The Pearl of Great Price


Matthew 13:44-52

We consider this morning three short parables, the first two which have a common theme and the third that links up, in large part, with the parable of the weeds that we considered last Lord’s Day morning.

Text Comment

v.44     There were banks in the Greco-Roman world of that day and money was deposited in banks at interest.  However, most people, even the wealthy, hid some or all of their savings.  Some hid their money in hidden places built into the safest room in the house.  Small fortunes have been uncovered in such hiding places at Pompeii.  Others however simply buried their money in a field, safe enough apart from the small risk that it would be accidentally discovered by a stranger.  [Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament, 23]  The discovery of such treasures was a favorite theme of popular stories of the time.  [France, 229] The Lord does not comment on the ethics of what this man did.  That is not the point of his story.  The man bought the field to gain ownership of what he now knew was in it.  The man who sold him the field obviously did not know what it contained.  The point lies rather in the joy of the discovery and the lengths to which the man went to secure his find.  Matthew, remember, is concerned with the nature of a true response to Jesus, and he has already referred to sacrifices that men must make to be the Lord’s disciples.  But, then, it is hardly a sacrifice to get something worth far more than one pays for it.

v.46     The message of this parable is obviously the same as that of the preceding one.  Pearls were highly valued in the ancient world, even more than gold [Hagner, i, 397], and sometimes fetched fantastic prices.  Again, to the merchant, it was worth anything, everything he had, to obtain this magnificent pearl.  That is the point of what seems to be an exaggeration: viz. a man selling everything he had to buy only one pearl.  Both of the parables make this point:  that the kingdom of heaven is worth whatever it takes to possess it.

v.47     This parable would have immediately appealed to the Lord’s disciples who were fishermen and who had been told already by the Lord that he would make them fishers of men [4:19].

v.50     The interpretation of the parable of the net follows, almost word for word, the interpretation of the parable of the weeds in vv. 41-42.  As a result the parable of the net will be interpreted as one interprets the parable of the weeds.  Once again, I think that it fails to do justice to the Lord’s language to say that he is speaking only of the mixture of the wicked and the righteous in the world until his second coming.  To say that “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake…” seems clearly to suggest that it is gospel preaching that creates this mixture of good and bad fish, it is the gospel summons that draws both kinds into the church – as we have already seen in the parable of the sower.  Among the many who respond, who are drawn in by the gospel net, are many who will not prove to be the Lord’s true disciples.  That is an important theme in the Gospel of Matthew.

v.51     We expect that their “Yes” was over-confident.   But, for all their later hesitation and confusion, understanding was beginning to dawn.  But, that they know this truth, Jesus is saying, means that they must now give themselves to teaching others.  The knowledge of the kingdom of heaven is not something to be kept to oneself.  It is the secret of life, the pearl of great price, the incalculably valuable treasure.  It must be shared as widely as possible.

v.52     The disciple of the Lord, the Christian scribe or teacher of the law, will be able, through his knowledge of the kingdom of heaven, to bring the truth of the ancient Scriptures and the new developments of the messianic age into a harmony in his teaching.  The old and the new are both indispensable to the understanding of the gospel and the embrace of it in one’s heart and life.  This statement of the Lord is an important reminder that Christians have a single Bible that has a single message from beginning to end.  The truth is a treasure and it has both old parts and new.

Everyone daydreams about finding treasure.  We dream about what it would be like if only we somehow fell into great riches or landed our dream job or gained the love of that fellow or gal we have admired from afar.  Stories of someone striking it rich in one way or another are as popular today as ever they were in days gone by.  We are witnessing this in a remarkable, if often pathetic way, in our own time.

This new phenomenon of reality shows on television all, in one way or another, are the secular version of finding a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price and doing extravagant things to obtain it.  It may be a high-powered job with Donald Trump, or marriage to a wealthy and handsome man, or simply a million dollars.  But, in one way or another, all of these shows tap into that hunger for treasure.  They also reveal, in a terribly sad if, at the same time ridiculous way, how foolish we have become as a society, how unwise, how detached from even common sense and ordinary reason.  The ancients, the Greeks and the Romans, told their epic stories of the search for the golden fleece or some other treasure; the heroes of these stories made great sacrifices and paid sometimes terrible prices for fame, fortune, and true love.  But the stories themselves were meant to teach noble character, to instill moral conviction in the hearts of the young, to make a man willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of his ideals.  Even in the pagan epics of the ancient world humility was a supreme virtue and pride the damning vice.

