Lessons learned from the Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl
The shortest parables in the Bible are back to back and they are in many ways the most challenging ones of all. These two parables are joined by the word, “again,” so they are best read and interpreted together.
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.
What do these two parables really mean? Really? And what can they teach us and the church about how to do life in the 21st century?
Was Jesus telling us to sell everything and give it to the church? No!
Was Jesus telling us to sell everything to purchase our salvation? Certainly not. You don’t own enough to purchase your salvation, and it isn’t for sale anyway. Acts 8:20.
Was Jesus telling us we have to give up wealth to purchase entry into the kingdom? No, not that either. Entry into the kingdom comes with the recognition of Jesus as Lord and Savior. John 6:28-29.
To understand what Jesus was teaching with these parables, you need the textual context as well as the sociological context of the teachings. First, let’s look at the textual context of this parable, where it is recorded in the Bible. Matthew 13 starts with Jesus giving the third of five discourses in the book of Matthew. He is in Galilee, having gone there to preach. Matthew 11:1. He has been busy preaching and teaching. We know He was having some success because the people were gathering for Him, Matthew 11:7 and Matthew 12:15. But we also know He was not entirely successful as some people and some towns, specifically Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were unrepentant. Matthew 11:20-24.
It is likely that part of the problem Jesus faced was the prevailing Jewish interpretation of their scriptures. They were expecting a conquering Messiah to come down, eject Rome, and make them rulers over the world. For example, see Isaiah 9:6-7 and Isaiah 11:1-9. But Jesus wasn’t overthrowing Rome and elevating the Jewish people to their rightful throne. In fact, that wasn’t even His message at all, so many of His own people doubted He was the Messiah. He wasn’t what they were looking for; He didn’t look right and His message was not what they expected or wanted.
Chapter 13 starts with the parable of the sower, Matthew 13:1-23, followed by the parable of the weeds, Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast, Matthew 13:31-43. Jesus knew that His time was approaching and He was intensifying His teaching, especially His teaching to His disciples about the kingdom. Matthew 13:10-15.
The parables of the pearl and the hidden treasure are kingdom parables, each with a message more for His disciples than other people, because only His disciples received the explanations of the parables such as Matthew 13:18-23 where Jesus explains the parable of the sower and Matthew 13:36-43 where Jesus explains the parable of the weeds.
The parables of the pearl and the hidden treasure were followed by the parable of the net, Matthew 13:47-52, the last of that series of kingdom parables.
The sociological context is very different for the people listening to Jesus than in modern America. The Jewish people understood farming, sowing seeds, mustard trees, weeds mixed in among crops, fishing and fish nets, and they lived on a much narrower edge financially, so that a discovered hidden treasure or a found pearl, was vastly more important.
In the first century, there wasn’t a bank at every intersection. Locks for doors in the common home were far from secure; they were clumsy wooden locks. Therefore, it was common to hide things of value in clay pots outside of a person’s home, far enough away from the home that no one would think to look there. Often the valuable item was hidden on another person’s land. No one but the person hiding the item would have any idea it was there.
Under Jewish rabbinic law, a found item belonged not to the finder but to the owner of the land. Another important fact to know is that the owner of the hidden item might die not having told anyone where the valuable item was hidden.
Combining those facts, the owner of the land likely had no idea someone else had hidden the valuable treasure on his property. The finder then reburies the treasure and legally, but arguably deceptively, buys the land. Under rabbinic law, he becomes the owner of the hidden treasure!
But there are missing details that might be important. The idea of a hidden treasure leaves the listener and reader with uncertainty about how valuable the treasure really is. Is the hidden treasure worth enough to justify giving up everything for it? However, that uncertainty vanishes with the parable of the pearl. Pearls were immensely valuable, far more so than today. Cultured pearls were not developed until the 19th century, so all pearls before then were natural and high quality pearls were very rare. In the 1st century BC, pearls were at the height of their value and popularity in the Roman world, but even 100 years later they had great value. Pliny, a Roman author and naturalist who lived from 23 AD until 79 AD, wrote in his famous work, Natural History, that the two pearls were worth approximately 60 million sesterces, or 1,875,000 ounces of fine silver. In early 2019 prices, that comes to $29,062,500 (at $15.50/ounce). Thus, in the parable of the pearl, the kingdom of God is fabulously valuable.
