The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl merchant
The Parables of the Hidden Treasure
and the Pearl Merchant
One expert has calculated that at least a third of Jesus’ teaching was delivered in the form of parables, so even though we have now come to the last of this series, it is not too late to spare a moment to ask ourselves why Jesus chose this teaching technique.
The starting point, I think, is to underline that a parable is NOT just a “nice” story meant to make a spiritual teaching clear. In fact, if I’m honest, I think even using the term “story” is a bit too cosy a description for a parable. When we reflect on the real intention of what Jesus was saying in these parables, we begin to appreciate that while a parable may come in a familiar, even friendly, format, its real purpose is not to entertain us, except in the sense of grabbing our attention, or indeed, simply to inform us, rather, it is to urge us as individuals to make a personal and life changing response.
When asked by his disciples about why he was teaching in parables, Jesus was emphatic. He said: . . . “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. (Matthew 13:11, NIV84) In other words, according to Jesus, parables are as much about hiding truth as they are about revealing it. Jesus was saying that He was using parables to reveal truth to His disciples, to people who are earnestly seeking for it, but also looking to hide truth from others who through pride or rebellion or whatever, refuse to open their hearts to it. For all of us though, parables can be really slippery things. They don’t give up their secrets easily and even as believers, if we don’t listen to them carefully, we can be deceived into completely missing their real message.
The secrets hidden in the parables, and they are “secrets”, for Jesus described parables as bringing “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.”, - these secrets will be revealed to us if our motives are right, because Jesus wants us to share them. But while many of us quite like the idea of sharing in a secret, the problem is that these secrets are not juicy bits of gossip, or indeed interesting nuggets of spiritual information that we can pass on to others and so impress them with our knowledge and wisdom. Rather, a parable is intended to hit us personally with a spiritual pay load capable of totally transforming our eternal future. In speaking in parables, Jesus wasn’t aiming to warm our spiritual hearts with a cosy tale, He was in fact intending to rattle our cage so vigorously that we wake up to some eternal spiritual truth that could change our destiny. The question for us is whether we will hear and then heed the message that the parables bring so that they can accomplish their purpose and transform our lives forever.
Our mission this morning then, should we choose to accept it, is first to open up our hearts to allow the Holy Spirit to whisper these secrets to us; but then, just as importantly, to determine with His help to apply their message so that our lives can be changed in the light of what we now know. As Jesus’ brother James, a senior pastor of the Jerusalem church, said: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22, NIV84).
So, with this in mind, if we still dare, let’s read some parables. We are going to read from Matthew chapter 13. Most people identify seven parables in this chapter, four spoken to a massive crowd by the lakeside with Jesus sitting in a boat – the parables of the sower, the weeds, the mustard seed and yeast, and then three more spoken in a house to the disciples on their own – the parables of the hidden treasure, the pearl (or as I prefer to call it, the pearl merchant), and the parable of the net.
We are going to look at two of the shortest parables from this chapter, two that were spoken in the house to the disciples only – the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl merchant - Matthew 13 verses 44-46. Now remember, these parables were spoken by Jesus, and listened to by the disciples. So to understand them it is good to hear them rather than just read them. So, as I read them this morning, you can either do the usual thing and follow along in your Bible (or on the screen) or perhaps better still, you might like to close your eyes and just concentrate on hearing the words. Pray as we do this asking the Holy Spirit to speak into your heart the meaning of what you hear.
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.
46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
All except the first of the parables in Matthew 13 begin with the identical phrase: “The kingdom of heaven is like”. The kingdom of heaven is: like a man who sowed good seed, like a mustard seed, like yeast, like treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant looking for fine pearls, like a net. Even the parable that doesn’t begin this way, the parable of the sower, is clearly also about the kingdom of heaven because when Jesus was explaining this parable to his disciples He started by saying: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom . . . “ (Matthew 13:19, NIV84).
So we need to note two things right at the start.
1. Firstly, the two parables we are looking at today, like all the others in Matthew 13 are teaching us something about the kingdom of heaven.
2. Secondly, since each parable is explaining what the kingdom is ”like”, they are similes – and so are intended to highlight key features or characteristics of the kingdom of heaven.
