Parable of the Pearl of Great Price

Matthew 13:45-46 (Amy-Jill Levine’s Translation from the Greek)

“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.”

NRSV: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Gospel of Thomas, saying 76 (Doresse translation)

“Jesus says: ‘The Kingdom…is like a man, a merchant, who has a burden and found a pearl. This merchant is a wise man: he sold the bundle and bought the pearl alone.’”

The Burmese Pearl by Bill Lindemulder

Several years ago, in Burma, several of us were invited to the home of the chief of AID to witness a unique event. A Burmese man was coming to show us an amazing object, a large pearl, for which he hoped to find a buyer. He thought the pearl to be worth tens of thousands of rupees, maybe more; this would be his retirement. A package was carefully unwrapped. It contained a misshapen gem of a mottled blue-black color, slightly more than an inch in diameter. We suggested we take it to a UN gem expert, who was then advising the Burmese government, for his opinion. Yes, it was a pearl.  Yes, it was unique. A gem collector might be interested; its value—30-40 dollars. What to tell this Burmese man?

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man…”

            It starts out rather unassuming – almost like a fairytale. “There once was a man…” But as simply as it begins, by the end of this little story, you don't know if you’re coming or going. There’s no conclusion that explains the secrets and mysteries of the story. No culminating remarks to tie up the loose ends.

There is no ending at all really. And throughout the story, there’s a bit of uncertainty about where it’s all going and what it all means and then its over in a flash. Nevertheless, the message that this, or any, parable communicates cannot be communicated in any other from than in the parable itself. As Sally McFague says, “there is no way around the metaphor to what is ‘really’ being said.”[1] Eugene Boring adds that parables have “no ‘point’ at all that can be stated in non-parabolic language. A parable is like a musical composition, a painting, or a poem in that it is not an illustration of a prosaic point, but is itself an inseparable unity of form and meaning.”[2]

There is no one-for-one key for a clear interpretation like you would have with an allegory. In other words, Jesus is not like the merchant, we are not like the pearl, as some are wont to interpret the story. There simply are no simple methods for reducing the confusion into which the parable plunges us. We can only, as C. H. Dodd says, allow ourselves to be arrested by its “vividness [and] strangeness,” letting the story leave our minds in sufficient doubt about the story’s precise application such that our imaginations are teased into active thought.[3]

The kingdom – one of Jesus’ central concerns throughout his ministry – the kingdom is like this whole strange, little story.

            And the story begins with one man. It very well could have been a woman, like in the parable of the yeast, but this time around, it was a man: There once was a man…

His business was buying and selling. This man was a merchant. Most interpretations that focus on the centrality of the pearl or the giving up of one’s possessions so regularly miss this detail. But he story is so compact, each detail so tightly tethered to every other detail, that we shouldn’t miss the fact that this man was a merchant. It could be important.  

There once was a man, a merchant. His business was buying and selling. It is what he does. His identity was as tied to his being a merchant as his livelihood was. When people at parties making small talk ask him, “So, what do you do?,” his answer is simple: “I’m a merchant.”

            It probably wouldn’t have gotten him very far into the social circle, as the role of merchant “in the Bible, and elsewhere in antiquity, generally has negative connotations.”[4] You know the type: always trying to put you in a new car or pitch you their latest get-rich-quick scheme over cocktails or offer you “a really good deal” on just what you need to make your life complete.

            But it’s what he did – this man, this merchant. And he was, evidently, quite good at it, as he was currently on the mission of seeking fine pearls.

Now, this detail may not mean much to you and me, but “[pearls] are jewels that the majority of the population of the Roman Empire would never have seen, save in artistic depictions.”[5] Pearls have long been known as the “Queen of Gems” and, in the ancient world, pearls didn’t serve as adornment to other, more precious, gems. Pearls were, in and of themselves, a treasure – some of the most expensive jewelry in the world. Both “the Romans and the Egyptians prized pearls above all other gems.”[6] One ancient historian wrote that the Roman Emperor, Vitellius, financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.[7] Pearls were, without doubt, the jewelry of the super rich in the First Century context.

            There once was a man, a merchant. His business was buying and selling – it was his identity and his livelihood: being a merchant. And he was so good at it! So good that he traded in one of the world’s costliest gems: pearls. And that’s exactly what he was looking for – pearls of the finest quality – because he knew he could sell them. It’s what his high-end clientele were after!

But one exceedingly beautiful pearl put a halt to that search and changed the course of his life forever.

He wasn’t even a collector himself, he was a merchant – someone very good at buying items and selling them with a hefty markup – but this was a pearl he wasn’t sure he could even afford and if he could manage to purchase it, he would never give it up. And that's exactly what he did.

But it wasn’t like every other exchange of money for goods and goods for money – the day in, day out routine of a merchant. Purchasing this pearl of extremely great value altered his entire way of life, as he “went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Purchasing this pearl of extremely great value changed his identity, as he could no longer say at parties, “Oh yes, I’m a merchant,” because merchants have to be in the business of buying and selling and this one transaction put an end to that exchange. He sold everything just to buy it and, thus, he had no more merchandise to sell to anyone. There once was a man who used to be a merchant…

Now the Gospel of Thomas says the merchant is a “wise man” to have sold his “bundle of goods” and purchased the pearl alone, but not Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, the question of whether the merchant displays wisdom or folly is left completely in the air. In Thomas, the merchant sells his bundle – his burden of goods, his merchandize – and buys the pearl. But in Matthew, Amy-Jill Levine says that the Greek phrase used here “suggests that the merchant sold more than just his merchandise. It indicates all possessions—his home, food, clothing, provisions for his family if he had one.”[8]

There once was a man, a merchant. His business was buying and selling, and he was very good at it. So he sets out in search of fine pearls for his wealthy clientele, but upon finding one exceedingly beautiful pearl, he gave up the merchandizing business, shed his identity as a merchant, even  sold his own family’s material comforts, just to possess it.