Our contemporary stories of the search for life’s treasure have now become so degraded and so preposterous that they have and could have no discernable moral purpose whatsoever.   We have turned the wisdom of the centuries on its head:  humility is a defect and pride a virtue. Here are women who hope to find Mr. Right by parading themselves before him, each seeking to impress him with her charms more than the other women will with theirs, hoping to draw his attention to themselves.  To that end they allow him to try them out, one at a time, one after another, so that he might select the one with whom, presumably, he will find true love.  The ancients knew that no true man would ever participate in such a dishonorable scheme and no woman with any sense of her own integrity would either.  Anyone who understood what love is, where it came from, how it is born and nourished, would think such a process shameful and wicked.  Or, here are novice businessmen and women who hope to land their dream job by parading themselves before the boss and their competition and, in the event, behaving like a person no one would ever want to work with, much less work for.  Here are people willing to do one outrageous thing after another in the hopes of winning a pot of money – precisely that willingness that the wise of this world have always thought is the mark of a fool.  A person who goes on television to tell the world that he will do anything for money is a person who has no idea, none, of what it means to be a good and wise human being.

But, as I said, foolish and degrading as are these contemporary illustrations of the desire for treasure, they bear witness to the universal longing which the Lord himself taps in these parables.  We all believe that there are things so wonderful, so captivating, things that would so perfectly fulfill human life that they are worth any sacrifice to obtain.  This longing is a power in human life.  If Ponce de Leon would traverse the world looking for the fountain of youth – discovering Florida in the process, where today lots of old people live – many human beings today will do all manner of things in hopes of finding what they believe will complete their lives.

This longing comes from God.  It is a part of what it means to be created in his image.  We have been made in the image of God and so we have been made for a life that is exceedingly high and noble and glorious.  Sin has brought us low, has degraded our lives in many ways, but we still have within us that longing for what we were made for.  We interpret it wrongly, we look for it in all the wrong places, we bargain for it foolishly, but the longing is there.  Jesus knew that and tapped into that longing when he said, in effect, that what people are looking for, whether they know it or not, is the kingdom of heaven.  It is the knowledge of God, it is communion with God, it is the transformation of one’s life so that he or she may live in communion with God, it is the finding of that true purpose for which we were made and for which we were given the gifts and the powers that God has invested in human beings.  That is a treasure that really is worth whatever it takes to obtain it.  That is something of such surpassing value and beauty that nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of your obtaining it.

After all, what does the kingdom of heaven bring to human beings?  Well it brings love – the love that everyone is seeking and hungering for.  Here it is.  The love of God supremely, a love that can drink up all our power for love and satisfy all our capacity for joy in love, but also the love of others.  The kingdom of heaven, the reign and rule of God in one’s life, is the way to true love in marriage, in one’s family, and among one’s friends in the world.  The kingdom of heaven makes a close-knit family out of mere acquaintances.

 

But it is more than love.  It is life and life forever.  Life that is worthy to be called life.   That is what the reign of God brings.  As Jesus makes a point of saying again in vv. 49-50, the kingdom of heaven spares human beings the death to which sin consigns them and suffering in that death. Tell me, if you can, what human being there is who does not want to live forever; not simply exist, but live.  To have, stretching out before him an unending succession of days in which he will always enjoy and never lose the friendship of fine people, the pleasure of living for the highest conceivable purpose in his work, the smile and approval of Almighty God, his Creator, and the inner satisfaction of living a fully authentic, valuable, worthy, admirable life.  To find one’s heart so pure, so good that everyone else’s fulfillment and pleasure and success only increases your own.  And to know that this fulfillment will never end.  To be truly good as a human being and good forever!

And, if that is not enough, there are also the comparatively paltry treasures that human beings so often content themselves with dreaming about because they can no longer raise their sights to higher things.  All of this is thrown in for good measure.  A world of the greatest conceivable wealth, the finest food and drink, palaces, a city so beautiful that it takes the breath away, the glory of the nations all brought into it for the saints to enjoy: all this too the Almighty God has in store for his children when, at last, they are brought into the Paradise of God.  It is the vision of the future that is everywhere set before believers in the Bible.  As Jesus himself summed it up in a few words in v. 43:  “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.”