In those textual and sociological contexts then, what do these two short parables mean to us today?
These two similes show us the incredible value of the kingdom of heaven. That is important both for believers and for the lost. It is a reason to accept Christ as Savior and gain that treasure and it is a reason for believers to be joyful – and show it – given the treasure we have.
How much is it worth? As noted earlier, the “hidden treasure” has an uncertain value, leaving some room for doubt. However, the immensely valuable pearl, worth vastly more than a farmer or simple merchant could ever hope to acquire in a thousand lifetimes, takes away all doubt; the kingdom of heaven has almost unimaginable value.
But there is another difference between the two parables. In the parable of the hidden treasure, the man paid only for the field and so he did not pay anything for the hidden treasure. His “profit” is great. On the other hand, the merchant paid for the pearl, and the price the merchant paid was dear, he sold everything he owned to buy this pearl.
The difference is important. Gaining a special value by buying a field with a hidden treasure may be sneaky, but it is obviously a good financial decision. That is no different than the man trading what little he has for something worth many times more. But in the parable of the pearl, the merchant sold everything he owned and bought a pearl, presumably at market price. So, the merchant did not receive a gain in net asset value. Was that a wise financial decision?
It wasn’t a financial decision at all. Instead, it was a decision made based upon the significance, the importance, and the eternal value represented by that pearl. That pearl, representing the kingdom of God, was so valuable to the merchant that he gave everything for it – literally. The kingdom of heaven is not a financial decision, it is an eternal spiritual decision.
The way this aspect of these parables translates into application is simple. If a person has little, the decision to buy the field is relatively easy, the hidden treasure is worth more. But what if the person discovering the hidden treasure is very wealthy? The parable of the pearl addresses that situation. That pearl is so valuable that if that is all you have left because you sold everything to buy that pearl, it is still a good deal. It isn’t about financial gain anyway, it is about spiritual riches.
There is another Biblical example of someone giving everything for something considered to be of ultimate worth. That is Jesus when He chose to leave heaven to save us. In heaven, Jesus had it all – except for us. That tells us that Jesus considers us to be a precious treasure, a special possession, 1 Peter 2:9, considered to be so desirable that He would leave heaven and subject Himself to a horrible death and a time of separation from the Father.
The final aspect of these two parables that is so striking is the excitement and joy of the purchasers. These both represent the “purchase” of a lifetime – and more. It is about acquiring eternity.
26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
Those were two great questions Jesus asked in Matthew 16. He offers us a free gift, worth more than we can imagine. Can you look past what you have and see the love Jesus has for you?
Lessons for the church and for believers
Jesus faced doubters and opposition including persecution. The church in America is facing increasing opposition and persecution as the social environment changes. The church and all believers need to fully grasp that the value of what we have to offer. The gospel of Jesus Christ has such incredible value that no opposition and no persecution should stop the Word from getting out. The church needs to aggressively but respectfully and boldly present the gospel to a lost world.
1 Peter 3:15-16
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,
16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[a] just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Most people first attend church because they were invited. Church members need to live lives of the kind of joy seen in the parables, making people want to hear why church members are doing what they do. If they live those kinds of lives, inviting people to join them in church becomes easy. Until believers live joyful abundant lives, the lost will stay lost and it will be on our account and our conscience that we did not do what we knew to be right.
17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
That was good advice from James. In the words of Jesus, ”from now on sin no more.” John 8:11 (NASB). As believers and as churches, let us reach out to the lost and make them welcome. What they have to gain is priceless!
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.
This is the seventh in a series of articles on financial and other issues facing the American church in this no longer very new millennium. These articles represent the personal thoughts and reflections of the author and are not necessarily a statement of The Idlewild Foundation. These articles are based upon parables told by Jesus and stories from the gospels on events in His life, applying His life and teachings to the lives of believers and to the church as a whole and not to any one church in particular.