Economics for Dummies.
45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
The pearl merchant, by any standard, is a man of economic means. Consider his inventory. Consider his training. Perhaps he represents a nobleman, scouring exotic markets for the purest pearls ever pulled from the depths. This is a well-traveled man with discernment and taste, a shrewd negotiator.
Here, on the shores of Galilee, Jesus is teaching his listeners that things work differently in the economy of the kingdom, because in Jesus’ telling, the merchant is also a man who makes a fatal purchase.
As an object, the pearl itself bears witness to the gospel: A grain of sand, the most common of elements and an irritant in the oyster, being slowly and steadily transformed into something rare, beautiful and precious—something fit for a king.
Jesus is very precise with his language: the merchant finds a costly pearl—unparalleled in value, to his eyes. What happens next would be seen by his peers as financial suicide. He liquidates his inventory—and ostensibly all of his other possessions—which makes him no longer a merchant but a man with a pile of cash.
And with it, he buys one pearl. Now he is the eccentric owner of a spectacular pearl—not even a whole string, but a single specimen.
He is ruined. He may retire happily with his beautiful pearl, but he will never trade again. He has abandoned the glory and influence of his position.
But there must be more to the story. A savvy merchant would only make such an apparently disastrous trade if he was perfectly satisfied with the outcome—and, perhaps, if he knew something that everyone else did not.
Human pride wants to be the hero of this parable—the one with initiative, giving up its imagined wealth to obtain God. In that reading, this would be a story about us and what we need to do. It would tell us how wise we were to perceive God’s true worth, how noble we were to sacrifice in order to have him. But if we allow our flesh to claim the hero’s role, we would forfeit the wonderful truth of the story.
Jesus is the merchant who gave up everything to make one glorious purchase and show his people that, in the kingdom’s economy, true wealth means losing everything to gain him.
In light of this parable, his words from the cross take on new meaning: “It is finished” meant not only that the payment was complete, but that he had nothing else to give. He’d sacrificed glory to become a man, dignity as he was despised in his ministry, fellowship as he prepared for the cross, liberty as he submitted to chains, authority as he submitted to Pilate, his last possession as soldiers gambled for his robe, unity with his Father as he became sin, and finally his life.
But “it is finished” also meant that what he’d sacrificed to purchase was finally, irreversibly his. Jesus paid the great price for his pearl.
Our response to such costly grace should be radically deepened faith in “the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus.” The gospel upsets the world’s way of assigning value, giving us a new currency and a new market. Only after we believe that Jesus is the merchant who gave everything to purchase his people can we give up what the world values to lay hold of him.