That is treasure indeed.  That is the pearl so beautiful, so valuable that it is worth your giving everything you have to obtain it.  And what is it then to give everything for this treasure?  How do we translate the selling of everything we have and the buying of a field so that we can have the treasure we found buried in that field – I say, how do we translate that into what we should do, must do in our everyday lives today?

Well, as we have said, Jesus is talking about what it means to be his follower, his disciple.  He is describing what true and authentic faith in him produces in a person’s life.  He is talking not about someone who makes a superficial commitment – no matter how emotion-filled at the time – but someone who is willing to devote his life to serving Christ.  He is talking about the good soil into which the seed of the Word is sown, which produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.  He is talking about men and women, boys and girls, who understand what an incalculable gift is being offered to them in the gospel of Jesus Christ and who in faith and love offer their lives to Christ in return.  They say to their Lord and Savior, I am yours and whatever you ask of me you shall have: gladly and without hesitation or qualification.  He is talking about the men and women of whom he has already spoken who give up houses, fields, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers and children for the sake of the kingdom of God, knowing that one cannot out-give the Savior of the World or the Heavenly Father.

I was recently given a biography of Lilias Trotter, of whom, I have to admit, I knew nothing beforehand.  Lilias Trotter, who lived from 1853 to 1928, was an Englishwoman who grew to adulthood in the Victorian period.  She was raised in a wealthy Christian home in London, the daughter of a stock-broker.  She was deepened in her Christian conviction by her association both with the Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey London crusades and with the movement of Christian thinking and writing that would come to be known as the Higher Life Movement and would be enshrined in the famous annual “conventions” at Keswick in the English Lake District.  Already having given herself to the life of a Christian worker as a young woman in her twenties, she was soon wonderfully effective in ministry to young women in central London.  She opened the first restaurant solely for women in central London as a ministry to young working girls and transformed a former nightclub into a hostel for prostitutes – ministries that would later be incorporated in what was to become the Young Women’s Christian Association, the YWCA.  Happy in those works as she was, Lilias, by a set of unexpected providences, found herself en route to Algeria and missionary work there among Arab Muslims.  When she arrived she knew no Arabic, had little knowledge of the religion or customs of the people, but was to remain there for the next forty years.  She became a mainstay of Christian missions in North Africa, she traveled the desert, wrote books, evangelized men and, especially, women, and left a legacy of Christian faith and worship in a land that generally has proved harshly resistant to the gospel.  She had a remarkable ministry to the Sufis, Muslim mystics, for whom she wrote one of her most celebrated books.

Of course, Christians have heard such a story, many times.  There have been countless multitudes who have given up a comfortable life at home to serve the Lord by taking the gospel to difficult parts of the world.  What makes Lilias Trotter’s story more interesting and impressive is that she left much more behind.  She was a painter – watercolors mostly – a painter of unusual gifts.  While still a young woman, moving in the circles of London wealth, she met John Ruskin, the art historian and critic who was perhaps the most influential figure in the English art world of the 19th century.  They had met first in Venice, on a trip that Lilias was taking with her mother.  Mrs. Trotter wanted to know what Ruskin thought about her daughter’s painting and asked him to look at a few of her watercolors.  She admitted that Lilias had had little to no training and that she was quite prepared to have him say that her work was not very good.  She just wanted to know.

Ruskin, in a lecture at Oxford on “The Art of England,” tells what happened in his own words.

“For a long time I used to say, in all my elementary books, that, except in a graceful and minor way, women could not paint or draw.  I am beginning lately, to bow to the much more delightful conviction that no one else can.  How this very serious change of mind was first induced in me it is, if not necessary, I hope pardonable, to delay you by telling.  When I was at Venice in 1876…two English ladies, mother and daughter, were staying at the same hotel.  One day the mother sent me a pretty note asking if I would look at the young lady’s drawings.  On my somewhat sulky permission a few were sent, in which I saw there was extremely right minded and careful work, almost totally without knowledge.  I sent back a request that the young lady might be allowed to come out sketching with me.  I took her over to the pretty cloister of the Abbey of San Gregorio and set her for the first time in her life to draw a little piece of grey marble with the sun on it…  She may have had one lesson after that… She seemed to learn everything the instant she was shown it, and ever so much more than she was taught.”  [In Miriam Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible:  The Life of Lilias Trotter, 57-58]

