The Pearl of Great Price

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Christ told the parable of a merchant in search of fine pearls, who when he had found one truly great one, sold all that he had and bought the pearl – ever since known as the “pearl of great price.” What Christ refers to in the parable, of course, is the Kingdom of God. And lest we confuse anyone – the Kingdom means everything – God Himself and all that you could possibly hunger for as well.

Of course the problem about searching for Great Pearls is that they are only found among many false pearls, and many pearls of far lesser value. More than the “needle in the haystack” – it’s finding a pearl among pearls – even if all pearls are not alike.

It is easy at some point to say, “Well, after all, a pearl is a pearl, and even if this pearl is not THAT pearl, it’s still a pearl.” Which, of course, is all true, but beside the point. You wouldn’t sell all that you have in order to buy just any pearl. And, in truth, as the parable is structured, no other pearl will do.

Searching for that pearl today, the Kingdom of God, the Fullness of the Faith, etc., we have, of course, many pearls, and many stories about the nature of pearls.

Some say there is no real Great Pearl, that this is just an ideal and all pearls, no matter how poor, really partake in the excellence of that true, abstract pearl. So take this one, please.

Others say that there are no Great Pearls to be found among us, just lots of lesser pearls. And the point is to pick the best and know that when everything is said and done, God will turn your poor pearl into the Great Pearl and everything will be fine in the end.

All of these stories, and their variants, make of Christ’s parable mostly a joke. Why speak of a pearl of great price if there was no pearl to be found? Why speak of selling everything in order to possess it, if it is actually as common as gravel along the side of the road?

There are many who have sought to change the meaning of the pearl, in order to keep the parable and set us off chasing red herrings. The Apostles were merchants in search of fine pearls, and they gave up all they had. They did not think that the pearl was abstract or to be found just anywhere or with everyone’s definition of pearls in operation.

The simple fact is that they believed this pearl to be nothing other than the Kingdom of God, manifested in the life of the Church. For this they suffered the loss of all things and purchased the pearl with the price of their blood. To take of that pearl and abstract it today – simply because we (and history) have made such a mess of the Church – is not an answer at all. It is despair.

The pearl of great price exists and is worth all that a man has.

Shortly after my family’s conversion to Orthodoxy, we began the hard work of planting a mission. The first major commitment (other than my need to find secular employment at a fraction of my former ecclesial salary) was to rent space in which to meet. There were very few families at the time. Signing a two-year lease for what seemed a sizable amount each month was frightening, particularly since no human being was standing in the wings and saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll cover it if we need to.” I remember saying to my wife, “This could bankrupt us.” But I also remember adding, “But it’s worth going bankrupt over.”

That is my testimony to the Orthodox Church. This is indeed the pearl of great price, regardless of what man may do with it. It is the true faith, preserved by those who have bought it through the years and kept it as a pearl without deviation from the pearl as it was received. It is worth all that I had – even if I had been a rich merchant. To a degree I was. I had four children – and set their lives and their faith as a downpayment on this pearl. Nothing could have been more precious. And today they are grateful for the pearl it purchased.

I cannot argue with anyone who says that they have found the pearl of great price. But there are many pearls out there, and merchants who would charge far beyond their value. I cannot overcome them with argument. But I will not recant my purchase, my gift. I will not deny the nature of this pearl.

The wonder of it all is that the One Pearl can be had by so many.

21 comments:

  1. The normal interpretation that I have heard for this parable is that Christ, is the merchant. He is the one who gave all he had to purchase the Kingdom, to purchase us. We, even if we sell all that we have do not have enough to purchase it, for what we have is nothing. We ourselves are bankrupt.

  2. I like the parables so much because they emphasize beautifully that the Kingdom is an abstract – a stance, an attitude – that enables the operation of the spirit. “To what can I compare the Kingdom?” he said, making sure there was no comparison of the Kingdom with the Covenant of Moses, or with the Temple, or the Priests, or the Romans, Greeks, Gnostics, Scriptures or anything else. This one is indeed a pearl, different to the others in that it points directly to the Great Commandment of the Kingdom, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

  3. C Grace,

    That is the normal interpretation. We are the pearl of great price for which Christ gave up everything to purchase. And we cannot buy such a pearl – it is a gift. But oddly, as a gift, it sometimes costs everything we have (think of the rich young ruler). That’s an individual thing. In my own life I finally had to give up far less than I thought in some things and far more in others, but everything was only for my salvation, not to purchase, but to receive.

    As for the parable. You’re correct. Just chalk this one up to “preacher’s license.” 🙂

  4. C Grace,

    Although I readily concede the traditional interpretation, there is a history of other usage as well with the parable. St. Vladimir, Prince of the Rus, is likened to “A merchant in seach of fine pearls” in the Troparion of his feast. That is probably “poet’s license.”

  5. Well, this reminds me of something I read long ago, and unfortunately i don’t remember whowas the author. anyway, it was said that if you want to know if you really love somebody, with a view of marriage, you need to be able to answer in the affirmative when asked “Would you love this person even if they will bankrupt you?”.

  6. Scylding,

    I came into the Orthodox Church feeling very much the penitent. Since the day I was received (which was on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son) I’ve been treated with a respect far beyond anything I deserve. I have not only been given a Pearl to which I have no right, but if asked, would bankrupt again and again. I have never known such kindness in all my life as I have received as an Orthodox Christian. That may be just my personal experience – but it’s true.

