And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
What's the value of your life?
When is a hollowed-out, well-worn, foot-long chunk of wood worth 3.5 million dollars? When it's a chunk of wood that was carved into a violin over 265 years ago by the renowned violin maker Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesu’.
3.5 million dollars was the extraordinary value settled upon by the tiny cadre of great violin collectors when violinist Robert McDuffie put together a consortium of investors to purchase one of del Gesu’s almost mythically great instruments. The consortium has been assured that when the instrument is resold in 21 years, its value will be in the neighborhood of 24 million. Not a bad return on a 3.5 million investment.
Obviously the value of this, and other great violins, is not determined by any one factor. The value of the violin is not its age, not the quality of the tone it produces, not even the fact that it's one of only 150 or so del Gesu violins officially authenticated. The value of McDuffie's violin, and of some of the other great del Gesu and Stradivarius instruments, is determined by an ephemeral and ever-changing configuration of factors. Any one of those factors may change at any time and radically alter the value of one of these instruments. Investment researcher Jon Gertner, writing for collectors on the investment value of rare violins, warns about five violin lessons that work together to determine the market value of these instruments (This Violin Is Worth $3.5 Million: Why?; Money June 2002, 148):
Age and rarity are not the source of value.
Brand name matters, whether it's a stock, a school district, or a 17th century violin.
Value can change in an instant, without warning.
Value is shaped by perception – and perception is not free of personal prejudice.
When the world changes, the value of an object may change – even if the object itself remains exactly the same.
Art collectors have always counted on lesson #3. Any serious collector stockpiles works by respected, noted living artists knowing full well that the moment that living artist becomes a dead artist, the value of his or her artwork will rise significantly. The pieces themselves have not changed. But because their creator is no longer creating, they're now valued according to an entirely new set of rules.
How many of you have some knickknack or kitchenware cluttering up your home that is stamped "Made in occupied Japan," or "Made in West Germany"? According to violin lesson #5, those objects are now valued quite differently than they were at the time of their creation. The world has changed and now an occupied Japan or a West Germany stamp makes these objects unique and significant. They're valued according to new standards.
I remember when I was growing up that my mother had a set of green mixing bowls that she had been given by a great aunt of mine. They were 1940's Pyrex-like glassware known as Jadite. These unpretentious green mugs, plates, and bowls used to be tucked into oatmeal boxes as a freebie. They were the old standbys at diners, and until a few years ago, you could always pick up a mug or plate for a buck or two at flea markets and junk shops. But unfortunately not long ago another Jadite collector, Martha Stewart, began using her collection in her TV show, mixing this week's cookie in a big Jadite bowl, serving some nauseatingly perfect concoction on a green Jadite platter, pouring batter from a funny Jadite pitcher. Now Jadite is as scarce as hen's teeth and its price has gone through the roof so that only the rich and famous can collect it. The funky green dishes we've used, enjoyed, and on occasion dropped on the floor with careless abandon, now possess an entirely new value. My brother and I gave Mom’s away when she died. If we’d only known.
Most of us are oblivious to the value of the things that surround us on a daily basis, whether it's the dishes we use, the view out of our window, the quiet of a Sunday afternoon, or the freedom with which we move about our country. We take these things for granted, not really considering them worthless, but certainly not experiencing them as priceless. It’s usually only when our world is suddenly shaken to its core by violence, or a natural disaster, or a personal tragedy that all those things that flesh out the bones of our existence suddenly take on great value to be revealed as beyond price.
For Jacob, in the scripture reading from Genesis today, such an "aha" moment was the sudden revaluation of his life and its meaning that took place at that insignificant camp site he choose to stop at as the sun went down. It was a place like any other in the long trek between Beersheba and Haran. To prop up his head, he pulled up any old rock to serve as his pillow. He saw nothing remarkable about this site. His soul felt nothing special. His mind was focused on the choices he had made that forced him to take this hazardous journey out of his homeland and the clouded future that he faced. Jacob had no inkling that God was with him on this spot. Jacob had no idea that God was only waiting for him to close his eyes and surrender to sleep before revealing the divine presence and the divine plan to him.
In the dream, God promises that Jacob and his offspring will have a permanent place to live, rather than being nomads. God's pledge to Jacob's offspring instantly revalues Jacob's life. Jacob has not been the ideal son or brother. He deceived his father and cheated his brother. But with God’s promise in the dream, no longer is he a scoundrel slinking away from a family scandal. With God's pledge of land and promise of offspring more numerous than the dust of the earth, and God's assurance of Jacob's place of honor beside Abraham and Isaac – Jacob is transformed.
But Jacob is still the same man when he wakes from this dream. No great physical or essential change has recreated him. Jacob is still Jacob. The only difference? God is in this place with him. And what a difference that one difference makes. God's presence is all around Jacob. God's promises are pledged to Jacob. God's purposes are being accomplished through Jacob. The place where Jacob had spent the night is no longer a barren space – it's a holy site. The stone upon which Jacob laid his head is no longer a plain old rock – it's a "matsevah," a pillar that commemorates a holy encounter. What had seemed like a desolate spot in a desperate journey is now revealed as no less than the gate of heaven.
When he awakens filled with fear and awe, Jacob proclaims, "Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!" What Jacob has not yet perceived is that "this place" is not so much this single geographical spot as it's Jacob's own life. Surely God is in Jacob's life and he did not know it! Surely God is in your life – every day, every place, every moment. Do you know it? Can you see it? Has your life been revalued by the presences and promises of God? Have your ordinary places become an extraordinary spaces because God is in them?
Michael Paul Gallagher is Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. One day he asked "the most saintly person I've ever known" this question: "What difference does Christian faith make?" The answer he got came in the form of a parable:
Suppose I asked you to carry a bag for me and leave it in a house down the road, and suppose you generously did that, that would be good. If you thought there was just rubbish in the bag but you carried it because I asked you, that would be good. But if you knew there was gold in the bag, it would make a difference! To know the worth of what you are carrying changes everything. (Michael Paul Gallagher S.J., Dive Deeper: The Human Poetry of Faith; London: Darton-Longman & Todd, 2001)
I want to close with a poem my Dad used to recite to me as a youth.
It’s called The Touch of the Master’s Hand.
'Twas battered and scarred,
And the auctioneer thought it
hardly worth his while
To waste his time on the old violin,
but he held it up with a smile.
"What am I bid, good people", he cried,
"Who starts the bidding for me?"
"One dollar, one dollar, Do I hear two?"
"Two dollars, who makes it three?"
"Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three,"
From the room far back a gray bearded man
Came forward and picked up the bow,
Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody, pure and sweet
As sweet as the angel sings.
The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said "What now am I bid for this old violin?"
As he held it aloft with its' bow.
"One thousand, one thousand, Do I hear two?"
"Two thousand, Who makes it three?"
"Three thousand once, three thousand twice,
Going and gone", said he.
The audience cheered,
But some of them cried,
"We just don't understand."
"What changed its' worth?"
Swift came the reply.
"The Touch of the Masters Hand."
"And many a man with life out of tune
All battered and bruised with hardship
Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd
Much like that old violin
A mess of pottage, a glass of wine,
A game and he travels on.
He is going once, he is going twice,
He is going and almost gone.
But the Master comes,
And the foolish crowd never can quite understand,
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
By the Touch of the Masters' Hand.
- Myra Brooks Welch