Matthew 13: 44-53
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” 53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
This final set of three parables with a bonus image wraps up this block of teaching the crowds and disciples in parables. The careful hearer will hear several resonances between these images, which are unique to Matthew’s gospel, and other teachings of Jesus earlier in the gospel. Those who are scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven (literally disciple scribes of the kingdom of heaven) have learned from both the wisdom of scripture and the teaching of Jesus and have a rich storehouse of wisdom to bring forth into their life. As I continue to sit with these images I am aware that many have been unearthing the treasures hidden here for almost 2,000 years but I still find a rich storehouse of treasures waiting the patient seeker.
The first two images contrast with the previous earthy images in the extravagant image that is likened to the kingdom of heaven. The previous images have been very earthy, related to fields and baking, but here we are dealing with the discovery of treasures and pearls. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure or a storehouse of treasure hidden in a field which compels that person to sell all they have to possess. The image of treasure may remind the attentive disciple to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6: 19-21 about storing up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth and about one’s heart being where one’s treasures are or Matthew 19:21 where Jesus in conversation tells a rich young man to sell his possessions to have treasure in heaven. The person in the parable is completely invested in their decision to purchase the field and possess the treasure. They have given up what they have to live on to possess the treasure, and while we might naturally think of this person selling off the treasure to live more abundantly the story ends with the person owning the field, the treasure and nothing else.
In a similar way the image of the person purchasing a pearl of great value takes us into an extravagant image that most of the people in Jesus’ audience couldn’t imagine. There is no undisputed mention of pearls in the Hebrew scriptures (the NRSV translates Job 28: 18 ‘the price of wisdom is above pearls’ but the words translated pearls is the Hebrew p’ninim which means jewels), but Matthew has used the image of casting ‘pearls before swine’ in Matthew 7:6. Pearls are produced by a non-kosher animal but wouldn’t be forbidden to wear by Jewish people, the problem with pearls is at this time they are more valuable than any other ‘fine jewels.’ They were simply unavailable for the average person. They may never see a pearl except in depictions of the very wealthy, much less one of exceeding value. (Levine, 2014, pp. 146-148) In modern settings we normally anticipate a person who is a merchant purchasing something of high value in order to sell it at a high cost, but few of us can imagine risking everything on one high priced item that literally bankrupts us, but the parable again shows no interest in selling the pearl. The person who was a merchant now gives all to possess this pearl of exceeding value that is qualitatively different from any other pearl or gemstone. Both individuals who sell everything desire to possess the discovered treasure and find themselves willing to empty out their storehouses to make space for this one thing.
The third image, which is given with interpretation, returns to the familiar realm of most of the people around Jesus, the image of fishing. The net thrown into the sea is a dragnet, not the small circular net cast into the sea for targeted fishing indicated earlier in the gospel. It is a net pulled behind or between boats gathering everything indiscriminately that is not too small for the net. Nor does the Greek indicate that it caught fish of every kind, instead it simply says ‘all kinds/races gathered together’ (pantos genous sunagagouse). We may hear the echo of Jesus’ call to Peter and Andrew when he told them he would have them fish for people in Matthew 4: 19 and the explanation of this final parable indicates that it is indeed people instead of fish being sorted. In the explanation the angels are the sorters who gather the good ones into vessels and the bad ones are cast out into the fire. I do believe that Matthew wants us to hear that there is a consequence for failing to be righteous instead of evil, good instead of bad, having one’s hearts and treasures not invested in the approaching kingdom of heaven. Even in their way parables both conceal and reveal they are intended for those with ears to hear to become scribes learning the ways of the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew unearths some of these treasures for us to see and conceals others for those who trained to hear the scriptures of Israel in light of the new reality of the kingdom of heaven’s approach in Jesus. Matthew is trying to train us how to read scripture in the light of Jesus’ teaching and wisdom and give us a map to the storehouse of treasure or the pearl of exceeding value. Scribes trained to marvel at the pearls of wisdom contained in some of these earthy tales of sowing, baking and fishing and to delight in the presence of the kingdom in unexpected ways in the midst of the world. Perhaps that is a part of the reason that patient seekers continue to unearth unexpected treasures in these parables 2,000 years later.