This reflection is based on Matthew 13:44-46.
“Worthless” and “priceless”: These are two words in the English language that at first may seem synonymous, but they actually mean the exact opposite of each other.
“Worthless” can be taken quite literally–it means something that has no worth, plain and simple. “Priceless,” on the other hand, must not be taken literally because it refers to something that is so extremely valuable that you can’t ever tag a price to it. Because he can’t take them with him, a dying man’s riches are worthless as he lies in his deathbed, but the love of the people who have spent the last few days and nights by his side, holding his hand and praying for him–that’s priceless. “Priceless” is a word we reserve precisely for the stuff that money can’t buy.
We don’t have to be particularly careful readers to to distinguish these two words; it’s easy enough not to confuse them with each other. But the strange thing is, they are not so easy to distinguish in real life. All of us want one and not the other. Not even a fool will prefer what is worthless over what is priceless. But the tragedy too often in our lives is that despite our best selves, we end up pursuing what turns out to be worthless and foregoing what is truly priceless–and we almost always realize all this too late in our lives.
There is only one way to examine ourselves in this matter, and it isn’t by listing down what we value the most. If we go through that exercise, we will just end up with all the “right answers” on our list. A more valid way is by examining a typical day in our lives and determining the top three objects or activities we spend the greatest number of our waking hours each day. I wouldn’t be surprised if your ‘Top 3’ would include what are actually most widely promoted by the media: the pursuit of fame, riches, beauty, pleasure, adventure, or a romantic affair.
The sobering truth, however, is that while all these things have their short-term value, their worth has a way of diminishing or fading away. I wonder how we will feel when the credits begin to roll in that final movie of our lives: Will we judge our lives priceless–or worthless?
The Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, is coming up in a few days.
He will always be the saint who taught me how to distinguish the worthless from the priceless. Like so many, he spent his youth on things that turned out to be worthless: riches, honor, pride. That image of him offering his sword is iconic: It was the moment in his life when he decided to give up the worthless to pursue what was priceless: God’s will. In that act of surrender before the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, Ignatius showed us what happens when we stumble into the priceless: Everything else pales in comparison, their relative worthlessness exposed.
It is also worth noting how Ignatius found what was priceless. We know that other iconic image of the soldier Inigo lying injured in that battle gone wrong, his leg hit by a cannon ball, his worldly dreams shattered. He didn’t find the priceless. It found him.
Today’s Gospel offers us not one, but two very similar parables about the priceless. The protagonists of the two parables find something priceless–in the first, a hidden treasure, in the second, a pearl of great value–and recognizing their superior value, both men sell all that they have to exchange for their great finds. In finding the priceless, they realize that everything else is worthless and pales in comparison. Both parables pose a challenge to us to examine our lives–to dig into the fields of our lives, to plumb the depths of our hearts–in search of what is truly priceless so that we too may discard and free ourselves from the hoard of worthless clutter that we somehow keep accumulating.
And we need to be always alert. For sometimes we discover the priceless when we go out in search for it as in the second parable, but once in a while, we simply stumble over it as in the first parable.
Sometimes, as in the case of Ignatius, it is the priceless that seeks us out.