“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.
Mathew 13, 45-46
According to Mark 4.33-34, Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, then explained everything in private to his disciples. Because few of these explanations are preserved, Jesus invites us to do our own interpretating. Unfortunately, often we settle for easy meanings: be nice like the Samaritan; we will be forgiven as is the Prodigal Son. Such interpretations are not wrong, but they are also incomplete.
If we stop with the easy lessons, we lose the genius of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus, like his fellow Jews, knew– from Jotham’s Parable of the Trees in Judges 9; from Nathan’s Parable of the Ewe Lamb in 2 Samuel 12 -- that parables surprise, challenge, even indict. But because we resist challenge and change, we tend to resist the parables’ provocations. Here’s how to re-hear our parable.
Jesus begins: “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant”. The Greek for merchant is emporos, whence, “emporium.” A merchant, an emporos, in antiquity, is someone who sells us what we don’t need at prices we can’t afford. The only other place emporos appears in the New Testament is in Revelation 18, which describes the “merchants of the earth” who “weep and mourn” since “no one buys their cargo anymore”; The cargo: gold and silver, and slaves. In the Old Testament, emporoi sell Joseph in slavery (Genesis 37.28) and fill Solomon’s coffers (1 Kings 10.15, 28; 2 Chronicles 1.16). Sirach 26.29 states, “A merchant can hardly keep from wrongdoing, nor is a trader innocent of sin.” Comparing the kingdom to a merchant challenges stereotypes: don’t judge people by their jobs or their income. Look to their character.
What about the pearl? Pearls, the only jewel produced from a living creature, form when oysters produce nacre to protect themselves from foreign objects like sand. Hence, the analogy of the creation of a pearl to the shedding of tears. The parable encourages us: If something bothers us enough –problems to be solved; ideas to be explored – we may generate something beautiful.
Next, our merchant is “seeking”, Jesus advises, “seek first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6.33). He also assures, “seek and you will find … for…everyone who seeks finds.” So we ask, For what do we seek?
Our merchant sells all he has - home, food, clothing…To buy a pearl. More, although he was seeking pearls, when finds one pearl of great value, he stops seeking. He knows what for him has ultimate value, and it changes his life, for once he has his pearl, he ceases to be a merchant.
Thus the parable raises additional questions. Here are five:
First, it asks: Do we know what we are seeking? What is our ultimate concern?
Second, it prods: The merchant knew when to stop looking and be satisfied with what he had. Do we?
Third, it prompts: Have we found our own pearl? This is an important question for women, who so often put others’ needs ahead of their own. Each of us can have a dream, or a goal.
Fourth, it inquires: do we know what is of ultimate concern to others? If we don’t know what is most important them – food, health, children, an education, freedom… How can we say we love them?
Finally, is our own pearl helpful or destructive? Is our pearl justice, compassion, or service, or it is money, fame, beauty or power? Will our pearl yield satisfaction or joy, or will it yield only the desire for more, for if our pearl is money or power or fame of beauty, we will never be satisfied.
Jesus does not tell us what the parable means. In fact, instead of thinking about what a parable means, we might ask what a parable does: does it cause us to rethink our values? To reorient our lives? Once we know our pearl – what is of ultimate import – we can more easily face disappointment; we can more easily determine when to fight, and when to let go; we will know what is essential and what just an irritant. Thus, when we find our pearl, we have one foot in the kingdom of heaven.
by Amy-Jill Levine