Let’s keep this in mind as we try to hear what Jesus is saying to us in these parables.
So, what is the kingdom of heaven? Well the first thing to say is that scholars generally agree, that it is the same thing as the other similar terms we find in the New Testament, - the “kingdom of Christ“, the “kingdom of God”, the “kingdom of Christ and of God”, and the “kingdom of our father David”. Matthew is simply thought to be using “kingdom of heaven” out of sensitivity to his audience who were mainly Jewish Christians who traditionally, as you know, have a reluctance to speak out the name of God.
Secondly, whilst there are many aspects to the kingdom of heaven, and clearly, as Jenny mentioned in her second message, there is both a present and a future element to the kingdom, there is one fundamental meaning that Jesus was speaking of in these parables and that is: the kingdom of heaven is Christ’s reign, here on earth right now, in the hearts and lives of his people. This is a rule and reign which has been made accessible to us because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and made possible for us to live because since the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has been here on earth and in the lives of believers for that very purpose. The really mind blowing thing though is that this “kingdom of heaven” operates in, through and with us, God’s people. This, I think is why in our first parable, the kingdom of heaven is likened to treasure hidden in a field – because this kingdom is found in a field, in the world, but it is hidden in the hearts of God’s chosen people. In Luke’s gospel we read: Luke 17:20–21, (NIV84): “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.””
The immediate implication for us then is, if the kingdom of heaven is the reign of Christ in the lives of his people on earth, how far am I, as an individual, allowing that reign to operate in me? How much am I serving in the kingdom and allowing Christ to rule in me and to demonstrate His love, His grace and His will through me as an individual, because clearly each one of us is called to play our part in the kingdom?
I think we need to really emphasise too, that in these parables when Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of heaven, He was NOT talking about what we commonly think of as the “gospel” – “how we become a Christian”. His message, the message of the kingdom, is much bigger than that, it’s geometrically bigger, than just getting you and I as individuals “saved”. It is not just the message of forgiveness of sins or even “just” about our reconciliation with God. It is the declaration of a kingdom in which we as new creatures in Christ Jesus participate in the rule and reign of God.
As citizens and servants of the kingdom, we become active and indeed, essential, PARTICIPANTS in the working out of God’s purposes and plans. We become usable by Him to demonstrate His love, His power and His grace. We become channels for the life and message of God to reach out to the people around us. This, in fact, is our calling as Christians, to be citizens and servants of the kingdom of heaven. In 1 Thessalonians 2:12, (NIV84) Paul speaks of: “encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”
This call is an amazing privilege because as citizens and servants of God’s kingdom we get to put aside our own self-centred and sometimes petty ambitions, in order to share personally and individually in the fulfilment of God’s great purpose, as part of the kingdom of heaven. But this call is also a massive responsibility. It’s a responsibility for which I think, each of us will surely ultimately be called to account. How far have we, through Christ in us, by the Holy Spirit, allowed God to use us to further His purposes and plans? This is surely why our parables are aiming to rattle our cages so vigorously.
One reason why I am sure that these two parables are NOT talking about what we commonly refer to as “the gospel”, is that both the chap who discovered the treasure and the pearl merchant had to PAY to get hold of the treasure and the pearl. Now, if there is anything, that we protestant Christians are supposed to know, it is that you cannot BUY salvation. If the Apostle Paul heard us even hint at the idea of having to pay for the gospel he would turn a deep shade of purple in apoplectic rage.
If a price has to be paid, and it is clear from these two parables that it does, and it’s a big price – it’s everything we have, then we know that these parables cannot be speaking of salvation. The kingdom, however, is a different matter. The door to the kingdom, if you like, is salvation, yes, and that is free, but to come under the rule and reign of the kingdom will cost us everything. If we take a moment to let that thought sink in, we soon realise that, much of what we often think of as mainstream Christian life, begins to look rather shallow and self-centred and not at all like forsaking all to walk in submission and obedience to our King.