  7. While I note that your interpretation of the parable is a quite common one, and understandable given the proximity to the parable of the treasure in the field, it should be noted that in this parable the kingdom is the MERCHANT, not the pearl. So, the kingdom of God was out searching for the great pearl, and when it was found, the kingdom bankrupted itself so that it could obtain that pearl. Thus, the comparison you made regarding yourself selling all you had to convert to the Orthodox church, however commendable, is an incorrect comparison for this parable.

    This comparison would have worked for the parable of the treasure in the field, however they should be looked at in unison to understand their true meaning.

  8. Gee Chad, that’s one vote for the pearl as the kingdom, one for the merchant as the kingdom. I’m amazed at how much everybody is certain. I simply found the parable applying to a situation in my life, which is always appropriate. But it’s strange to be so clear about the meaning of the parables. In point of fact, St. John Chrysostom sees the pearl as the Kingdom or the Gospel. Perhaps a greater than John has arisen. The Apostles would have loved to have had you guys among them. 🙂

  9. Great post Father.

    I’ve always read that as the Pearl being the Gospel/Kingdom. Makes sense of not casting ‘pearls before swine’.

    This is very much how I have felt approaching the Orthodox Church. My ‘local’ parish is miles away, and I need to make all sorts of concessions (so does my wife and kids) so that I can be part of that community. But it is definately ‘worth’ it and I’ve certainly found some hidden treasure.

  10. Greetings. When we find that which is rare and authentic, we pursue it with abandon. Indeed that which is real is often surrounded by that which appears real, but is a forgery. Most of us will spend our days before coming to Christ embracing that which can never satisfy; be it materialistic gains, positive thinking, positions of authority, what have you. But when we come to Jesus, he is real; the Son of the Living God and all else is revealed for what it really is.

    The pearl of great price is a wonderful analogy. You also take notice that many try to “over-analyze” it and thereby miss the point. Thanks for a great post with a needful message contained therein.

    Have a blessed day in Jesus

    timbob

  11. I am not saying that the analogy is wrong, or that the kingdom of God is not something which should be sought with all our heart. What I am saying is that there is a contrast between the two parables.

    In the parable of the treasure in the field Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.” In the parable of the merchant and the pearl Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.”

    It seems to me that they balance and compliment one another. When read together they show that the kingdom bankrupts itself to purchase us, just as we are willing to give all we have to receive it. It is a beautiful picture of the interplay between us and God. Both of us desiring each other so much we are willing to risk everything.

    I apologise if I came off a bit harsh. I love this combination of parables and I find it hard to interpret or apply one in the absence of the other.

  12. Chad,

    I do indeed get your point and appreciate it. The internet often masks our tones and our enthusiasms and yet we communicate. That whole chapter is so rich, and the parables so rich. And i like your point. May God grant us to become empty for Him who emptied Himself for us – that we may be filled.

    I did a Baptism this morning, and as always, the odor of Chrism fills the Church and clings to everything. I feel as though i were breathing the Kingdom of God.

  13. I rarely feel adequate to commenting on your blog postings (though I read them all), and this is no exception — but I did want to thank you for the Nesterov painting at the top of your post, one of my favorites. I had someone convert it into a cross-stitch project for me, which I expect to get to sometime n the next millennium. 😉

  14. I’ve had many dreams about the Pearl of Great Price and taking hold of the Pearl has been the single greatest joy of my life! It is indeed the Kingdom of God and to take hold of it, we must set aside everything but Christ our God. Even then we can’t attain it perfectly in this life. I think Paul had it in his sights when he spoke of running the race to the end. He wrote that he strained toward it, yet hadn’t taken hold of it yet.

  15. Hi Father Stephen.

    I was very much well-impressed by your wblog. I came here from Pr. Dorin’s blog: Teologie pentru azi.

    I want to draw your attention on http://www.dervent.ro/scrieri.php?cID=scrieri-editura&rID=scrieri-editura-I_Chose_Orthodoxy-Father_DAVID&show=true
    I CHOSE ORTHODOXY

    There you’ll have a link to the pdf version in English of the book written by Father David Williams. It appears that he had a similar spiritual oddysey like you.

    Thank you and best regards!

  16. Hi fatherstephen! I believe that the merchant is in fact Christ and the Pearl is the Gentile church… but I have to teach this in a cartoon to little kids and their sunday school lessons are coming from your direction on the interpretation, so I am going to probably lean YOUR direction but also mention that there are 12 gates to the New Jerusalem, each one made out of a gigantic pearl. Now that is really something! (but imagine the oysters those came out of!) ps. I am not orthodox, most folks in my church consider me UNorthodox…

  17. I find the parables of the hidden treasure, and of the pearl of great price are often discussed together. One emphasizes the treasure as an unexpected gift, and the other a pearl found through active searching. I am wondering about the use of various symbols in other parables (like the sower) where different groups with their different responses are shown as alternatives.

    For instance, might the finder of the hidden treasure refer to the Gentiles who would find things of value from a land not their own. And, might the pearl merchant reflect the Jews who already had a history of gifts (pearls) from God in the form of covenants?

    I wonder, because I understand that Matthew is a gospel written for the Jewish ear. Please respond.

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