“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46). The word Jesus begins this parable with – again – points back to the previous parable about the buried treasure. There, the kingdom of heaven is the buried treasure, which might be why the current parable, where the kingdom of heaven is the merchant, frequently gets interpreted as saying that the kingdom of heaven is the pearl of great price. There is a common theme running through all the parables thus far: the kingdom of heaven starts out woefully small but it is worth everything.
It’s happened before that the kingdom of heaven is like a person – a seed sower, which Jesus explains in Matthew 13:37 is The Son of Man (or Himself). Here, it is a merchant searching for pearls, presumably to sell them for himself; the word ‘merchant’ indicates a businessperson who trades in commodities produced by other people in order to make a profit. But – plot twist! – he finds a single pearl and sells all he has in order to obtain it. In the previous parables, someone who finds the kingdom of heaven sells all he has to obtain it. In this one, the kingdom of heaven- Jesus – gives up all He has to obtain a lone pearl. So what is this valuable pearl?
Naturally occurring pearls are nearly always nacreous and iridescent – that is, beautiful; they occur spontaneously in the wild when a microscopic irritant becomes trapped within the soft tissue of a mollusk. The offending particle is rarely a grain of sand as is commonly thought – it’s often organic matter, a parasite or even tissue damage, and the pearl is formed as a defense mechanism, or, as Wikipedia says, a sort of ‘immune system’ against such invaders. It is extremely rare to find pearls made without human intervention; historically, thousands of oysters and/or mussels had to be opened – meaning killed – in the search for them. This is why pearls were traditionally so expensive – not only are they beautiful (insert obligatory mention of good things coming from hardship here); they are extremely hard to get.
Scripturally, there are several and varied references to pearls: they can stand for a thing of great value (“do not throw your pearls before swine” – Matthew 7:6) or wickedness and pride (“alas, alas, that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls!” – Revelation 18:16). The 12 gates of the New Jerusalem are each made of a single pearl (Rev. 21:21), hence the Pearly Gates.
So what does all this mean when we put it all together? A pearl hunter seeking rare and difficult-to-obtain bounty will conduct his search diligently, persistently and single-mindedly. He or she will have to use extra caution since (in Scripture) pearls can either be “good” or “bad.” If the kingdom of heaven, which we’ve seen before is Jesus, is being compared to a merchant, might what we be searching for – treasure buried in a field or good seed growing up among thorns – also be looking for us?