“Dethroning Mammon – Making Money Serve Grace” begins not with words, either by Archbishop Welby or by Jean Vanier (who wrote the foreword), but with the image on the front cover, a painting by the artist, Daniel Bonnell.
The painting is entitled “The Pearl of Great Price” and refers to one of the parables that Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of heaven in St Matthew’s Gospel chapter 13. I’m sure you remember it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (St Matthew 13:45)
This parable, and the image the artist has painted, hunts closely with the parable in the previous verse, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (St Matthew 13:44)
The painting is a wonderful gateway through which to approach the themes of the book. It asks us to consider both these short parables, their similarities and differences and what we ourselves consider treasure. It asks us questions about where we might locate ourselves in the parables, either now, in the past, or in the future.
Here are some avenues for private reflection that you might like to consider:
- Have I found real treasure in my life yet? If so, where?
- Is it genuine treasure or has, metaphorically speaking, my metal detector found a load of worthless tin cans?
- If I have found it, have I covered it over again and gone about my life, not ready, or may be, not able, to buy the field in which it lies? Why might that be?
- Have I experienced the joy of realisation that the man in the first parable felt, that made him want to sell all he had and buy the field in which the treasure lay?
- Am I like the pearl merchant, spending my life in restless searching without reaching any very satisfying result? Why might that be?
- What might help me to search successfully for the pearl of great value?
- Do I recognise the pearl of great value through my experience of pearls of lesser value? How might that affect the way I might view life’s experiences, especially those experiences that have not been positive?
When I first started looking at the painting properly, I was struck by two things which are good to have in our minds as we explore what Archbishop Welby writes.
1 The image and shadow of the shovel echoes both the cross and a grave. The heap of dirt might also be a tombstone. The great sphere of the sun rising behind the figure reminds us of the round stone, rolled over the entrance to Jesus’ tomb.
The painting works very powerfully therefore as an image of the Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection, but also perhaps, our own. Getting right this business of identifying what is really of value, it suggests, brings us close to resurrection life. It might lift us very profoundly to God, both now and in the future.
2 The figure is extraordinary. Androgynous, mysterious, the face hidden in shadow. Yet the whole stance of the figure breathes love and worship. We get the feeling that actually to look at the detail of the figure’s face would be to trespass on something holy; it would be what the Romans called “nefas” which means a mixture of “taboo”, “forbidden”, “sacrilegious”.
It is not the centre of the painting yet it acts upon us as if it is. Even without being able to see the features, our eyes are drawn to the shadowed face and it acts as a still centre, quietening us, stilling the hubbub of our minds so that our eyes come to the pearl reverently, stripped of the superficial; conscious that we are treading on holy ground and suggesting that perhaps we ought to take off our shoes before we go further.
Both these aspects of the image ask us to step away from the day to day stuff we are all busy with and think about what really matters.
And that is what the forthcoming season of Lent is all about.