The Treasure, the Pearl, and the Net: On Value, Judgment, and Giving All for the Kingdom

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a large net thrown into the sea. It collected every kind of fish, and when it was full, they dragged it ashore, sat down, and gathered the good fish into containers, but threw out the worthless ones. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out, separate the evil people from the righteous, and throw them into the blazing furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:44-50)

Having explained his last parable to his disciples while they sat inside, away from the crowds, Jesus then told them three more.

There’s an interesting parallel here: it’s the second time he shares a set of three parables. In the previous set, Jesus told one long parable with an interpretation and two short parables without interpretations. In this set, he tells two short parables without interpretations, then one longer one with an interpretation.

Both of the longer, interpreted parables illustrate the same truth — that at the end of the age, angels will separate the wicked from the just, and the just will be welcomed into God’s kingdom while the wicked are thrown away. (More about this later.)

The four smaller parables also share common themes, mostly the theme of hiddenness. But the two Jesus tells here also carry a different emphasis. Where the last two spoke about the life and power of the kingdom, these two emphasize its value and its cost.

The Treasure in a Field

In Jesus’s first parable here, a man finds a treasure in a field. He immediately buries it again, then goes and sells everything he has in order to buy the field.

This is such a small story, yet so many things about it strike me as wonderful. First of all, this man can’t even dream of buying the treasure itself. It’s far too valuable, far too rich — worth more than everything he owns. But he can buy a field. So, convinced of the treasure’s worth, he sells everything else he owns in order to possess it.

To anyone else, of course, it looks like he just owns a field. He looks like a fool, because he’s traded all of his wealth in order to own a barren patch of ground with some recently turned-up earth spoiling the landscape.

The first thing that has to strike us here is the value of the kingdom. What this man has discovered is a dream come true. But the second thing meant to strike us is how absurd the man looks to others. His action looks reckless and ridiculous because the kingdom is hidden. He knows it is there. He’s seen it. He’s seen its value. But to others, it’s just an empty field.

It takes supernatural eyes to really see the kingdom of God. Jesus makes that point over and over again. It takes eyes of faith — eyes willing to value what God values, to trust him, to trust ourselves and our resources to him.

The Pearl of Great Price

The second parable is very similar. This time, the kingdom is described as a priceless pearl. A merchant comes across it, apparently for sale in a market. Recognizing the worth of the pearl, the merchant sells everything he has to buy it.

In this case, the kingdom isn’t exactly hidden — it’s openly out there for sale. But the merchant is the only one who actually recognizes its worth. How do we know that? Because if the seller realized the value of what he had, he wouldn’t have sold it.

The merchant sees with different eyes. He sees with the trained eye of a scholar, of a seeker, of a seasoned treasure hunter. He knows the pearl for what it is, even when no one else does. He has been looking for this pearl his whole life, and when he finds it, he immediately trades everything else he has ever valued in order to possess it.

The Net: The Mixed Bag of the Kingdom

In the third, longer parable, Jesus speaks of a net cast into the sea that brings up both good and bad fish. This net, he says, is the kingdom of heaven. Just as fishermen will sit down and sort out their catch before taking it to market, so, at the end of the age, angels will sort out and separate what’s good in the kingdom from what’s bad. The righteous — illustrated as “good fish,” or in the earlier parable, the wheat — will stay. The wicked — the “worthless ones,” or tares — will be thrown into the furnace.

Like the parable of the tares, the revelation here is not about judgment. It’s about the present state of things. In this present age, the kingdom of God is full of goodness, but it’s also full of badness. There’s a lot of life and health and flashing scales, and there is a lot of death and rot and misalignment. In this era of kingdom history, it’s all mixed up together.

That’s why we can’t really argue that corruption among Christians or sinfulness within the church proves that the message of Jesus is invalid. Nor is the mixture of good and bad some kind of proof that God’s way doesn’t work. He always said it would be this way.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for purity, holiness, and love; of course not. But when we’re tempted to get discouraged, as we will be, it helps to remember where we are in history.

