We have all heard sermons on the Pearl of Great Price. It is a common topic among pastors because the message is seemingly quite clear. The Pearl is Jesus or the Kingdom of God and those that are wise go after it whole heartedly, spending their life and possessions in order to obtain it.
But is its meaning really that simple?
This parable, like others, only appears in Matthew which I find rather peculiar. Most scholars agree that this gospel was emphasizing Jesus the Jewish fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jews in the Old Testament. If that was the goal, then we should look at its parables through that lens.
A pearl was chosen for this parable because at that time there was nothing more valuable in their world than a pearl. Diamonds or other jewels did not have the preeminence that they hold today because, firstly pearls were rarer than they are today; and secondly, with a pearl came an understanding of suffering, something that Jewish people understood all too well.
In fact, unlike today, suffering was respected across much of the ancient world. The Romans also had a deep respect for suffering, even though they were often the very ones who caused it. Still, with being those who initiated it, they understood they could see the truthfulness of a person by testing how they reacted to suffering.
This is not the case in our modern world today. “American Jesus” would be expected to cast off oppression and anyone who would try to subjugate Him. We would expect Jesus to look a lot more like Rambo than the Jesus we read about, because suffering doesn’t have a value to us anymore. Why suffer when you can fight and gain the upper hand? We think this way, not because we have become wiser, but rather the opposite.
There were some “nations” in Jesus day who did not see the point of suffering. One of those groups was the Egyptians. Cleopatra once bet Mark Anthony that she could consume 10,000,000 sesterces worth of dessert in one sitting. After having him agree to the bet, she took a huge pearl, dropped it in vinegar, and after watching it dissolve, quickly drank it all. This would be sacrilege to a Roman, not just because of the pearl’s huge value, but because it showed so little respect to the concept of something beautiful being created through suffering. It was such a shocking thing that the story has survived to this day.
The one part of the parable that is rarely talked about is the fact that the person selling everything to get this great pearl was a merchant. This is a person that many of that time would assume to be corrupt – one who easily put aside his morale’s in order to make a deal with people he should otherwise not be talking to, let alone doing business with. Merchants were those necessary “warts” on Jewish society that they knew were needed, but never to be trusted. Why would Jesus choose one of these to be a wise person in His story?
That may have been the point. Jesus choose an unsavory personality to show that anyone could come to understand the value of the Kingdom. We are all merchants actually – those who trade our lives for things we believe we need to survive in this world. In truth we too often will trade our precious time here for things that quickly become worthless.
Jesus understood this baseness of all mankind and said through His parable that there is hope even for us if we valued Him above everything else. In fact, this merchant sold ALL he had.
We prefer the Jesus that allows us to have Him AND the other stuff. That Jesus, like the Rambo version, may be a delusion.
Christians today, think they have the advantage of reading Jesus parables after they have been explained in detail by countless theologians through the past 2000 years. We think we can read them, then the commentary on them, and understand their deep truths without giving them much ponderance… but we are wrong.
The parables are not stale stories of a time gone by, but rather living and breathing truths that can reveal new secrets to each generation. They remain riddles even today, which can only be understood by taking the time to think through their relevance anew, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict us in a way that might be different than in the past.
They are dynamic in their truth, and those that accept the “boxed” meaning of them, do so at their own peril.
-The Loan Arranger