“The kingdom of heaven is like a man, a merchant, seeking fine pearls; on finding one pearl of extremely great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
My first college class ever was World Religions. I was seventeen, a high school senior. I was out of place, uncertain, and young. Instead of going around the room and sharing our name and favorite food or something, Ms. Spring requested we stand and declare to the class our “ultimate concern.” Our professor explained that religions all have an ultimate concern and so do individuals. It shouldn’t be a big deal to profess or confess what concerns you above all else to a room of people if you’re a stable, self-aware, mature human, right? But who is at 17? Or 21? I think I uttered something about education and children, but I had no idea what my “ultimate concern” was! (And that was probably her point.) I’ll never forget that though, and the parable of the pearl of great price reminds me that maybe I still don’t know…
Common interpretations of this parable discuss the sacrifice of choosing to follow God, in which case we are the man and Jesus is the pearl, or the commitment of God to salvage us, in which case God is the man and we are the pearl(s). These interpretations are valid, but I think I can offer a more challenging one that acknowledges the initial search for multiple pearls, the unexpected purchase of a single pearl, and the effect of the purchase on the man’s identity. Hopefully, together we can learn a bit about what is most important to ourselves and our neighbors.
I found many English translations stating the kingdom “is like a merchant.” But Matthew’s initial Greek descriptor is anthropos, “a man” or “a person.” That man happens to be a merchant, an emporos, but that is secondary to his humanity. In modern day, “merchant” has a positive and nostalgic connotation; it might conjure images of old men selling homemade goods in booths at a festival. The images in the minds of those who heard Jesus tell this parable were not so wholesome. We know this because every other usage of the word “emporos” in scripture is associated with sin and corruption. Emporoi sell Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37:28) and then other Israelites too (1 Macc. 3:41; 2 Macc. 8:34). In the New Testament, the only other mention of merchants is in Revelation, where “kings of the earth…have committed fornication with [the whore]” and are described to be “like the merchants of the earth” (Rev. 18:3). Merchants are salesmen. They are suspect; they are manipulative. They perhaps sell things people do not need for prices they cannot afford. The kingdom is like a merchant? I’m not sure I’m with you anymore, Jesus…
It is easy to assume that the pearl must represent Christ or the gospel because it is meant to be the most desirable and valuable thing. But the parable doesn’t compare the kingdom to the pearl; it compares it to a man. Besides, in a similar way as the merchant, pearls were a symbol of conspicuous consumption to Jesus’ listeners.
It is not sacrilege to ignore the absurdity and spontaneity of the merchant’s actions either. Beginning by seeking many fine pearls and ending up with one perfect one, the merchant cannot be rightfully said to have found what he was searching for. Nor can we say he found the meaning of his life. He found a pearl, not purpose. The merchant seeks and then finds, but what he looks for and discovers is not the Kingdom of God. Yes, like the disciples, he forsakes all he has to obtain what he finds, but unlike the disciples he does not give to the poor or change his lifestyle. The man has fulfilled what he though was his desire, but it cannot nourish, shelter, or clothe him. Few of us could imagine taking such a risk.
Now that I’ve completely bashed the merchant, how can he be like the Kingdom?
Well, whether foolish or wise, risky or dedicated, the merchant has changed his identity. By purchasing the pearl of ultimate worth, our merchant is no longer a merchant. He is redefined. Most of my thoughts are consumed by wondering what happened to the man after the parable. What does a former merchant with no possessions do with an expensive pearl? How does he later feel about his decision?
It’s obvious that the man saw some beauty and purpose in the pearl that we don’t. He changed his longing for the many into the one, and then he stopped looking. The kingdom is not the merchant nor is it the pearl; it is a man, a merchant, who seeking fine pearls, finds the greatest pearl, and makes every effort to obtain it. The merchant found what he wanted, but it was not what he was looking for. He has reconceptualized both his past values and his future plans; he is no longer what he was.
Really, what the parable is about is a man in the wrong profession looking for the wrong thing and ends up with the wrong result. The merchant’s standards are alternative, truly counter-cultural. He has the ability to recognize what for him has true value, and he is willing to do whatever he needs to do in order to obtain it.
We are all searching for something: a job, a relationship, a degree are common things. But each time we obtain our goal, we’re ephemerally satisfied. There is always a promotion, a commitment, a higher degree. We flit from desire to desire, never permanently satisfied, always restless and discontent.
The merchant’s actions show us that knowing one’s pearl of great price obliterates all other desires. He has stepped out of the cycle completely, no longing buying and selling and seeking and finding and wanting and wanting more.
Will you know what you truly desire when you find it?
I am reluctant to describe the parable in terms of sacrifice. There is no indication that the man struggled to give up his possessions for his pearl. It seems rather that he gave up something lesser for something greater, hardly a sacrifice. And he doesn’t see the pearl as relatively better; it is all.
Will you be willing to go “all in” for an ultimate concern?
Think about for what you would sell everything for. Like me, you probably think the kingdom! But that can’t be, because we haven’t and most people don’t. Whatever our ultimate concern is, I expect most of us lack the courage to change our lives, our identities, for the sake of our greatest desire. We may not even know what that is. Some of us may only realize our pearl after it’s taken away from us.
We also should consider the fact that many other people’s pearls of great price our things we take for granted. Freedom. Safety.
Do you know your neighbor’s ultimate concern?
We must also realize that not all pearls on the market are cultured. Some are fake, even though their prices can be exceptionally high as well.
Is your ultimate concern helpful or harmful?
Our merchant could now be called “the man with one magnificent pearl.”
How will you be renamed by your pearl of great price?