Jesus often used parables during his ministry, as he went about teaching and preaching and something like a third of Jesus’ teachings can be found in the form of parables and they are certainly the most remembered of his sayings.
The kingdom of heaven is the general theme of parables, as Matt 13:10-11 would suggest. Much of the Sermon on the Mount related to the kingdom of heaven and there is a whole series of parables in this chapter that draw comparison with the kingdom of heaven. There are eight parables recorded for us in this chapter which are designed to represent the kingdom of heaven, the method of planting the gospel in the world and of its growth and success.
There is one parable to show the great hindrances of the world that will prevent the gospel of the kingdom of heaven being heard and absorbed; in the parable of the sower.
There are two parables which are intended to show that there will be a mixture of bad a good in the world and that they will dwell together until the great separation of judgement day, in the parable of the tares and of the fishing net.
There are another two parables which show the growth of the kingdom of heaven, in that the gospel word started off very small but is destined for great things – we see this in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven
Then there are two parables to show that those who expect salvation must be willing to give up all for the kingdom of heaven; found in the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price – the pearl of great price is the one we shall be looking at in this study.
Finally there is one parable intended for direction to the disciples, to make good use of the instructions he had given them for the benefit of others – and that is the parable of the good householder.
The parable of the pearl of great value, or “great price” as the authorised version says, follows on from the parable of the hidden treasure. This parable we are going to look at follows on closely from the previous and at a basic level means essentially the same thing.
There are many ideas which we can draw out of these few verses relating to these two parables, and while it is not usually a good idea to try and force a parable too far in it’s meaning, that doesn’t mean that we can’t build some ideas using this parable as a foundation.
Think about how many stories we know of from our childhood regarding to the finding of treasure. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or the hidden treasure buried by pirates on a desert island.
Okay, these are only stories, or myths and legends, but the very nature of finding treasure or discovering some fabulous reward has appealed to the innocent imagination of children throughout history.
… but then the prospect of hidden treasure has appealed to the not-so-innocent imagination of adults also. Think back to your history lessons and the gold rush of 1849 – 1852 when a great number of gold-miners drawn by the promise of vast wealth dropped everything to go in search of their fortune in California.
… and so, as Jesus so frequently did, he spoke to his audience in parables. Not just any old tale, but tales that touched his audience, stories that they could relate to, for this way they would have the most impact on the listener.
Jesus told two parables of finding treasure of great value, such value that it was worth giving everything else up just to obtain this treasure.
In the parable of the hidden treasure in the field, the man is walking through the field and happens to stumble across the wonderful treasure hidden there. He was not looking for it, he was not searching, but perhaps merely tripped over it or saw it poking out from the ground and at once he saw the beauty of it. Not wanting to lose it now that he has found it he hides it again until he can obtain the field through the purchase of that field. To accomplish that though he has to sell everything he has, he sacrificed everything and the verse tells us that the man did this with great joy for he had found something so much better than everything else he had in the world.
In the second parable of treasure, a pearl of great price, we have a merchant in search of fine pearls. This is our principle difference between the two parables in that the merchant was searching for fine pearls, he was looking for something in particular, but the man in the field was not looking for anything in particular, but he realised that he had found something special.
Our merchant in this parable also found something special, a pearl of such beauty and worth that he sold all that he had in order to buy it. Both men had to sell all they had to obtain the treasure; and if we are to receive the kingdom of heaven, we too have to give up everything we have. This is the simple message we have presented to us in these parables, an idea that we are very familiar with.
I would like to look a little more closely at the different aspects of this parable, breaking it down into different parts and seeing what lessons we can learn from them. I would also, as we go along, like to convey to you what some writers suggest as an alternative meaning. Some of the ideas I’ve read take the little details of the parable a bit too far I feel, but certain ideas have their merits and perhaps should be considered as a parallel idea alongside the traditional view rather than an alternative.
Jesus uses the example of a merchant, or a trader. It would be the job of the merchant to look around all the places of trade to find his pearls, and then sell them on, hopefully for profit. The word merchant originally meant a passenger on a ship but it gradually became a term for a wholesale dealer, as opposed to a retailer. Rev 18:3, 11, 15, 23. The merchant would make trips far and wide to buy the specific merchandise that he had expertise in. This merchant knew the worth of pearls, and when he saw this pearl of great value he knew he had found something unbelievably special and he was very willing to pay the price required.
Jesus knew well of merchants as he was growing up. Nazareth was close to a major trade route linking Babylon to the north-east of Palestine, Egypt and the land to the south west. Traders would have passed right by his front door. However, this was an unusual merchant in that he only dealt in pearls and from what we are told in the scripture, nothing else.
