Jesus uses things highly valued and understood by the Jewish listeners to explain that the Kingdom of God is worth paying a high price for.
Jesus uses things highly valued and understood by the Jewish listeners to explain that the Kingdom of God is worth paying a high price for.
Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 11. We're in Matthew 13, looking at the seven parables there. In today's episode, we are looking at the 'Parables of the Hidden Treasure and of the Pearl'. These are very short parables, described in just a few words. This is one of the shortest passages we'll study in any episode in this study of the life of Jesus. we'll be studying Matthew 13: 44 - 46, in just a few moments.
Background and Recap
We're in the second tour of Jesus' Galilean ministry. Before that, Jesus took some time aside on a mountain somewhere in Galilee, where he chose twelve Apostles and then gave some very strategic teaching, which we call the Sermon on the Mount. That was Series 4 in our study. Before that, in Series 3, we had the description of the first tour of Galilee, where Jesus travelled around Galilee extensively, for quite a long period of time, preaching about the Kingdom, healing the sick, casting out demons and proclaiming forgiveness. Series 5 is now well on; we've studied quite a lot of things and we've seen Jesus taking his Apostles and other disciples along with him as he's travelling around Galilee for a second time - touring all the different districts of Galilee. We've seen him go to the very south of Galilee; we've seen him go to various places and we've seen a number of miracles that he's performed.
We've also seen confrontation, with the Pharisees and the religious establishment, reaching a new height in Matthew 12: 24, where the Pharisees denounced him as a false messiah and we've discussed in earlier episodes the significance of that for the future, and how confusing this is for the crowds as they're trying to work out whether to follow Jesus as the Messiah. Then we've seen Jesus, with his disciples, travelling around further and Luke 8 told us that, with the twelve Apostles, there were other disciples travelling, notably both men and women - and some relatively wealthy women were actually using their financial means to support the disciples and the Apostles, as they were travelling around on the tour. This is the broader context that we've got to keep in mind as we are looking at this particular study.
Then we came to Matthew 13 and for several episodes now we've been in this chapter which is a collection of parables. Jesus appears to have started teaching in parables, very strategically, after the time when he warned the people and the religious leaders that the cost of rejecting his Messiahship would be very great for the nation: they'd come under judgement and deception and there would be very difficult consequences for all the people. He made this very stark warning; he's really anticipating the fact that the Jewish nation is going to divide over him, his Kingdom, his message and his Messiahship. Some will follow (and are already following, very enthusiastically, very committed) and many others will not follow him - not believe that he's the Messiah, and follow the lead of their religious establishment (the Sanhedrin, the priests, the Pharisees) and turn against Jesus.
Jesus anticipated all these things and, therefore, in Matthew 13, he starts teaching in parables, as we discussed in earlier episodes but I want to repeat it for clarity, so we can get a clear picture of what's happening here with the parables we're discussing today, which are symbolic stories with one main meaning. Sometimes the details have individual significance (and we've seen a couple of examples of that with the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Weeds) but usually it's a story having a main significance. He taught in parables which had the effect, prophetically, of enhancing the faith and understanding of those who believed and further troubling and confusing those who were resisting belief at the time. Parables are very interesting, symbolic stories. They are not always open to understanding for those who are not looking for the Kingdom of God, not looking to find out about Jesus, not looking to follow him, or who are openly hostile. These parables have been around the general theme of the growth of the Kingdom and what Jesus was dealing with, was the fact that the Jews expected, when the Messiah would come to Israel, that his Kingdom would come immediately and this would be with a demonstration of power, overturning political oppression from those who controlled the land (such as the Romans at this time); would bring peace to the nation; would bring a restoration of pure worship; and it would bring salvation to Gentile nations around, who would come to Israel, come to Jerusalem, come to the Temple and worship along with the Jewish people. These were the kind of expectations that the Jews had, which were based on Old Testament prophecies. When Jesus came and proclaimed, decisively, that the Kingdom of God had arrived - that was one of the very first things he said - it was clear that his Kingdom wasn't going to operate in quite that way.
In Matthew 13, he describes how the Kingdom is going to grow over time and all the different parables tell us something different about the growth of the Kingdom. This is really helpful for us, two thousand years later, because we are looking back over the history of the Church and we're in a situation where we have to work out what God is doing in our generation and, also, what are our expectations for the future? These parables are as helpful for us, as they were for the first century listeners in Galilee who heard Jesus talking in parables.
The Parable of the Sower told us, very clearly, about the power of the seed - the message. The message of the Kingdom has tremendous power but it won't always have a good impact in human life because other factors will come: demonic interference; distractions that people have through materialism and other things and there'll be those who accept the faith in a nominal kind of way - they're kind of enthusiastic because it meets a need just at that moment but they're not profoundly committed to God's Kingdom. Yet some will be very fruitful.
