The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Merchant Searching for Pearls
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."
Jesus says in Luke chapter 17 that the kingdom of heaven is not something to come in the future but that it is already “among us.” In Matthew chapter 13 he speaks in parables, comparing this kingdom to ordinary objects- yeast, a mustard seed, the search for something of value.
This scripture is often referred to as the parable about “the pearl of great price,” but if we read closely, Jesus doesn’t say that the kingdom of heaven is like a pearl. He says the kingdom of heaven is like “a merchant in search of fine pearls.” This merchant gives up his quest for many pearls and settles on one that is better than all the rest, selling everything he has to buy it. So the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who searching for one thing, finds instead something that’s unexpected, and in the end prioritizes his find over everything else- his original goal, his possessions, and his very identity as a merchant.
Before the merchant finds this singular pearl that is better than all the others, he’s a lot like us: searching for something elusive. Isn’t that the human condition, to continually seek what we think we want, what will make us happy? A bigger house, a new car, a different job, another degree, perfect health, even spiritual fulfillment? And when we get what we think we wanted, we find ourselves still wanting, and so we set our sights on a new goal. The merchant sets out looking for “fine pearls,” presumably to add to his inventory of other fine items that he will resell to interested consumers. But that’s not what he ends up with. At the end of our story he just has one pearl of such great value, that no one else could afford to buy it. Maybe Jesus is trying to tell us that the kingdom of heaven isn’t like what we’ve been looking for, like the singular pearl, it’s altogether different and more valuable.
The next thing that happens in our short story after the merchant discovers this “one pearl of great value” is that he goes and sells everything he has to buy it. To readers today and to those in ancient Israel this seems pretty foolish. Selling everything you have for a single pearl? You can’t eat a pearl, a pearl won’t keep you warm at night, and in the context of Jesus’ time, very few people had any interest in buying pearls. And yet, the merchant is willing to give up his home, his business, and everything else for this one pearl of great value. In doing this, he breaks out of the cycle of searching that we humans are so prone to. Jesus doesn’t tell us that the merchant turns around and resells the pearl, he doesn’t say that he used the pearl as a bargaining chip in a better trade. The merchant finds the unexpected object of his ultimate desire and is content. Maybe like the merchant’s fate, the kingdom of heaven means an end to our endless striving. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is a place where we can find rest from the plague of always wanting something different or more.
In selling all he has and naming the pearl as his most important thing, his ultimate concern, the character who begins our story as a merchant is now jobless. He gives up his financial and social status, his identity as a merchant, to become the man with the pearl. Maybe the kingdom of heaven requires this kind of shedding of identity- like the bread we talked about last week that once it has yeast added will never again be a thin crispy cracker. Would most of us even want to experience the kingdom of heaven if it meant we had to shed our old identities? That might be what Jesus is calling us to in this parable.
In this scripture, Jesus tells us what the kingdom of heaven is like, but in other places he tells us what his disciples- those who would inherit the kingdom- do. They clothe the naked, they feed the hungry, they treat the “least of these” just as they would treat Jesus himself, and they are known by their love for others. In a society that rewards us for hoarding wealth, for focusing on ourselves, in a society that judges being different as being bad, I think following Jesus’ command to care for our neighbors just might require the kind of identity shift that the merchant experiences when he gives up his life’s work to buy a single pearl. Just like finding the one pearl wasn’t what the merchant expected, in today’s world, looking beyond our own self-interest to serve the greater good is a unexpected action, one that some might even consider foolish. But the truth is, if we were willing to do what the merchant did, to give up everything, we could accomplish Jesus’ vision for a just society where everyone has what they need to thrive. There is enough wealth in America alone to feed every starving person in the world, there is enough money in our federal budget to lift all of the 140 million Americans in poverty up to a middle class lifestyle where they could be self-sufficient. Check out the Poor People's Campaign Moral Budget that outlines how this is possible. So why haven’t we done these things yet? Why does the need seem to always grow while resources shrink? Perhaps because to our society, caring for the least of these doesn’t yet seem like the pearl worth selling everything else for. Because eliminating poverty and hunger, helping all people flourish, might just mean that the richest among us won’t be “greater than” any longer. It might mean that power is more equally shared among people previously too impoverished or sick or overworked to participate in our systems. Really lifting others up, might mean a shift in our own identities just like getting the pearl meant that the merchant couldn’t be a merchant anymore.
This week at ConnectioN Point, we participated in the Bread for the World offering of letters. Bread for the World began in 1974 when a group of pastors got together to address the underlying causes of a problem that consumed their outreach ministries- poverty and hunger. Realizing that faith communities alone couldn’t solve the problem with a government working against them, they began working with legislators to affect policy change to eliminate hunger in America and around the world. With the power of 1,000s of people in partner congregations like ours, Bread has had success in winning bipartisan legislation that helps hungry people feed their families. Bread for the World is an example of a collective of people who know what their ultimate concern- what their pearl of great price- is. You can write a note to your legislators here.
In our lifetimes, we’ll all decide, like the merchant, what our pearl of great price- what our ultimate concern- is. The one thing worth giving up all else for. And like the merchant when we discover it, we may have to adjust our priorities, even our very identities. As we do so, may we keep our hearts and minds fixed on the vision of discipleship that Jesus calls us to, until his ways become our ways.