Here are two familiar parables, with a surprise ending that I wasn't expecting:
Lots of us have heard these three verses before. We take the meaning of both to be simple: the kingdom of heaven is something more valuable than anything we can imagine, but sometimes it can seem hard to come by. We are to be like the man who found the treasure and gave up everything for it - what in our lives, we imagine we are invited to wonder, might be standing in the way of our owning this treasure? We should get rid of it for the sake of this most valuable thing.
All the commentaries I looked at - several Church Fathers, John Calvin, John Wesley, as well as many modern commentators - all seem to read both of these stories more or less in this way: they're both about the value of the kingdom, and Jesus encouraging his audience to count the cost, to recognize the unsurpassable worth of the Kingdom and to give up everything for its sake.
For example, here's Wesley:
I think that's a pretty good reading of the parable of the treasure hidden in the field. But the more time I've spent with these three verses the more I've decided that we basically all read the second parable wrong.
I'm serious. Like, all of us, and me too.
But just notice the subtle ways that the parable of the pearl merchant is different from the treasure in the field. For instance, take a look at the different economic outcomes for the buyers here. The guy who finds the treasure in the field sells everything to buy the field, but in the end he gets the treasure for free. As a result, the guy who buys the field ends up economically much better off. He has a field that is worth the same as "all he had", but he also has the treasure.
The pearl merchant, on the other hand, simply buys the pearl. Maybe he got a good deal on it (we aren't told), but it is probably fair to assume that he paid a reasonable market price for the pearl - the merchant saw it, and then fell in love with it; he just had to have that pearl. He paid his whole net worth for this pearl that is worth about the same as his whole net worth. So the financial situation of the pearl merchant is essentially still the same; he sold all he had, and all he got for it was that pearl.
Also notice the different levels of intentionality here. The first man seems to just stumble upon the treasure in the field, as if by accident. The pearl merchant, on the other hand, was actively looking for fine pearls.
I thought all of that was curious.
Then I looked at these parables a little closer. And I noticed something that should have been obvious.
In the first parable, we're told that the kingdom is like a hidden treasure that someone found and sold all he had in order to purchase that field. If these parables were supposed to be identical, then the second parable should read something like, "The kingdom of heaven is like a fine pearl that a merchant found, and the merchant sold all he had and bought the pearl."
But this is not what it says at all. The kingdom is not like the pearl - the kingdom is like the merchant. The kingdom is not being compared to the valuable thing that is to be acquired at whatever cost; the kingdom is compared instead to the person trying desperately to acquire that extraordinarily valuable thing.
But if the kingdom of heaven is the pearl merchant, what on earth is the pearl?
It hit me like a ton of bricks: you are!
I mean, we are, the church is, perhaps all of creation is. But if God's kingdom is like a pearl merchant willing to lay it all on the line - pour his whole self out - for the sake of a single pearl of great price, then we should probably think of the merchant as the Triune God, the pearl's price tag as being Jesus' cross, and the pearl itself as being all that Jesus' cross redeems.
We are the pearl of great price, and the God of the universe wants us to be his.
In a way, maybe this truth is itself the treasure that we might stumble upon as if in a field and, if we are wise, will shrewdly give up all we have to acquire it and profit from its immeasurable value.