The gospel that many of us seem to be living by is one that gets us saved but very much leaves us as independent arbiters of our own lives. We remain firmly in charge, determined to manage our own affairs, look out for ourselves, take our own decisions, follow our own agenda, and get the very best deal we can for us. Sadly, that also means surely, that it is very difficult in practice to distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian.
• As Christians, we so often seem to share the same aspirations, ambitions and desires as the world does and yet Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 to “. . . seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, “
• As Christians, we also often seem to make personal satisfaction and happiness our primary goal in life. And yet Jesus tells us in Luke 9:23 23 . . . “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
• Saddest of all, in view of the enormous price paid by the Lord Jesus to secure our entry into the kingdom, we ignore the victorious Christian life now available to us through the power of the Holy Spirit, who is resident in us as new creatures in Christ, and instead struggle on in our own strength, wondering, one failure after another, why it is not working for us. Yet in John 15:5 Jesus simply and clearly warns us: “. . . apart from me you can do nothing.”
We are effectively behaving like someone, who having been declared bankrupt one moment, suddenly has an unimaginably massive inheritance, paid into their bank account, but after saying, “thank you very much”, apart from an occasional Sunday morning “online” peak at their bank balance, carries on with their life of misery and penury as though nothing at all had changed.
These two parables are not then about “being saved”; they are about becoming citizens and servants of the kingdom of heaven - living for and serving King Jesus, not out of our own strength and resources but as new creations in Christ, allowing Christ by the Holy Spirit to live out of us. This is the only way we can achieve anything of real and lasting value with our lives. This is what Jesus was speaking of when he said: John 15:16 (NIV84) 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. God is calling you and I to bear fruit, but any fruit that comes from our own efforts alone is always rancid from the start – and it certainly doesn’t last in the eternal sense that Jesus is speaking of. Our own acts of “righteousness” even if they look good to us or to the casual observer, are actually completely inadequate and unacceptable to God and always will be. As we read in Isaiah: Isaiah 64:6 (NIV84) 6 “. . . all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; . . .“
So why do we so often imagine that by our own efforts and self-discipline we can overcome sin, minister fruitfully, or accomplish God’s purposes? For the message of these two parables is surely that we must give up everything else and rely on our kingdom of heaven life, our new creation life, so that Christ, by the Holy Spirit, can rule in every area of our lives and so bear fruit through us.
This is why the kingdom of heaven is SO precious, SO valuable. This is why, as both these parables tell us, we cannot have the kingdom and keep anything else – we cannot keep our desires, our ambitions, our will, our goals or our agenda. We can only live out this “kingdom life” as we take hold by faith of the reality that our old self, has been crucified with Christ and then live the new “faith life” we now have in Christ as “a new creation”.
The kingdom of heaven is our amazing opportunity to actually contribute to the plans and purposes of the Father as we are “in Christ” and living in obedience to the Holy Spirit. This is surely what Paul is speaking of when he refers to the day when Jesus, and I quote, “comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed”. Brilliantly, Paul goes on: “This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.” (2 Thessalonians 1:8–10, NIV84) The amazing blessing of the kingdom includes US – you and I, and it is the very best thing we could build our lives on.
One of the things that I have been puzzling over and have asked God to reveal to me from these parables as I have been thinking about them over the last little while, is a mysterious short phrase. In the parable of the hidden treasure we read: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Why did Jesus pop that phrase into this parable?
Why, having found the kingdom of heaven, the treasure, would this man hide it again? Well, I’m wondering whether this might in fact be an aspect of the door to the kingdom of heaven that is often left out of the usual presentation of the call to salvation. Did this man hide the treasure again so that he could weigh up whether he could and would pay the price required – especially as he might have realized that it would cost him everything else he had? A bit like Jesus’ advice in another scripture 28 ““Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ So could the parable be urging us to take time to consider the cost when we choose to follow Jesus? Interestingly that passage finishes with these words: In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:28–33, NIV84)
I like the fact though, that the result of hiding the treasure again, and of the whole process of thinking through the idea of buying the field with the treasure, completely displaced any doubts this man had, and actually filled him with joy, for the parable continues: “and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” Could there be a principle here then? The principle that thinking through the benefits of the kingdom of heaven – always leads us to be filled with joy - so that suddenly the cost, which is “everything we have”, seems an absolute bargain as we see both the treasure and the cost in a completely new light. The treasure to be of matchless brilliance and value; and the cost, to be paltry in the light of the benefits and blessings we receive. I wonder when this age is over, or when our part in this age is over, will we look back with incredulity at our appalling lack of faith, and understanding and commitment to what Christ provided for us while we were here on earth?
