Finding the Pearl
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Where is God in this? Presumably, we read the Word of God to encounter the divine; yet our main character is noticeably absent from today’s first reading. God’s never mentioned. What we get instead is a man selling off his daughters, another man saddled with a wife he didn’t ask for, and two unfortunate sisters having neither voice nor vote in being married off to the same man. Reality TV has nothing on the Old Testament. What’s the point of hearing this in church, really, other than to question what kind of traditional family values we find in the Bible? Perhaps we can treat it as a kind of test case. If God can manage to work through this mess, maybe there’s some hope for us in finding God in our own messy lives.
When last we visited Genesis a few weeks ago, we were introduced to Rebekah and her how-I-met-Isaac story. Well, time’s passed. Rebekah and Isaac have had twin sons, Jacob and Esau. They’re all grown up now, at least chronologically, and Jacob is on the run from his brother. You see, not only has he extorted his brother’s rights of inheritance away from him, he impersonated Esau to obtain their father’s blessing as well. So Rebekah, their mom, sends Jacob away to her homeland to hide out, and it’s there that he meets his beloved Rachel.
Hoping to get in good with her father, Jacob goes to work for him – offering seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand. At last, the wedding night arrives and, apparently, Jacob has tipped back a few too many at the reception because it’s not until morning that he realizes the old impersonating-your-sibling trick has been played on him. It’s not Rachel, but her older sister Leah to whom he’s now hitched. Talk about your chickens coming home to roost. We don’t know much about Leah, other than that she had what the Hebrew text calls “soft” eyes. Our translation calls them lovely; others are less charitable and call them weak. In other words, she has a great personality. But even if she were a knockout, she wouldn’t be enough for Jacob – she’s not Rachel. Jacob is eventually able to marry Rachel too, but only in exchange for seven more years of work.
So where is God in this? It’s an important question. After all, we don’t have the benefit of an all-knowing narrative voiceover in our own lives, telling us exactly how God speaks. As with this story, we often need to fill in the gaps – tracking the movements of God through our relationships with people who are just as flawed and human as we are. We imperfectly practice love, we try to extend grace to each other – and somewhere in there, we catch glimpses of our loving, gracious God.
Perhaps we see the unspoken hand of God in Jacob and Rachel finding each other in the first place. We understandably get so caught up in the noisy, large scale struggles for justice and equality that we forget sometimes the quieter grace notes in our lives. There is a kind of God-given grace to falling in love, isn’t there? As former Archbishop Rowan Williams points out in an old article called “The Body’s Grace,” we do experience grace when we realize that we are desired, chosen by another human being – beyond any question of deserving. When we’re met in our vulnerable bodies and loved for all we see in our unforgiving mirrors, with everything in our stories we’d like to keep and all we wish desperately we could throw away, when we see that we are the cause of another’s deep joy – even in purely human terms, such love has the capacity to change us – particularly when we have the gift of time to let it grow.
It can open us up and create a capacity to give we never knew we had. Or at least that’s what happened to me, when I was finally someone’s Rachel after a lifetime of feeling like Leah. We begin to find our life again by giving it away, by putting another’s interests ahead of our own, just like Jesus said we would. Over time, this experience of loving and being loved can help us to recognize the truly unconditional love of God – a love that inspires us to give all we can to each other, to our country, to our world – because everything real and true and valuable is already ours and can never be taken away. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded us in a statement this week, our struggles for equal rights are grounded in a fundamental reality – that we are each and every one of us beloved of God, created in God’s image, with equal worth and inherent dignity – whether we’re male, female, transgender, gay or straight, divorced or widowed, married or single. All kinds of relationships can mirror back to us that divine unconditional love. There are all sorts of ways we can stumble onto the kingdom of God.
It doesn’t always work that way, of course. We can love other people without ever consciously making the connection to God. We can walk right by mustard seed or yeast and never notice how they can shelter or feed us. God’s kingdom of love doesn’t always compel our attention. And just as frequently, we can love another person without the grace of being chosen by them in return. It happens. Just ask Leah.
We get the rest of her story where today’s reading drops off. God shows up again in the text for her: “When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb.” We then hear her story through the names she gives her children. She names her first son Reuben, for she says: “Because the LORD has looked on my affliction, surely now my husband will love me.” Her second son she names Simeon, which for her means: “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son too.” She names her third son Levi, which means joined, thinking: “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons.” It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? But none of these messages in a bottle seem to work. Jacob never chooses her first. While he shows her respect in later stories and even seeks her counsel on occasion, her love for him is never fully reciprocated. So where is God in this?
Apparently, Leah was able to find love and grace in her life regardless. We see this in the name she gives her fourth son, Judah, which means “praise,” for she said: “This time I will praise the LORD.” Maybe she found love in her role as a mother, and that gave her the grace to believe in a loving God. Or maybe God’s love found her first, and her marital status was irrelevant. I could say that she finally found the pearl of great price, but I’m not sure that’s the point of Jesus’ parable (at least for today). He says in today’s Gospel not that the kingdom is like the pearl – no, it’s like the merchant, the one who searches and searches until he finds. God’s love relentlessly searches for us. We’re not the merchant here; each and every one of us is the pearl. Perhaps Leah finally realized that she too was God’s beloved, that she was the pearl of great price, and that gave her the grace to let the rest of it go and praise the LORD.
It turns out, God was able to work through the mess of these sisters’ lives. We don’t even need to build up Leah at Rachel’s expense. In the book of Ruth generations later, Leah and Rachel are specifically named and praised, for they (and I quote) “together built up the house of Israel.” Countless generations have found strength in their stories. Naming God in their messy lives helps us to name God in ours. We spend so much of our lives trying to hold onto whatever love we have, lamenting the loves we’ve lost or never had, building ourselves up at each other’s expense, not realizing that God is in our mess too. Where? Where God has always been – loving us, desiring us, seeking us out, choosing us first. Or to borrow words more eloquent than mine, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In the silence that follows, I invite you to consider…who in your life needs to know that they are God’s pearl of great price – that they’re a blessing, not a burden? Who might be so battered by the church over time for who they are, for who God created them to be, that they might have a hard time believing in God’s unconditional love? How can you show them a Jesus they’ve never seen before? And finally, how might you let yourself be found by God today? How might you let yourself be God’s pearl of great price too? Amen.