The traditional view is that the merchant is a sinner like us, searching the world and then sacrificing all when he has found the kingdom of God, but I think we can also draw out some useful ideas if we consider that merchant to be Jesus Christ himself.
It is Christ who seeks the sinner, the shepherd who seeks the sheep, and not the other way round, and in a sense this is very true for it is Christ who calls to us from the pages of the scripture and seeks us out, but once we have been found by him it is up to us to follow him and seek out the kingdom of heaven for ourselves. So you can see that there is truth in both ideas, and this is why I think they should be seen in parallel rather than dismissing one idea in favour of the other.
So if we consider the merchant to be Christ, then what does the pearl represent? In the narrow sense it would represent the sinner that he seeks to save, but we get a much more interesting picture if we think of the pearl as the church that he paid the price for, that price was his life. The church is one pearl, one body composed of those he has sought out through the ages and he purchased it with his blood. Acts 20:28
It is pleasing to know that when Jesus finds us, we are not someone who he has stumbled across while on his travels, but rather Christ has been diligently searching for us and when he finds us we can be encouraged that he has seen something in us that was worth paying for with his life.
We can see that obtaining the kingdom of heaven requires a great price – we can’t buy it as such, for it is a gift from God given by his grace and we could of course never offer enough to God for its purchase, but on a personal level the implication is that we are required to give up all worldly things to obtain that wonderful treasure.
Christ on the other hand, who led a sinless life, perfect is every respect, can afford the great price that is needed, and so this parable also speaks to us of the tremendous price that Christ had to pay for our redemption.
We can still take more ideas away with us from this parable by considering the pearl itself. The word pearl is derived from Sanskrit, the ancient indo-european language and the word means ‘pure’.
But why not a diamond or another expensive gem? The quality of diamonds are graded according to their characteristics, the cut, colour, clarity and its carat-weight, and the diamond receives a significant amount of it’s beauty by the way it is cut… cut by man’s hands. The only natural gem that has more value when it is found than when man has finished with it is the pearl. Man can add nothing to the work of salvation.
… and unlike other gems or precious stones, the pearl is produced by a living organism. The formation of a pearl is the result of an injury to the oyster, usually some foreign body such as a grain of sand or a parasite that has invaded the oyster’s shell. Instead of ejecting it and pushing it out again, the foreign object is covered with layer upon layer of a substance secreted from the oyster’s body called nacre, until through pain and suffering it forms an object of great beauty and value.
We can think of the experiences of the oyster on a spiritual level. We are the irritant in God’s creation because of our sinful nature, but because he loves us, he has covered us with Christ and gradually we become a thing of beauty clothed with the righteousness of him who bought our lives with his blood.
We can make a number of other comparisons to other objects used for teaching in the Bible. The mustard seed for example, starts off small like the pearl, but while the mustard seed becomes the largest of all herbs, the pearl remains quite small yet stunning in beauty showing that size doesn’t always determine value.
We can make another comparison with ourselves, in that the pearl sits in a mass of live but corruptible flesh, and only when the pearl is separated from that and cleaned does it show its true value and glory. So it is with us, and to a wider extent the church; we are surrounded by and embedded in this corruptible world, but it is not until we separate ourselves and are cleansed from it that we show our true worth. While we remain in the corruptible world we are of no value, but that potential cannot be seen from the outside. The oyster appears to be just another barnacle covered shell, of little value and we cannot tell someone’s worth by looking at them, but the Lord can see within, he can look into our hearts and see the worth that lies within.
The longer the pearl stays in the oyster the more valuable it gets. When we started out we were nothing more than an irritation, but the longer we spend applying the covering of Christ to ourselves, the more precious we become, and by God’s grace we can be of some value to His kingdom.
Finally, another lovely image we get from the oyster is that before we can see the beauty the oyster has to die, it has to be ripped open with a knife in the side. Before we can see the glory of the kingdom of heaven, it was necessary that Christ died for us.
This parable shows us the truth about those ‘who hunger and thirst for righteousness’. We might stumble across the treasure of the kingdom, but why should we want to risk that for only a few will be fortunate enough to stumble across salvation. What can we do to help ourselves? Well, we need to be more like that merchant, searching for the pearl of great price and once we have found it, paying the price that is required. And how can we do that?
The Ethiopian eunuch is a good example for us to follow. (Acts 8:27-28) We must read the scriptures and study them, we must apply the scriptures to the best of out understanding and also we should be open to what others may have to share concerning the scriptures for with the help of Philip, the Ethiopian was able to further his understanding and subsequently he found his pearl and was baptised.
With readiness of mind the Bereans received the word of God, and they searched their scriptures daily, letting the scriptures act as their authority on all things.
Many others showed the attitude required; Cornelius and Lydia for example. Are we prepared to pay the price that is necessary to obtain that pearl of great price?