This parable I think serves not only to highlight the need for us to consider what we must give up to live as citizens of the kingdom, but also the real need for us to dwell long and hard on the benefits and blessings that are ours in the kingdom.
And, if you think about it, that is what we are doing when we worship God. We are reflecting on His greatness and His grace towards us; His amazing love for us and all His wonderful works. I think that part of the secret of finding joy in a life that involves sacrificing our will for God’s, is to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the treasure, the glory of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus, the King, and to engage collectively – yes - but also individually in really worshipping God. Not many I think who have had that experience would disagree with the fact that to get really lost in worship and praise is absolutely the best thing. Our faith barometer goes off the scale and we are really filled with joy.
Each of our parables seem very similar - both are about the kingdom of heaven, and in each something of enormous value is found and the person finding it is ready to give up everything else to get it. In the first parable though there seems to be a clear call to count the cost of becoming citizens of the kingdom of heaven but also to really appreciate the outstanding personal blessings it brings. In the second parable however, I feel that the emphasis is on the attitude and approach of the merchant. That’s why personally I like to call this the parable of the pearl merchant, not just the parable of the pearl – because for me, it’s about the pearl merchant at least as much as it is about the pearl.
The pearl merchant is a merchant and like any businessman worth his salt he is interested in the bottom line. He is looking to maximise his profit. For this particular merchant that means finding the best pearl he can at a bargain price! But it’s his attitude and approach that is the key here. He is a person searching for the very best – the parable says he was “looking for fine pearls” – not any old pearls, but FINE pearls. So perhaps one of the things to learn from this parable is that to find the truth and to enjoy the blessings of the kingdom and experience its’ reality and power, we need to be searching for it earnestly and intentionally.
How we come across the kingdom is one thing; we may find it, or it may seem to find us, but our attitude towards the kingdom must be that we are determined seekers of the very best that God has for us.
The Bible provides many examples of people who were like this, but perhaps a personal favourite is the Ethiopian eunuch who we read of in the book of Acts. A top man in Queen Candace’s government in Ethiopia, a sort of George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had chosen to use his “holiday of a lifetime” to travel all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem in order to worship God. Now he was a real seeker after God, because we find that even in the coach on the way home he wasn’t just dozing on the back seat or browsing through his holiday snaps, he was reading the scriptures to find out more about the Lord. And we know what happened to him - God pulled Philip out of a major revival way up north in Samaria to get alongside this man and use the very scriptures he was reading to lead him to Christ. And history indicates that the birth of the whole church in Ethiopia was probably the result of that one divine appointment. There is no doubt in my mind that God is looking for those who are genuine seekers after His best, and the example of this Ethiopian eunuch, and the message of the parable of the pearl merchant confirm Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:6 (NIV84) 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they WILL be filled.
The kingdom of heaven then is a priceless treasure. Its value is incalculable and “STOP PRESS!” - it’s here right now in our hearts. But citizenship of the kingdom of heaven does not come as we give a qualified and conditional “yes” to a formulaic gospel presentation but still reserve the right to control our own lives. Instead, we only become citizens as we agree to lay down everything else and put ourselves fully at God’s disposal to be used entirely for His purposes rather than for our own.
But the kingdom of heaven is also like a pearl merchant looking for precious pearls. To find the pearls of the kingdom of heaven we must go looking with the single-minded intention of finding the very best that God has to offer. And realise that for us, the bottom line is that we cannot have the “kingdom AND” - the kingdom AND our way, our will, our wants. We have the kingdom, OR we have our way, our will, our wants.
So the CAGE RATTLING question for each of us today is: Will we give our lives over, moment by moment, to the rule and reign of God in our lives and so see all the amazing blessings of our new life in the kingdom of heaven?