One of the shortest parables in the Bible goes like this: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:45–46)."
That's all. Two verses.
At the end of the series of parables in which this story is included, Jesus asked his listeners if they understood. They said Yes. I say No.
Traditional teaching about this brief account points to the comparative value of the pearl and the kingdom of heaven. I've heard sermons explaining that both are worth everything. If one seeks to obtain the kingdom, the cost is nothing less than total commitment.
Yet, several aspects of this parable trouble me. Why a merchant? Why a pearl instead of something else, a diamond perhaps? And, what did the merchant do with the pearl after he bought it? Don't merchants resell things? Is the kingdom of heaven supposed to be for sale?
I wonder if a different perspective might offer some additional insight.
First, the parable likens the kingdom heaven to the situation, not to the pearl itself. Although the story's plot turns on one pearl of great value, it was just the best among other fine pearls—its value based on the greater amount someone would be willing to pay. Surely, the kingdom of heaven is unique. The kingdom of heaven is more like the extremes to which the merchant went to acquire the pearl. That willingness to give up everything seems more exceptional than the gem.
What if Jesus envisioned himself as the hero of this particular parable? After all, a merchant's job involves seeking things people need (or at least want), and elsewhere Jesus explains, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).
The merchant of this story was looking for pearls, a type of gem formed through living, biological processes. Pearls are also more easily injured than harder gemstones. The Mohs scale, which is used to describe the hardness of gemstones runs from 1 (talc) to 10 (diamonds). Pearls vary in hardness from about 2.5 to about 4.5, which makes them softer than a host of other valuable gems. Therefore, the merchant sold everything to purchase this easily injured thing of matchless value. The story ends once it is acquired.
Perhaps we're meant to understand that the kingdom of heaven has been acquired, that it needs faithful care, and to remember what it cost the one who purchased it on our behalf.
*Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®) copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good New Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Observations: A Pier Press® Newsletter. To view the complete newsletter, visit our online archives. Also, please consider becoming a subscriber so that future editions can be delivered directly to your inbox. Subscriptions are free!