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“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

It is no wonder that in Jesus’ parable He used the example of a pearl to demonstrate value. Good pearls were considered more valuable than gold. Cleopatra used them to impress Marc Antony. Julius Caesar invaded the British Isles, in part, to acquire more of them. Natural pearls, which make up only one percent of the market today, are formed in oysters over many years and contain thousands of layers. Most pearls have defects, including yellowness, a dusky tinge, a lack of smoothness, or a shape not quite spherical. Perfect pearls, however, are extremely valuable, not only for their monetary worth, but also for their natural beauty. Even the gates of heaven themselves are described in Scripture as pearls (Revelation 21:21).


Some Bible commentators have interpreted this parable in the following way: Lost sinners are the pearls spoken of in this parable, and the merchant in search of them is God. Certainly, the Bible is full of passages that support the fact that God’s love for us undeserving sinners was so great that He was willing to give the ultimate sacrifice, His only Son, to secure our redemption and eternal life. This interpretation would parallel the parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14), which highlights the desire of our God to seek and save all lost souls.

I believe, however, that the parable rightly means something else. As many of Christ’s parables do, this parable speaks of the “kingdom of heaven.” As we have previously learned, the kingdom of heaven is the rule of Christ in the hearts of believers. How is that like a “merchant seeking beautiful pearls”?

I remember as a child working a number of jobs, including corn detasseling and paper routes, in order to earn enough money to buy my own baseball glove. For months I had a singular focus: the Spalding outfielder’s glove in the shop window. Perhaps you have your own stories of when you had a singular focus. Picture a hound on the scent of its prey, or the animal grasping the bait in the trap, unwilling to let go, even though letting go would free it. Or a surgeon tirelessly exhausting all possibilities in an attempt to save the life of the patient. Those seeking the kingdom of heaven are pictured as being single-focused as well.

By God’s grace alone, believers have found the perfect pearl—the Gospel of salvation in Christ. They recognize its value. They are willing to give up anything and everything to keep it. Their whole worldview changes. They see that nothing else compares to that treasure. All other “pearls” provide only temporal and fleeting value. As Mary understood as she sat and listened at Jesus’ feet, there is really only “one thing needful.” May we all be led to recognize and keep in our hearts the pearl of great price.

			Many spend their lives in fretting
			Over trifles and in getting
			Things that have no solid ground.
			I shall strive to win the treasure
			That will bring me lasting pleasure
			And that now is seldom found.
			If on earth my days He lengthen,
			He my weary soul will strengthen;
			All my trust in Him I place.
			Earthly wealth is not abiding,
			Like a stream away is gliding;
			Safe I anchor in His grace. (TLH 425:3,6)

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.