The Violence of the Pearl

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man - a merchant - in search of fine pearls…” (Mat 13:45)

Sure, but have you ever considered the oyster’s side of this story?

I confess I’ve never really given a second thought to how pearls are made. Turns out what happens is an irritant, like a parasite or scale, gets caught between the oyster’s shell and the protective layer covering its organs (called a mantle). Have you ever had a tiny rock under your fingernail? In order to protect itself from damage, the oyster covers the irritant with something called nacre. It then keeps adding more and more nacre, layer after layer to keep itself safe. It’s a stress response to a foreign invader. The entire process can take somewhere between 6 and 24 months with the average pearl growing up to about 9mm in diameter.

Now imagine that under your fingernail.

As it turns out, pearls used to be fairly rare, partially because naturally producing oysters were largely hunted to near extinction. Even before that, the process was not overly common among oysters. Searching for these rare luxury items, called “tears of the gods” by the ancient Greeks, would often be a vain pursuit. In the ancient near-east, the average person would likely never even see a pearl in their entire life.

Today, however, there is an entire industry in which pearl farmers induce the oysters with irritants in order to create enough pearls to satisfy our demand. In these farms, pearls are made, removed, and then the process begins again - until the oyster dies. A creature whose entire lived existence is spent in the stress production of high-end fashion.

Now, smarter people than I have argued that because oysters lack a central nervous system, they don’t feel pain or have any sense of awareness of their state. These people would insist that we are merely projecting our own feelings onto them. This is probably true.

However, parables are meant to teach us to ask the right questions and I can’t help but wonder why Jesus tells a kingdom parable about a very wealthy man in the business of unethical trade* who is in search of luxury items that are made by harming a living creature. He may have the means to buy them, but we must question the ethics of whether he needs to. He buys pearls because he can; because they afford him status and separate him from the rest of humanity who could never afford such items.

The complete non-relateability of this parable is what strikes me the most.

Perhaps this is why the parable ends with our merchant no longer being a merchant, no longer able to pursue his desire for status.** By wrestling with these kingdom parables, we are meant to consider the way in which the in-breaking reign of God confronts the way we normally pattern our lives. It asks us to evaluate the ethics of our own consumption. How often do we think about where our luxury items come from? What living creatures - human or more than human - are exploited in the never-ending production of the goods we purchase simply because we can? How is the kingdom good news for all living things?

Even oysters.