In these waning summer weeks, we are taking a deep look at some of Jesus’ parables – stories that have, from the very start, offered a challenging and sometimes confusing description of God, Jesus, and our own faithfulness as disciples. As we’ve named the past couple weeks, sometimes the past 2,000 years of interpretation offer the biggest challenge to hearing the parables with the ears of those 1st Century Jewish listeners to whom Jesus was originally speaking. Many scholars, preachers, theologians, and others have put such a self-centered spin on the text, that we often find it hard to fully understand what Jesus was trying to teach.
As an example, I want to reflect back to last week’s text in Luke 10 regarding the Parable that is often titled, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” In our Deep Dive conversation following church, among other lines of discussion, a question was posed that I think the traditional reading of the parable skips over. We spend so much time identifying with the Samaritan, (that is, we want to be the one who is praised for their good work,) that when studying this text, we almost forget about the man who was the first named in the story – the man who fell upon robbers and was left half-dead on the side of the road. In our Deep Dive conversation group, the question was asked, “What are we missing by focusing on the Samaritan, and not on the man left on the side of the road?”
Such a question, and any question of its kind, that directs us to hear Jesus’ words anew is a worthy question to be asked. I believe we learn from Jesus best when we understand what the disciples learned from his teachings themselves, and then considering how such a teaching would be addressed to us today.
Today’s text, though brief, offers another challenging departure from centuries of commentary and teaching. Let’s set the parable in context:
The 13th Chapter of Matthew offers parables in rapid fire succession. There are seven parables, and two parable explanations, found in just 50 verses. The first four of these seven parables are offered by Jesus to a large crowd of followers. He explains two of these four parables – not to the crowds, but to the disciples, who asked, “Jesus, why do you speak to the crowds in parables?”
In responding to their question, Jesus answers, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” … He says rather bluntly that he speaks to the crowds in parables because they are unable to see and hear the truth of the message Jesus is speaking. And yet, while Jesus says the disciples have the ability to understand, he still has to explain the parables to them. Without explanation, we’re left to decide whether we fit into the crowd, or if we’re part of the privileged disciples.
Such a necessitated explanation by Jesus, even to the disciples, who are said to have the ears to hear and eyes to see, should make one thing quite clear, the parables are not easily understandable. They were not spoken by Jesus with the expectation that they would be easily decipherable. If we hear a parable and go, “yeah, yeah, yeah, that confirms everything I’ve ever believed or thought,” we’re probably not hearing the parable for what it’s meant to offer. These stories of Jesus were intentionally challenging and provocative. If a parable isn’t provoking, it’s likely not being read with the desired intent it was spoken .
The parable of the pearl is offered by Jesus as one of the final three in Matthew 13 that are offered in quick succession just to the disciples. Jesus is no longer speaking to the crowds.
Throughout the historical study of this text, it has been suggested that the parable is an easy allegorical teaching that offers that Jesus is the pearl, and that our job as disciples is to seek as the merchant to find Jesus. Others suggest that the pearl is the gospel, and that we have to seek as the merchant to find the good news. In these, and other allegorical options, the focus of the teaching is on the merchant and the pearl. We are the merchant and some entity of God is the pearl. Such offerings are easy to understand, because they confirm our preconceived notions of faithfulness. It’s easy to relate such a reading to our belief about how faithfulness and discipleship work – in any of these scenarios, it’s on us to seek [God’s entity] with all that we have, and upon finding [God’s entity], we’re to give up everything else we have and replace it with [God’s entity], whether that’s Christ, the gospel, the truth … whatever the pearl represents.
Yet, when we refuse to accept past teachings simply because someone else said “it is so,” we start to see that what Jesus says doesn’t confirm any of these allegorical teachings. While they are nice and neat, and make us feel good about our pursuit of Christ, it would do us well to challenge such a reading and look a bit deeper into the text.
For starters, in a simplistic rebuttal, any reading to suggests that Christ, the gospel, or another entity of God is represented by the pearl, suggests that faithfulness is about a capitalistic financial transaction. It suggests that the pearl is just another commodity worth pursuing. The merchant isn’t just looking for one pearl, he’s looking for all the finest pearls. He only sells all he has to buy the one pearl after realizing that this one is of exponentially greater value than the rest. If you take a portion of the story as allegorical, you have to take it all as allegory, and that would suggest that there are many gods, many Jesus’s, many gospels (or whatever else you think the pearl represents) that are worth investing in … but still one that is greater than the rest. Such a reading rejects the basics of our Judeo-Christian theology that says there is but one God, one Messiah, one heavenly kingdom, or one gospel of truth. The allegory begins to break down.
Another rebuttal for such a reading is that pearls were not something the average Jewish listener could fathom searching after. Indeed, pearls were such rare items that the average person in Israel in the 1st Century would have never seen one. It’s likely that the disciples, to whom Jesus was speaking, would have never seen a pearl themselves. Pearls were far more expensive than gems or jewels at the time, and were generally only owned by the wealthiest in the community. As such an expensive commodity, pearls are also named in the Biblical text among lists of items that were indicative of unfaithfulness. For example, in 1 Timothy 2, the author is giving instructions for prayer, and offers this, “Men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument, and women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.” I’m not surprised that this text wasn’t used with any regularity where I grew up outside Atlanta – anyone who grew up in the South knows that every woman had her set of pearls, and she probably wore them to church on Sunday. I can imagine a pastor trying that once, but I can’t imagine it going well. … It seems unlikely, with such negative Biblical thoughts toward such valuable goods, that Jesus would equate himself, or the kingdom of heaven, to such a lavish item.
