Jesus told a one-sentence parable about a man who “sold all that he had.” He was a merchant who found something so precious that it far surpassed even the sum of all the other treasures he held dear.
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)
One supremely precious pearl. One single pearl of exceedingly great value. So great, in fact, so precious, that he sold everything, including all his other fine pearls, to buy this one surpassingly great pearl.
Jesus Taught in Twos
Jesus pairs this parable with another one-sentence lesson about treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). Jesus often does this in his teaching: pairing two illustrations, each with their individual emphases, to make the same general point (Carson, Matthew, 376).
Earlier in Matthew 13, it’s mustard seeds with leaven (Matthew 13:31–33), to show God’s surprising way of bringing to earth the fullness of heaven’s kingdom. In Matthew 13:44–46, Jesus accents the superlative worth of his kingdom. The pairing not only reinforces the point, but fills out the picture, and introduces new contours of meaning.
Treasure and Pearl
In the first parable (Matthew 13:44), the hidden treasure is found “by chance,” it seems, without the man looking intentionally for it. In the surprise of it all, the accent falls on his shocking and happy response: from his joy he goes and sells all he has to buy the field. Joy flooded his heart as he stumbled on such value.
In the second parable (Matthew 13:45–46), we have a merchant. He is looking. He is searching high and low, near and far. Well does he know the value of pearls. In the ancient world, pearls “were regarded as very precious,” says George Knight, “in more demand even than gold” (Pastoral Epistles, 135). And this merchant is not just seeking pearls but “fine pearls” — beautiful pearls, precious pearls. His palate is refined. He has a keen eye.
The merchant’s life has been bound up with pursuing the most precious of earthly objects. Now, he comes across one singular pearl of such beauty, of such great value, one pearl so precious, he goes and sells all he has to have it. The emphasis is not on his accidental find but on the over-the-top fulfillment of an intentional search. Now the accent is not on the subjective response of joy but on the exceedingly precious value of the object.
Worth Every Sacrifice
Together the short parables contribute to one picture, seen in the obvious repetition: the man sells all he has to obtain the newfound treasure. However accidental or intentional the search, the man has come upon something of such value that he is eager (“from his joy”) to count all else loss in view of the surpassing value of the treasure — of the exceeding preciousness of the pearl.
Neither parable minimizes the cost. In fact, both draw attention to it: literally, “all things, as much he has.” There is a cost — a great cost — to this discipleship. But the Discipler, who is himself the Treasure, so far outstrips the cost that we gladly say, “Gain!” This one great pearl is so surpassingly precious that many even say with the great army of missionaries and martyrs, like David Livingstone, “I never made a sacrifice.”
What will it look like for Christ’s kingdom to come to us like this? How do we receive Jesus as an infinitely valuable treasure, or a singularly great pearl, that far surpasses all else? The concept of superlative worth or supreme preciousness in Matthew 13 points us to at least two pictures elsewhere in the New Testament.
The first is the anointing at Bethany (John 12:3–8; also Mark 14:3–9). Martha served. Lazarus, freshly resurrected, reclined at table. Their sister Mary “took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3). Here, expensive is the same word used for the one great pearl in Matthew 13 (Greek polutimos, “exceedingly precious”). So manifestly, uncomfortably valuable was the ointment that the disciples, and chiefly Judas, registered their concerns. “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5).
A denarius was a laborer’s daily wage. This ointment represented a whole year’s earnings for a six-days-a-week worker. Likely this was Mary’s nest egg for the future. And yet, as precious as it was, she saw Jesus as more precious. She saw him as surpassingly valuable. She poured her future on his feet, and in doing so, she demonstrated who was supremely precious to her.
Paul takes up the same search, sacrifice, and joy in Philippians 3. Did he perhaps see himself in the merchant of Jesus’s parable? If so, what were the “fine pearls” he amassed before encountering the supreme preciousness of Christ? He provides a list: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5–6).
As a leader among the strictest sect of his religion, he had an unassailable pedigree (what he couldn’t control, by birth) and performance (what he could, by effort). These were fine pearls indeed. Until he stumbled upon a Treasure who confronted him, knocked him off his horse, and opened his eyes. This was a Treasure that had been hidden from Paul, and yet one he had long been seeking. Now Paul saw Jesus as the one great Pearl of all-surpassing preciousness, and he counted all to be loss — both pedigree and performance — in view of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Jesus became to him both an infinitely priceless Treasure to gain and a supremely precious Pearl to know.
God, in all his divine goodness, took on flesh in this one man Jesus. “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Finding him as your one Precious will not poison and shrink your soul. He is the antidote to what ails us, the catalyst to expand our small hearts, the surprising remedy we’ve long been seeking.