Ruskin then showed his audience six framed pages from one of Lilias’ sketchbooks and went on to say,

“You will in examining them, beyond all telling, feel that they are exactly what we should all like to be able to do, and in the plainest and frankest manner show us how to do it – more modestly speaking, how, if heaven help us, it can be done.”  [13]

In the 1960s, in a book on Ruskin, Sir Kenneth Clark mention’s Ruskin’s “ecstasy” over the drawings of Lilias Trotter, noting merely that she is no longer remembered, a figure of no great artistic consequence.  And, to be sure, she did not become the artist she might have been.  Educated people the world over might well know her name today, if only she had taken Ruskin’s advice and given herself to the development of her art.

Ruskin came to regard Lilias as one of the great artists of her generation, with a talent likely to make her a world figure in painting.   They became close friends, even though Ruskin did not share Lilias’ Christian faith, and, at one point Ruskin pointedly urged her to make up her mind to give up everything else and make the most of the extraordinary gift that she had.  She refused and went to Algeria instead.  The greatest judge of artistic talent of that day saw her immense potential, but it was to go largely unrealized – apart from sketches that she included in her books – because this extraordinary woman gave herself to what she had no doubt were higher things.

Now that is selling everything that one has to buy the field in which one has found buried treasure.  That is selling everything to buy that one magnificent pearl.  If you don’t give up what matters to you, what counts with you, what is valuable and important, then you have not sold all that you have.  If the joy of salvation and of knowing Jesus Christ does not result in choices that make worldly people scratch their heads, then how can it be clear that the kingdom of heaven and the gospel of Christ is so great a treasure that it is worth any price paid to obtain it.

We are not, of course, all – if any of us is – great painters who forsake our art to bring the gospel to Arab Muslims in North Africa.  We are not all tax collectors who, one day, simply leave our tax office, our living and our income to follow Jesus Christ we know not where.  We are not all fishermen who leave our nets for an uncertain future of following Christ.  But, if we are Christians, we are like them in this:  that we are followers of Christ come wind, come weather, and that no cost, no price is too great for us to pay to have the treasure that is found in him.  We too have to surrender things to be Christ’s faithful disciples.  We too have to demonstrate in our living that we count Christ and his kingdom more precious, more valuable than the pleasures and satisfactions of this world.  We too have to show by our decisions that we know that Christ’s kingdom far surpasses the kingdom of this world and that we would far rather have Christ and his future than the best and greatest things this world can offer us at the moment.  There is to be that in our lives that shows that we have sold all we have to buy this pearl.

A Christian is precisely the person who finds Christ and his salvation so wonderful, so priceless, the joy of it all so indescribable, that the cost of following Jesus – whatever it may prove to be – is not to be reckoned with; is to be born gladly, willingly, readily.  No cost is a sacrifice when the treasure we are obtaining is so impossibly great!  “I never made a sacrifice” said David Livingstone, who lived a very difficult life for the Gospel’s sake.

These short parables, these little stories are meant for us, the Lord’s disciples.  He asks us in verse 51:  “Have you understood all these things?”  Do you know what a treasure there is in the kingdom of heaven, the reign of Christ in your heart and life, the rule of his love and the gift of his salvation?  Do you know why it makes perfect sense to sell everything you have to obtain such a treasure, to surrender everything else for this?  For if you have this, you have everything else!

And if you understand this – and God help you to understand it – can you see in your life, your following Christ, your embrace of the kingdom of heaven, how you have sold all you have to buy that field?  Is there that which you have been unwilling to sell?  Why, for goodness sake?  Give it up!  Sell it all! The disciples would make many sacrifices; many of them at least would give up their lives for the sake of Christ’s kingdom.  But I’m sure for years and years afterwards, in the midst of their hard work on behalf of the gospel of Christ, they remembered those little parables and were reminded that there is nothing you can seek in this world, no pleasure, no peace and comfort, no success, no fame, that comes close, remotely close to the joy and the complete fulfillment of life that comes to those who have sold all to have that field, that pearl.