Importantly, it’s not that he gave away all his wealth, as if making a sacrifice for a good cause. He liquidated his assets and purchased something of exceedingly great value. What he got out of the transaction was probably the finest gem anyone he had ever known would have ever seen. It was so exceedingly beautiful – of such extravagant worth – that it redefines for him the notion of what a pearl can be. Far from a sacrifice, he now holds in his possession one of the ancient world’s greatest treasures.

But once he obtained that pearl, it becomes monetarily worthless to him.

This former merchant isn’t like the Burmese man in Bill’s story who hopes to sell his precious treasure and retire on the profit. This man simply desires to possess this special pearl. His desire to possess the pearl puts its monetary worth out of mind because he can’t have it for himself and also monetize its value on the market. It is simultaneously of supreme value and rendered monetarily worthless because of his deep desire to keep it.

He couldn’t have seen this coming. He was a merchant, after all – his business was buying and selling. He wasn’t even looking for something so brilliant, so beautiful.  He was in search of fine pearls for his wealthy clientele, never suspecting that he could be so taken aback by the beauty of one special pearl that he’d hand over everything he had just to possess it. But that’s how the strange little story goes – this parable of the kingdom of God.

There once was a man, a merchant. His business was buying and selling, and he was very good at it. So he sets out in search of fine pearls for his wealthy clientele, but upon finding one exceedingly beautiful pearl, he gave up the merchandizing business, shed his identity as a merchant, and sold all of his own family’s assets, just to possess it.

Maybe his family begged him not to sell the house and property. “It is a reckless move!,” they told him. His friends talked until they were blue in the face trying to get him to reconsider. “What could possibly be worth that much?,” they asked him. “What will you even do with it?” But most of them had never even seen a pearl, much less one like he had just discovered that redefined pearlness. And the man – the soon to be former merchant – was incredulous to reason.

            He liquidated it all – held an auction, sold everything he had, piece by piece. It was his last great act as a merchant. And he was good at it. And he needed to be, this pearl would take every penny he could get for his possessions. And his family just stood by and watched him, auctioning off all of their household goods to their friends and neighbors like a madman.

            “There goes the couch. I really liked that couch,” his daughter says.

            “I know dear,” her mother says. “Oh, and look, he’s selling my mother’s antique broach to that Doris from down the street. I already hate that woman, and now she’s going to be wearing my mother’s broach all around town.”

            “I know mom, but he did get a very good price for it.”

            “I know, dear. Your father is a very good salesman.”

            And when it was all gone and he had enough money, he wrapped all the cash up in the shirt off his own back and took it to the pearl’s owner and handed it all over – everything he had – and took his pearl from the hand of it’s former owner and just held it, looking at it intently, turning over and over it in his hand, all the way home.

John Caputo says the kingdom is not about a location. The kingdom, he says, is about a “certain way to live in time.”[9] “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.” By the end, you don't know if you’re coming or going. That is, if you can even consider the story having and ending at all. The kingdom is not like the pearl or like the merchant but the kingdom is like this whole strange litle scene where the line between wisdom and folly is imperceptible and one man recklessly reprioritizes his whole life to fulfill a desire he didn’t even know he had that was awakened in him by the discovery of something he never expected to find. When confronted with the question of what is most valuable in life, he responds in a way that is surprising, even to him – and seemed astounding and senseless to those around him.

Since he had nothing else to sell and trade or any money to start the business over again, he can no longer legitimately consider himself a merchant. Now he takes odd jobs to get by and support his family.

And everywhere he goes, he shows the pearl to friends and family and even to strangers because it is too beautiful to describe with words alone. He pulls it out of the small leather pouch he keeps tied to his waist and hold it in the palm of his hand like you would hold a delicate object. He never brags about the pearl, because he knows he didn’t create it – no human could create such a thing of beauty. He was just fortunate enough to find it and to have enough to purchase it.

And everyone he shows it to says to the man, “Why don’t you sell that pearl? You were such a good salesman! You could get so much money for it! Think of all of that you could do with that money? You’d probably never have to work again. What good is it doing you in that pouch? Sell the pearl!”

And the man just smiles and look at the pearl that his friends implore him to get rid of because it’s ruined his livelihood and derailed his career. Once, he could never imagine finding such a thing of extravagant beauty. Now, he can’t imagine not being able to see the pearl every day. And he slips it back into his leather pouch and say, “No, boys. I’m out of that game. I don't know if I could ever search for fine pearls again after finding this pearl. It’s ruined me. I wouldn’t even know how to be a merchant anymore.” So he leaves and goes back home to his family, now living at his in-laws, with his meager earnings from a day’s labor.

And later that night, the family goes to a party and a new acquaintance making small talk asks him, “So, what do you do?” And his wife rolls her eyes and his daughter silently slips away and the man smiles and reaches for the pouch tied around his waist.

The kingdom of God.

[1] Sallie McFague TeSelle, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975).

[2] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. VII, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 299.

[3] As cited in Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” 299.

[4] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 143.

[5] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 146.

[6] Fred Ward, “The History of Pearls,” Nova (December 29, 1998), online at:

[7] Ward, “The History of Pearls.”

[8] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 150.

[9] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 270.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • April 16, 2016