons and daughters. The merchant seeks to keep the profits from the pearl of great price for himself, but we are to do the opposite. We are called to seek this treasure in order to give it away, because it is precisely in giving it away that it is multiplied for us.
Risking everything to obtain the pearl of great price which is Christ himself is not a risk at all – it is the safest investment anyone has ever made. It’s like a certificate of deposit with a guaranteed infinite return. In the world, risk is always necessary. The treasure could be gone from the field by the time the man goes to dig it up, or the pearl desired by the merchant could turn out to be a fake. And of course, there is always a risk involved with following Christ because of the scorn and rejection we can receive on the part of the world. But this risk pales in comparison to the surety of the reward of God’s love.
St. Paul invites today into the great mystery of salvation: “those he predestined he also called;
and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.” Christ today is calling us into this great, risky adventure of leaving everything behind to follow Him. If we do, He will reward us not only with eternal salvation, but with the glorification that is for the blessed, for the saints, in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lord, help us to desire this glory more than any other. Give us the wisdom to be willing to take the risk.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
St. John the Evangelist Church, Goshen, Ind.
XVII Sunday through the Year