“The Pearl of Great Price”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text is from today’s Gospel reading, the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. And I think there are two reasons why this particular parable made an impression upon Matthew, and stuck in his mind.
First of all, there was Matthew’s profession before Jesus called him to be one of the twelve apostles. One of Matthew’s responsibilities as a tax collector was to inspect the cargo of ships and camel caravans and collect the import and export duties. As a tax collector, Matthew worked every day with wholesale merchants just like the pearl trader in Jesus’ parable. Many a time Matthew had taken a pearl trader’s pouch and spread the pearls out before him and calculated their value so that the Roman Empire could take its cut.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.”
In the ancient world, pearls were considered to be the most rare and valuable of gemstones, much more valuable than diamonds. You’ve heard the expression, “Worth its weight in gold”? In the Roman world, even ordinary pearls were worth three times their weight in pure gold. Enormous fortunes were paid for a single pearl with perfect shape, smoothness, color, and luster. The Roman historian Pliny reports that Cleopatra possessed a single pearl worth the equivalent today of over $25 million dollars.
The merchant in Jesus’ parable would have been an expert in his field, a connoisseur of fine pearls. As a wholesale dealer he would travel the ancient east, buying large quantities of ordinary pearls for resale. But, none of those ordinary pearls was what he really desired. In all his travels and in every deal that he made, what that merchant was really looking for, what he was always hoping would be placed before him, was that one special pearl, that one special pearl which his trained eye would recognize, that one special pearl like the famous pearl of Cleopatra, that one special pearl which would finally make him his fortune. “When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” He took his pouch full of the ordinary pearls he had accumulated and sold them all to buy that one special pearl.
A parable is said to be “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” and to Matthew, the earthly story of this parable was very familiar and true to life. But, what is the heavenly meaning of the parable?
The ordinary pearls in the parable represent all the things of this world, what Jesus calls, in another parable, “the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.” This is an especially important warning for us in 21st century, middle-class America. For, we are surrounded by huge mountains of the ordinary pearls of this world. “The cares of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth” threaten to suffocate our faith, because we think these ordinary pearls are what’s really important in life. Unlike the merchant in the parable, we are not willing to give up all the ordinary pearls of this world for “the pearl of great price.”
What does the “pearl of great price” in this parable represent? A beautiful pearl is actually created by a serious injury to an oyster. Just as an oyster must be sacrificed to produce a pearl, the “pearl of great price” in this parable represents the salvation Jesus procured for you by his sacrifice. The “pearl of great price” represents the forgiveness of sins Jesus earned for you by his suffering and death. As Hebrews says, “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once, for all.” Just as a beautiful pearl is created only by the sacrifice of an oyster, you have been made spiritually beautiful, holy and accepted in God’s sight, by the sacrifice of God’s Son.
That is why the book of Revelation describes the gates of heaven as being made of pearls, each gate one enormous, impossibly large pearl. That imagery in Revelation symbolizes that the only way to get into heaven is through the “pearl of great price,” through faith in the forgiveness and salvation Jesus merited for you.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
Another reason I think this particular parable stuck in Matthew’s mind is its similarity to Matthew’s own life. Before he became Jesus’ disciple, Matthew was like the merchant in the parable, always searching for that special something which would finally bring him happiness.
Matthew’s job as a tax collector and the enormous personal wealth that it brought him were like the ordinary pearls of the pearl trader; they did not really satisfy, and Matthew gladly gave them all up the day he finally found the “pearl of great price:” “Jesus saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him. And Matthew got up, left everything and followed him.”
The point of the parable is: Don’t be so preoccupied with all the things of this life that you neglect your eternal well-being. Don’t strive so much after the ordinary pearls of everyday life that you miss out on the “pearl of great price.” Don’t be so engrossed with “the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth” that you forget about the world to come.
In our busy lives there is so much competition for our time and energy and attention: work, family life, home responsibilities, recreation, socializing, so many different groups and organizations and activities. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. They are all gifts of God, valuable and important parts of your life, like the ordinary pearls of the pearl trader.
But, “When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” The point is not that you should do away with all those other aspects of your life. It is a matter of priorities. The point is, don’t let any of those other things take over the number one place in your life, the place reserved for the “pearl of great price.” As Paul says in Philippians, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul beautifully sums up the point of this parable in Colossians: “Set your hearts on things above . . . not on earthly things.”
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” “Set your hearts on things above . . . not on earthly things.” Trust in Christ as your Savior, and make him #1, the “pearl of great price,” in your heart and your life.Amen.