“They couldn’t help themselves, they had to ask him ‘What is the kingdom of heaven like?’”
It is a summer afternoon and I am in our local primary school telling the Godly Play parable of the Great Pearl to a mixed group of 9 and 10 year olds (Year 5). I have presented the golden parable box and taken the things out of it: the white cloth that the children tell me looks like a snowball, the brown felt strips that remind them of seaweed, the many possessions of the merchant and finally the three pearls – two lesser pearls and the great pearl.
I have laid it out as a plan of five houses: one is empty, two are empty except for a pearl, the fourth has the seller and the great pearl and the final one has the merchant and all his belongings – money bags, lamps, beds, carpets…
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant, a buyer and seller of pearls, who goes looking for the great pearl.”
The merchant sets off looking for the great pearl. Each one is examined carefully…
“When he finds the great pearl, he goes home and takes everything…”
I start to move his possessions, one by one, across to the seller’s house. Finally, I pack up his house and move that across too…
“He takes everything, all that he has and exchanges it for the great pearl.”
The seller is now occupying a house crammed full of possessions while the merchant stands in emptiness with the great pearl.
“I wonder how the merchant feels now that he has the great pearl?”
I have told this story many times and I usually find groups divide on this – many children (and adults) wonder how the merchant will cope without any material belongings: no money, food or shelter. Others think that having the Great Pearl makes up for all of this.
But today is different…
“I think the merchant feels guilty.”
“Because even though he gave everything he had, it wasn’t enough.”
Before I have time to gather my thoughts, Elliott cuts in:
“Then he has to give himself.”
I thought then, as I do now, that Madelyn was articulating her culture. Not her home culture (about which I knew very little) but her school culture. The culture of “never enough” where all peer marked work was given “two stars and a wish” and all adult marked work finished with Next Steps. “Well done Madelyn, for beginning each sentence with a subordinate clause 🙂 Next Steps: Use some powerful adjectives.” However hard Madelyn works, it will never be enough; she cannot escape Next Steps.
What about Elliott’s response? Was he too articulating his culture – not so much the school culture, but the wider culture where so many companies and organisations seem to demand their employees’ souls?
It didn’t feel like it. At some level it seemed both children were describing eternal truths. The pearl is precious beyond our resources and in the end we have to admit this. Perhaps it is something we can never buy, but only accept as a gift. Our response can only be to give ourselves, for this is our relationship with God. How much of this did the children themselves recognise? I don’t know; I never will.
At the end of the session Liz, the TA who was doorkeeping, and I went “Wow!” It is tempting to do this and tempting to leave it there. But doing so puts the children in one place and ourselves in another. We can marvel at their insight but escape the touch of the living water. We need to accept their responses as catalysts for our own thinking. Only then can we journey together…
“Then he has to give himself.”
The other children join in the discussion at this point. How can the merchant give himself? The group decide that he will become the servant of the seller. The servant but not the slave.
“Will he be able to keep the pearl?” I ask. “What will happen to it?”
“If he leaves it, someone might take it,” says Daisy.
“It depends on the seller,” says Robin. “If he is kind, he will let him have time off to explore it.”