The Parables of the Treasure and Pearl

Matthew 13

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure

[44] “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

The Parable of the Pearl of Great Value

[45] “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, [46] who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

What did Jesus intend for His audience to understand from these similes? There seems to be three favored interpretations on which there is no common agreement.

  1. The treasure/pearl is the Church – those that believe and follow Jesus Christ – purchased by Christ
  2. The treasure/pearl is the Kingdom of God, itself, and its gospel. Both purchasers are Christ. This is a variant of interpretation 1.
  3. The treasure is the Church, purchased by Christ but the pearl is the Kingdom/Jesus Himself who those who will follow Christ, recognizing its surpassing value, “purchase” by foregoing everything they previously had[i].

Arguments For and Against #1

This interpretation is the traditional interpretation. The man/purchaser is Christ who “sells all that he had”. What did He have? The Bible teaches that Christ before and after His incarnation possessed all the characteristics of God the Father. So not only did He forego those to become a human, subject to pain and fatigue and hunger and want, but He additionally endured mutilation and murder on the cross.

This interpretation of the first of these parables is somewhat uncomfortable to the reformed denominations since it says what the man purchased was the field, not specifically the treasure in that field. In Mat 13:38, associated with another parable, Jesus identifies the field as “the world”. This doesn’t conclusively prove that the field in the current parable also represents the world. But it’s clear that something is being purchased other than just the treasure – in this interpretation, the Church.

The reformed and Calvinists insist that Christ’s sacrifice was only on behalf of the Church (limited atonement) and not the world at large. However, Psalm 24:1 says “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,”, so it may well be that the cost of redeeming Creation (not just its inhabitants in the Church) was also paid by Christ’s sacrifice. If this “detail” is overlooked, this interpretation of the parable still has great value to the reformed community as it underscores that it is God and only God who is acting. He chooses, He elects, He pays for and He justifies.

Arguments against this interpretation of the Treasure parable have been raised because the treasure, unlike the pearl, is simply discovered. There was no purposeful seeking of treasure or value by the man. In today’s parlance he merely “lucked out”. And so the argument is lodged that the parable is not logically consistent with the purpose of God to redeem His creation. Some therefore switch roles in their interpretation, more in line with the argument for interpretation #3.

Arguments For and Against #2

The argument for this interpretation is primarily contextual[i]. The whole teaching in this chapter has been on the Kingdom of God (/the Heavens[ii]) in a series of parables (the Sower/Soils, the Weeds, the Mustard Seed, the Leaven, the Treasure, the Pearl, the Net). So if Jesus is trying to teach his listeners what the Kingdom of God is, it is only logical to assume that Jesus hasn’t suddenly changed the object of His parables to the Church but has continued to represent it in these two parables as the thing of great value.

How is the Kingdom itself different from the Church? The Kingdom is the spiritual precinct in which members of His Church live and operate based on the principles Christ taught. As such, it provides a kind of spiritual framework or environment in which the two principal members of the Kingdom operate – the Christ follower and the Spirit of God. Of course at the time Jesus was delivering these parables He was still in the world as the man Jesus. He was here to inaugurate His Kingdom. But He knew perfectly well that following His death and resurrection it would be His Spirit by whom His followers would be guided and enabled in their lives within His inaugurated Kingdom – on earth as it is in heaven.

What advantage does #2 have over #1? In my mind the advantage is that it (#2) places the emphasis on the full scope of the nature of the Kingdom and its implied counsel of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the purely human-focused emphasis of #1. Humanity has no problem focusing its attentions on itself, and what’s in it for them. But the Kingdom of God is something far, far greater than simply salvation for some. It is the spiritual reality of God brought into the world by Christ’s obedience.

Arguments For and Against #3

This argument is essentially that one of the two buyers (whether the man or the merchant) are not God as in #1. Arguments can be made for either parable being a description of the Kingdom as seen from the vantage point of the Christ follower. For sake of argument we’ll focus on that vantage point being associated with the Pearl parable.

One argument for this view is that, unlike the aggregation of the “Treasure” in the first parable (that quite plausibly could represent the multitude represented by the Church), the Pearl of great price is a single object which, also quite plausibly, could be Christ Himself and/or the Kingdom He inaugurated.

Arguing against this view is the fact that most people, like our merchant, aren’t “shopping”/searching for God, let alone His Kingdom. But most people do spend their time trying to “enrich” themselves. And if they suddenly find something, like Jesus, of surpassing value, it is not unreasonable that they experience an epiphany and abandon (“sell”) everything they have to follow Him.

Such is the working of the Holy Spirit within the Kingdom of God. And nothing less than “everything” is the cost to the would-be follower of Christ and citizen of His Kingdom.

Which Interpretation is Correct?

We don’t know. That’s why there are multiple interpretations. Jesus didn’t explain these, as he did the Sower/Soils or the Weeds. But, having seen the differing viewpoints of the various interpretations, you can also see the larger context of the Kingdom. And as long as you can see and understand that, it makes little difference which viewpoint was specifically intended. Jesus was teaching to inform His hearers of the nature of His Kingdom. If you can see His Kingdom from His point of view as well as yours, He accomplished His purpose.

[i] Steve Gregg, Verse-by-verse lectures, Matthew 13:44-46

[ii] Matthew for Everyone – Part 1, NT Wright, Westminster John Knox Press

[iii] Matthew called the Kingdom the “Kingdom of Heaven”/”Kingdom of the Heavens” because he was a Jew. As a Jew he was trained to avoid using the name of God (Elohim) or simply the term God (theos). So he rather substituted the place where God was, heaven, as a substitute. Luke, a gentile, didn’t have that cultural restraint and so used the term “the Kingdom of God” (theos).