We haven’t been sorted out yet, as should be obvious. This isn’t a fatal flaw. It’s just timing.

Before we continue, I also want to point out that we shouldn’t read “the kingdom” here as being synonymous with “the church” or “Christians.” In the parallel parable to this one, the parable of the tares, Jesus began by identifying the field as “the world,” where wheat and tares are both planted. But at the end of the age, “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness” (Matthew 13:41, my emphasis).

As the kingdom advances through history, it covers the whole earth and gathers all people into its “net.” So this parable speaks of final judgment for all humanity, not just a specific group.

Why I’m Emphasizing “Thrown Away”

You might wonder why I’m emphasizing the “thrown away” aspect of this illustration, rather than the “blazing furnace” part.

I’m doing it because this story is not so much about the punishment as it is about the judgment — those who are thrown out are judged “worthless,” “fruitless,” “not what they were made to be.” In John the Baptist’s picture of “chaff,” the idea is something lifeless, something that does not bear life or bring forth life, and so at the end of the harvest, it just gets burned.

Jesus says very much the same thing in John 15:

“He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” (John 15:5-6)

Despite the way these parables are often preached, torture is not really in view here. Even the actions of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are more indicative of despair and rage than of physical pain. We are supposed to view this scene as a tragedy, because it is. Something that was meant to be beautiful and good is, in the long run, judged (accurately) as neither. There is awful loss in this scene, and we are meant to feel it.

I think it’s important to remember that Jesus absolutely and strongly forbade us from judging any human being as good for nothing in Matthew 5:21-22 (more about this here, here, and here.) Only God can tell us, in the long run, if we have succeeded in being human.

And that is much of the point, I think: remember, this parable and the parable of the tares were necessary not because the people of Jesus’s day didn’t think judgment was coming, but because they wanted to get to it right away, without delay. They wanted to separate the righteous from the wicked, the pure from the corrupt, the clean from the rotten right then. In some ways, they felt that doing so was necessary for the kingdom to come.

Jesus let them know they would have to wait for that separation to come, and for that matter, it would never be their job. God had angels to do the sorting, and he himself would be the judge.

If we’re going to understand this parable according to the heart of God, it also bears remembering that we tend to judge worth very, very differently from how God does. Remember, the human beings who saw the value of the field or the pearl were outliers — kind of like how Jesus, valuing prostitutes and sinners, was an outlier.

And that brings us to one more thought …

The Parables Turned Upside Down — Who Is the Actor Here?

The most natural way to read the first two parables in this passage is to assume that we are the actor — the man who found a treasure, the pearl merchant. And I think that’s probably how they are supposed to be read. But there’s another way to read them too, and I don’t think it’s illegitimate either — Jesus, after all, is a human being too, and he led the way for us.

This other way to read the parables is to turn them upside down and view God, Jesus, as the actor. He is the one who sees a treasure where others see only an empty field. He is the seeker who alone recognizes the incomparable value of the pearl. And he is the one who gives literally everything — even his own life — in order to possess the kingdom.

We are indeed asked to see the kingdom with eyes of faith. We are asked to give all we possess in order to own it. But we are not asked to do this first. In our case, someone else has already looked at the kingdom — with its mixed bag full of good and bad — and declared its unmatchable worth.

Why, after all, did Jesus go to the cross? The writer of Hebrews answers that simply: “For the joy that was set before Him.”

You and I are part of that joy, friend. We are part of the treasure buried in the field of the world. We are part of the pearl hiding in plain sight, for sale in a market where no one knows its worth. And Jesus himself has chosen us.

In return, we are asked to choose him. To see his worth. To agree with his assessment of other human beings as well: Worth it. Chosen. Pure joy.

It’s clear to me, from the parables Jesus told as well as his more forthright teachings elsewhere, that not everyone will make it into the fullness of the kingdom. But I dearly hope that you and I will. And I hope that we will learn to see, now, as Jesus sees; and to value, now, as he values.

The call is to see, believe, and give everything.

And to know, in the core of your being, that it’s worth it.

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This is Part 227 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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