We have come to chapter 4 of A-J. Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. She now talks about the pearl of great price parable in Matthew 13.45-46. It is a very small saying. She first points out the common consensus of interpretation: the pearl of great price as an allegory of discipleship. The pearl is the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, or Jesus, the savior of humankind. The merchant is sacrificing everything for the good news. The other interpretation she points out is the merchant representing God or Jesus seeking out the lost sinner like a precious pearl.
She then points out that the merchant originally was not only a merchant but also a man (based on the Greek language of Matthew 13). The man surely can’t be Jesus or God. Levine sees the merchant as a type of negative character in view of first century readers. Citing Rev. 18.3, she connects merchant as one who sometimes had dubious connections with questionable people. In other words, according to Levine, a merchant parable casts the whole parable into a questionable scenario. Her further objection to the popular interpretation is that if the kingdom is the pearl, it ought to be proclaimed other than withheld. So, she wishes to connect pearl with something negative much like the way the merchant is negative. In proving her point, she cites 1 Tim. 2.9 where the author told Timothy to tell his people not to wear jewelry. She also cites Rev. 18.12-13 where pearls were signs of extravagant corruption. While jewels were good to look at, they had very little practical value other than being put up to be looked at. Only the richest of the rich had the luxury of having such jewels while still having enough to live off. Apparently, this merchant wouldn’t after he sold everything. Levine sees the picture as the merchant redefining himself as being no longer a merchant but someone who could afford the luxury of a great pearl.
Levine’s proposal has a lot to commend it. I’m unsure whether we should read merchant positively or negatively. I think Jesus was using merchant class as an illustration of how crazy this story is. A merchant who tried his best to gain a useless pearl so that he had nothing to live on but an admirable pearl pretended to change his status. He acted like he had much more to live on. When people saw him, they also saw that he was no longer a merchant but an aristocrat now. How was the kingdom like this whole story? First, the kingdom isn’t like a pearl. Second, the kingdom is no longer about selling and buying much like the fact that the merchant had bought but didn’t resell even though it seemed good to resell.
While I agree with Levine in the above two implications, I think we need to read the parable in light of the parable of the hidden treasure. While hidden treasure was acquired as a matter of luck, the pearl was acquired as a matter of circumspection. The merchant had looked and looked. This is something I think Levine could have developed. Furthermore, the search for pearls would cause comparison with other types and options. I believe Levine is strong here when she insists that the parable was about priorities. Certainly, there’re other valuable things the merchant could’ve bought, but didn’t. Others besides himself have bought instead. So, the merchant had considered what was the ultimate priority by comparing the pearl with other options. Thus, the kingdom was about choosing the right priority that Jesus had presented throughout Matthew instead of other good but not best options.