The Parable of the Weeds, told us that there's always going to be a mixture of good and evil in this world. There's always going to be a mixture of people who follow Christ and people who are opposed to Christ. These represent two Kingdoms and that these Kingdoms are going to grow together. We'll see an acceleration of evil and an acceleration of the Kingdom of God as time goes on, until the day of judgement. That parable brings in the theme of Jesus' Second Coming - which is a very important theme in Jesus' ministry and the whole New Testament. He comes twice to this earth: once to bring salvation in his human ministry, as described in the Gospels, and then once, at the end of history, to bring judgement and to bring a final redemption for all those who have followed him. Those two major parables have been very helpful in giving some foundational truths about the growth of the Kingdom.
We've also seen from the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast that very small ingredients, or elements, can have a very big impact. The mustard seed (proverbially, the smallest seed that the Jews used in their agriculture and horticulture) and yeast (a very small component in breadmaking) have huge impact and transforming power: the mustard seed produces the huge mustard tree, maybe 3 metres tall at its height, and then the yeast works through huge amounts of dough and can make all that into beautiful bread. The very small ingredient of the Kingdom, the Kingdom message, has a powerful effect and can spread very widely.
With these immediate points of background that are helpful for us to keep in mind, we can now come to these two very short but well-known parables.
If you're familiar at all with the New Testament, you may well know these two parables as stories - and those educated in a Christian environment as children will often find these stories taught to them as children. Let's read, first of all, the Parable of the Hidden Treasure; the treasure hidden in a field. Matthew 13: 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.”’Matthew 13:44, NIV
It might be quite hard for us to understand the original context here, so let's think about it for a moment. Almost everybody in ancient Jewish society would have some access to land because it was a landowning society, in which every tribe was given a grant of land and most people still had access to some land and some property rights - some ancestral land - even if it was only just a smallholding, or a little piece of land outside their house. The second thing we need to have in mind, is the fact that if you have any particularly valuable things, it's very difficult to know, in that society, where you can keep them safely. Treasure could be gold, could be coinage, could be valuable jewellery and other things like that.
Where can you keep them? In the modern world there are banks, safes, and technology available to us if we have the money, in order to store things either in our homes or in special security sites. Many people keep most of their treasure, so to speak, in money or in property - neither of which can be moved in quite the same way, especially if the money is in a bank. We have a banking system and a security system that operates, to varying degrees of effectiveness, around our modern world. Most people will trust the banking system in most countries. That's not true everywhere, I'm aware of that. It's true in many countries and the bank is responsible if money is lost, accidentally, or by theft from a bank account. They're responsible to make it good for the customer. That's the kind of world that we live in and that will vary quite a lot from country to country.
Most of us are in a different situation concerning what we would do with our valuables; we would feel safe to keep them in a number of these different contexts or we might keep them at home because we trust the security and the locking system of our own home. In those days, none of those things really applied. There was no banking system but there were people called bankers - or moneylenders - people who informally offered to store money or to exchange money for different currencies. These were people you often didn't trust and whose motives were to be questioned. They were available; they dealt mainly with money but it wasn't a formal banking system. There was no real security attached to it - it was down to personal trust and not many people would use them. Where else are you going to store things? Can you lock your house with high security? Well no, you can't really. Houses, generally, were open much of the day and, of course, in hot climates it's very difficult to lock everything all the time, especially in the ancient world, and so it was very difficult to have anything secure in a home. Households had bigger numbers of people than many modern households and so there were people coming and going all the time into your home.
Therefore, it was common for people to do exactly what's described here: using their land (given that many people have access to at least a small amount of land) and to take a very deep hole and bury treasure.
This isn't the only time in the New Testament that this practice is mentioned. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the story of the Parable of the Bags of Gold and he describes a man going on a journey who gave his servants some gold for them to use and invest while he was away. Matthew 25: 15,
‘15To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17So also, the (man) with two bags of gold gained two more. 18But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.’Matthew 25:15-18, NIV
That wasn't an unusual thing to do. As we read this parable, sometimes we look down on this person. There was a problem with this person and their attitude to their master and to the investment - that's the story we'll look at when we get to that parable later on in our studies - but the fact that he buried it in the ground was a normal thing to do.
With treasure buried in the ground, a man might accidentally discover there's treasure in a field that didn't belong to him and this is the scenario described here. Why is he in that field? He might have just been passing through and digging - that seems very unlikely. It's more likely he was working in the field as a labourer and, if he was working in the field, he probably came from the same community, or from nearby, and he has this sudden surprise that he discovers this treasure buried there. According to contemporary Jewish teaching, if you dig up any valuables from the ground (from someone else's ground) and they come to the surface, they are owned by the owner of that ground or that field. Notice, the man didn't do that. He saw something in the ground but he didn't dig it up; he didn't try to take it away. He didn't show it to anyone, he buried it again. He saw what was valuable there and he went away and, with great sacrifice, bought that field. He had to sell an awful lot of his possessions according to this account. He had to invest tremendously in buying this field in order that he could get hold, not particularly of the field, but the treasure that was within it - he knew how valuable it was. This is a powerful story. The treasure of the Kingdom is so valuable that it's worth getting hold of that treasure in exchange for all we have - we'll come back to that message again as we reflect on the significance of these two parables. Both parables, by the way, are saying something very similar so that's why they're put together here and that's why we are teaching them together.
