“It was a brave man who ate the first oyster!” declared a poster at a restaurant I used to frequent in college. While many people find oysters delectable, I suspect the same number find them repulsive. As a teenager, I invited a friend over for dinner, and insisted that my mother fry oysters. I remember after his first bite, he cried out, “You forgot to take the guts out!” Indeed a mollusk that causes many to gag.
But even if the creature itself inspires disgust, one of its great products wins universal love and admiration—the pearl! This gem of beauty and worth made its way into one of our Advent hymns—“of one pearl each shining portal” we sang when talking about heaven’s gate. It also crops up in one of the best-loved Epiphany hymns, “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning”, where gifts appropriate to God’s beautiful love are listed:
“Shall we not yield Him in costly devotion Odors of Edom and offerings divine. Gems from the mountain and pearls from the ocean, myrrh from the forest and gems from the mine.”
I can never have a totally normal reaction to the word “Pearl”—since my father drove a truck for the Pearl Brewing Company in San Antonio! We even had a gray cat named Pearl. A classic story from my red-headed childhood: A police officer directing traffic at the yearly rodeo asked me, “Son, where did you get that red hair?” My reply: “I got it from drinking Pearl Beer!” The officer practically doubled over with laughter.
Oddly, the oyster produces the beautiful gem in response to irritation. A grain of sand comes into the oyster’s shell and inflames the oyster flesh; the creature forms a pearl to isolate the irritation. There is a life lesson for us: Do not disdain the difficult and painful parts of life, because they often bring forth beauty—the beauty of patience and compassion, of an enhanced relationship with God as we draw closer to Him during challenging times. “We rejoice in our sufferings, for we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3).
The pearl’s great value is emphasized in one of Christ’s parables—the Pearl of Great Price. (Matthew 13:44-46) A gem merchant in his travels finds a pearl of unusual size and beauty. So he sells everything he has and invests in that one pearl. Christ uses this as a lesson about God’s Kingdom—it is more important than anything else, and is worth investing our whole life in. The pearl, then, is a reminder of the total commitment that God’s kingdom inspires.
Of course, the pearl’s beauty can have a sinister quality, because it brings out greed. A classic novel that I think everyone in my generation read in school was John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. A fisherman finds a “pearl of great price” that theoretically should set him for life—yet because of human greed and evil, the gem ends up destroying everything he loves.
The oyster itself becomes an image for human greed and selfishness in “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens tells us that Ebenezer Scrooge was “as solitary as an oyster.” The oyster is shut in upon itself—almost like the classic depiction of sin in St. Augustine and Luther as someone being “curved in upon themselves”. Greed and self-centeredness cut the sinner off from God and other people, and make him or her “solitary as an oyster”
As I mentioned before, the twelve gates of heaven are spoken of in the Bible as being made of a single pearl each (Revelation 21:21). Why pearl? Ultimately, because it is the only gem that is harvested through the death of a living thing. It is an example of beauty being produced by sacrifice. And this reminds us of how the death of Christ on the cross that opens for us the beauty of heaven. The “pearly gates” are a sign that our gateway to heaven is the sacrifice of Christ.
“It was a brave man who ate the first oyster,” declared the sign from my youth. The oyster is indeed to many a disgusting critter. Yet sometimes this ugly mollusk carries something of supreme beauty and value. That makes me think of the cross of Jesus. The cross, with its blood and suffering, is repulsive on the surface--perhaps the cruelest form of capital punishment ever devised. But in the midst of that ugliness is a love whose beauty and value is beyond calculation. May the ugly oyster and its beauteous cargo remind us of the divine forgiveness and grace that shine forth in the cross of Jesus!
God loves you and so do I! Pastor David W. Anglin