November 24, 2009

The “pearl of great price”: an allegory for people who don’t want to win the lottery

Every once in a while, there’s a news story about somebody who won millions in a lottery and ended up being miserable as a result.

I remember one from a few years ago that sounded like a Shakespearean tragedy.

It was about a Pennsylvania man, William “Bud” Post, who won $16 million in the state lottery. After he won, people came out of the woodwork to try to con him and take advantage of him. His brother hired a hit man to try to kill him, so he could inherit the money.

Over time, Bud’s money was drained away by bad investments. He got in trouble with the law for firing a shotgun at a debt collector and eventually went bankrupt. He died at age 66, after telling a reporter “I was much happier when I was broke.”

Somehow, such stories still don’t make me NOT want to win the lottery.

Back in high school, I had a similar reaction to reading John Steinbeck’s famous cautionary novel about sudden wealth, The Pearl.

The title of this tragic novel, first published on November 24, 1947, is thought to be inspired by a famous Bible quotation, Matthew 13:45-46. It’s from one the parables of Jesus, in which he says:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”

In Steinbeck’s novel, The Pearl, the son of a poor, but relatively happy Mexican pearl diver is stung by a scorpion. The pearl diver and his wife are too poor to pay a doctor for medical care and fear their son may die. But then the man finds a large, valuable pearl that makes him “wealthy.”

This saves his son’s life – in the short term. But it also makes him a target of con men and thieves. He gets in trouble with the law for killing one of them. Then, he takes his wife and son on the run to escape retribution. But in the end they are caught and the son is shot and killed. The pearl that originally had such great value ends up having a great price.

In a previous post here, I noted that, as a snotty high school kid, I wasn’t really moved by Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. But today, as a 59-year-old married man, father and grandfather, I am.

I can say the same thing about Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl. I definitely appreciate it more now.

But I’d still kinda like to win the lottery.


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