Allegorical readings that equate Godly entities with the pearl are also easily rejected by actually reading the text.
In verse 45, as Jesus begins the parable, Jesus does not say,“The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl …” The pearl is not the item Jesus is focused on. Instead, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, having found a pearl of great value, sold all he had and bought it.” “The emphasis is not on the finding of the […] pearl, but on what the person does when they find it: “he went and sold all he had and bought it.””[i]
Also, as the story is told, the merchant did not set out to find one great pearl. The merchant was in search of fine pearls – a plural entity. He made his livelihood off this pursuit. He was not looking for pearls as a hobby, or as a unique passion. His job was as a merchant. He was in the acquisitions business, searching the world for fine pearls that could be sold at a profit in a business exchange. He is not setting out on a journey to find himself, “he is looking for a commodity that he will remarket.”[ii]
I imagine that many of us can relate to such a relentless pursuit. It is the DC ethos to work ourselves to exhaustion in such a singular occupational pursuit. Without any allegorical construction, we can understand the merchant’s pursuit, because it is not far from our own.
But then something happens for the merchant. He changes course mid-stream. While his work was focused on finding many (plural) great pearls, his pursuit comes to a startling halt. One day, while on the job, the merchant finds a singular pearl that is of greater value than anything he had ever seen before. In fact, this one pearl is so valuable, that the man can’t afford to buy it on the spot. He doesn’t have the credit to take it with him. So he went on, he went back home, and he sold everything he had to have enough to buy this one singular pearl. After selling everything he had – his home, his collection of other fine pearls, his clothes, his family antiquities … all he had … he went back and bought this singular pearl of great value. The merchant is literally a sell-out.
Can you imagine the person he was buying it from? The merchant shows up in his birthday suit wanting to buy your most valuable pearl, saying, “I literally sold everything I have, even the clothes off my back, so I can have this one item.” … Can you imagine the reaction of the seller?
What’s even more strange is that it doesn’t sound like this pearl of great value is just another commodity for the merchant. It doesn’t seem the merchant is acquiring this pearl of great value as an investment piece. The parable abruptly ends with the acquisition of this singular pearl of such great value. The purchase of this pearl has not changed his business, it has changed his purpose.
This parable plays itself out like the final episode of American Pickers, or Pawn Stars, or Storage Wars. You know these shows? These guys spend their lives acquiring antiquities, rare commodities, and other junky treasures. Can you imagine the finale of one of the shows, where they sell off every old rarity they’ve ever collected to buy a singular antiquity of such great value that they forever end their pursuit of such commodities?
“By finding the pearl of ultimate worth, the merchant stops being a merchant. […] he redefines himself, and we must see him anew as well.”[iii] It is this kind of change in identity that Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like …” “The kingdom is not the pearl, and it is not the merchant. The kingdom is what comes after, “it is like”: the kingdom is like a merchant who seeks pearls and who, upon finding what he was not expecting – the greatest of the great – makes every effort to attain it.”[iv]
This kind of exaggerated reaction to finding the pearl reminds me of the celebrations thrown by the sheep owner, the woman who lost her coin, and the father who’s younger son returned home after squandering half the family estate … there’s an unexpected joy that comes when we find what we’re looking for. Yet, this parable pushes the comfortable to a place of provocation – the merchant is not looking for a pearl of great value, he is a buyer and seller of fine pearls. He was not looking for an early retirement with one simple non-liquidated token of wealth remaining. The merchant, in the normal course of life and work, was struck by the value of something greater than he had ever imagined. The merchant stumbled upon something he had never imagined could be so good. He spent his life in pursuit of a singular goal, and found that there was something greater out there that he didn’t even know existed until he found it.
The reality is that for many of us – most of us even – life is similar to that of the merchant. We live in search of a commodified pursuit … another job, another degree, another sale, another promotion, another order, another pay check … that continual pursuit that we feel defines our day-to-day lives, and for some of us, defines our being. But as Jesus teaches, the kingdom of heaven is not defined by such monotonous pursuit of earthly commodities. “[The merchant] has reconceptualized both his past values and his future plans; the “magnitude of his life change” is paramount; he is no longer what he was.”[v] With such a vision for the kingdom, we are invited to consider, “Can we assess what is of ultimate value in our own lives?” Would we know the great pearl if we found it? And if we can identify what is of ultimate concern, “Are we willing to step aside from all we have to obtain all we want?”
Christ provokes and incites in the parables, and I don’t think we need to explain nice and neat concreate allegories for the parables to teach us about faithfulness and discipleship. The parables are meant to make us uncomfortable, just as they did the disciples to whom they were first spoken. So perhaps the best question to ask, is, do you perceive what Christ is teaching?
May God give us ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to receive the good news of Christ our Lord. Amen.