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The Pearl of Great Price

Posted on: June 11, 2017

Category: Theology

The Pearl of Great Price

The parable is a simple one, yet so very deceiving. It goes like this. "There was a merchant in search of fine pearls. Upon finding one pearl of great value, he sold all that he had and bought that pearl" (Matthew 13:45-46).

The standard interpretation of this parable, according to Wikipedia, is that with the pearl the parable represents the great value of the kingdom of God. The celebrated parable scholar, Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979), also interpreted the parable in this way. Jeremias stated, in The Parables of Jesus, that when it comes to the kingdom of God, "All else seems valueless compared with that surpassing worth" (p. 201). In the Gospel of Thomas, which holds a version of this parable, the same time-honoured interpretation is given, "You too seek this unfailing and enduring treasure" (Thomas 76).

The standard interpretation of the parable, which compares the worth of the most valuable pearl to the worth of the kingdom of God, is an obvious and easy conclusion to draw. But as with most Jesus parables, the obvious is obviously not what is happening.

When the Merchant comes across the pearl of great value, he does not just sell a few things. He sells everything he has. In Greek, the text states "panta hosa echei," which is properly translated as "all that he had." Everything. Accordingly, the merchant ends up with nothing but the pearl, which, though it has great value, only holds the value of all that he sold. The pearl on its own is useless if the merchant wishes to live. So, effectively, the merchant has to sell the pearl in order to have things again like food or a home or perhaps even to buy back the boat he was using to trade his wares (which he also no longer has). What's the point of having one valuable pearl and nothing else? The merchant who bought the pearl will have to sell it again in order to live.

According to Brandon Scott, the parable is not about value but about corruption (Hear Then the Parable). It is about the alluring and false nature of possession and how the "kingdom of God" corrupts possession by undermining its sense. The kingdom of God, then, is not a place or a reality but like a force or an agent. It acts to corrupt. As I like to say, it is like poetry that acts to awaken the human mind to its own misunderstandings of life.

In politics today, like in politics of all times, the corrupting activity that arises in the desire to possess seems always to be on display. Whatever Jesus meant by "the kingdom of God," we might say that its corrupting activity continues. Politicians of all stripes are very good at claiming certain principles as great and then undermining the principles when seeking to possess them becomes a corrupting rather than justifying agent. Of course, in the United States, it is most obvious when "make America great again" is built on lost values that are throwing America back into the dark ages. Greatness as something to possess is corrupting the government, which serves to undermine the greatness that is sought. It is hard not to read the recent election in the U.K. in the same way. Theresa May sought great authority. She gave up the majority that she had, all she had, for a mandate of great authority, but that very act corrupted her integrity and worked against her aims. In the view of Jesus, the "kingdom of God" makes an appearance whenever the desire to possess backfires.

There is something to be learned personally and socially about this strange "kingdom of God" that otherwise goes unnoticed. Personally, we might recognise that what really gives value to life is giving things away rather than possessing them. Socially, we might uphold that the reality we really need to be concerned about is life, not greatness and not authority.

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