A Valuable Pearl
Let's now look at the second story. The second parable is in the following verses, Matthew 13: 45 - 46:
‘45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”’Matthew 13:45-46, NIV
Another very dramatic story. Pearls were common treasures in those days in the Middle East and in Israel. Pearls, as I'm sure you know, come from oysters and oysters were abundant in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and in that surrounding area, so there was access to oysters for traders or fishermen. Obviously, everybody knew that an oyster may yield an unexpected treasure because oysters would always be opened up to see whether you'd have just the oyster inside or whether there was a pearl. The pearl is an accidental treasure because it's a form of defence that the oyster makes when the sand gets into the inside of the oyster. It covers it in certain chemical compounds and that eventually produces this remarkably beautiful pearl that emerges from the oyster. In the ancient world, pearls were held in great esteem; they were very valuable They were one of the precious stones of that era and, indeed, they still are today. They were particularly valued in that time. Let's read a few things from the New Testament, just to indicate this. In Revelation 18: 12, when John is describing the trading in the last days during the events surrounding the Second Coming, he describes (Revelation 18: 12)
‘cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls.’Revelation 18:12, NIV
They're specifically described there. When Paul is dealing with how Christian women should dress in public worship during a context where there were fashions for very showy and expensive dress codes in the cities where Paul was planting churches. He says in 1 Timothy 2:9:
‘I … want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds,’1 Timothy 2:9-10, NIV
and notice there pearls are stated there alongside gold..
Jesus uses the concept of pearls metaphorically in another context. We've already studied this when we looked at the Sermon on the Mount but I repeat this as a matter of interest, to see the significance of pearls. Matthew 7: 6, when Jesus is talking about the truths of the Kingdom and who is receptive to them, and who isn't receptive to them. He said:‘
“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.”’Matthew 7:6, NIV
The pearl there is significant of something of great value which is, in that context, the teaching of the Gospel and the Kingdom and he's basically saying some people aren't ready to hear these teachings - and particularly the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount - the context there.
So ‘the pearls of wisdom’ becomes a kind of metaphorical use of this term in the English language. Pearls are immensely valuable. Perhaps the most telling and remarkable statement that we have about pearls in the Bible comes in Revelation 21: 21, which is one of the most staggering things you'll read in the book of Revelation - which, is full of amazing miracles. This is a description of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city - a physical city that exists in heaven and will come to the earth (the new and renewed earth), after Christ has returned. In the eternal age, heaven and earth will be united; there'll be a great, wonderful, glorious and gigantic city which will be the home of the redeemed. That's the context, and then he describes the following, Revelation 21: 21,
‘The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.’Revelation 21:21, NIV
This is describing pearls and gold which we saw linked together in a different context. Here they are linked together again - two of the most valuable things that humans can conceive of, stated to be present in superabundance. How could a gate of a city be a single pearl? Well, it's impossible in the context of pearls that we know come from oysters from the sea; this is some miraculous extension of the beauty and the glory of pearls.
When Jesus uses pearls for this metaphorical statement, he's speaking into the culture; he's speaking into the value system of the Jews and many other people who would listen and would have similar value systems. The pearl is so valuable that it's worth buying in exchange for everything that we have. The merchant took the decision that he would get this pearl of great price at any cost. He went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Two very small stories, with very powerful meanings and very powerful symbols within them: the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price. These two stories tell us of two different ways of discovering the treasure, or the pearl, of the Gospel: it could be accidental or it could be by deliberate seeking. The man in the field who discovered the treasure almost certainly discovered it by accident and so it is with some people that who encounter Christ without directly seeking him - something happens that makes them aware of him. Others are like the merchant looking for valuable pearls and other precious stones; he's looking and suddenly he finds it. This describes two ways that people come to Christ: sometimes we get a revelation that's unexpected and sometimes we're really seeking. I wonder which category you are in, or you were in before you became a Christian? Whichever way we come, Jesus is saying that the Gospel and the life of God's Kingdom is so valuable that it is worth making huge sacrifices in order to become believers, to become disciples, to change our lives - and the changing of our lives can be something very radical and challenging - but it's worth doing because of what we are inheriting. The Kingdom of Heaven is worth infinitely more than the cost of discipleship. You may not feel that, as you hear this talk, because the cost of discipleship in human terms can be very great: tension in families, rejection by your family, your job and your economic situation can be at stake; you can experience persecution and opposition; you can experience loneliness; you can experience suffering because you are a Christian. For some people they have to even leave their own countries to continue their journey of faith because of the threats that exist in their own countries. I am not underestimating the cost of Christian discipleship but what Jesus is teaching here is that that cost cannot be compared with what we are gaining both now, (our relationship with God, peace with God, the blessing of God, the purpose of God in our lives, forgiveness) and in the future (the eternal Kingdom that we will inherit that those who choose not to follow Christ will not inherit). These parables are a great encouragement to us. First of all, if we are thinking of becoming believers to do so without worrying about the cost - pay the cost, make the sacrifice, let go of an old life that needs letting go of - because what you are entering into is as valuable as the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. Thank you for reading.