Read: Matthew 13:44-46
What does it profit you if you gain the whole world and forfeit your life? Is there anything in the world that’s worth the price of your soul? Jesus’ parable of the Pearl of Great Price urges us to take a much wiser approach to the way we invest our lives, and the return we expect on our investment.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-7, KJV). In those questions, Jesus is making a point about relative values. It’s a very basic economic truth, understood by everyone in every culture on earth. You should only pay for something what it’s worth. So Jesus is really asking this: what is there in the world you might buy at the price of your life, your character, your eternal salvation, that could possibly be worth it? “He sold his soul to the devil.” That’s what we say about someone who has purchased worldly success at the cost of personal integrity. We rightly despise such a person.
But that sort of bargain isn’t just contemptible, it’s stupid. It pays far too much and receives far too little in return. Here’s another way to think of it. We all have been given just one life. By the choices we make, the beliefs we adopt, the values we embrace, the causes we support, the way we spend our time and money, each of us is investing that life in something. So here’s the question: is what you are spending yourself on worth it? Jesus urges us to take a wise approach to the way we invest our lives, and to think carefully about the return we will get on our investment.
Jesus tells a couple of brief parables near the end of Matthew 13 that have just such a shrewd life-investment strategy as their theme. Here are the parables of the Treasure in the Field and the Pearl of Great Price.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-46)
Just that much; two little stories that go by quickly, but offer a great life lesson. Jesus’ meaning here isn’t hard to figure out. The kingdom of God is the treasure in the field and the pearl of great value. Or, to put it in more personal terms, Jesus himself is the treasure and the pearl. Knowing him is the thing that surpasses all worth. So if this is the case, will you do whatever it takes to get into the kingdom? Will you give up whatever it costs in order to find Jesus?
That’s the point of these two small parables. Imagine you knew where the winning ticket for a $100 million prize was hidden. It’s anyone’s for the taking. Wouldn’t you move heaven and earth to go out and get it? What if you were suffering from a fatal disease, but someone came along and told you there was a medicine that could cure you completely. Wouldn’t you do whatever you could, pay whatever you had, in order to obtain it? Of course you would. That’s the point of these parables of Jesus. When the benefit is great enough, no price is too high to pay.
Moved by Joy
But there’s more here in these miniature masterpieces of Jesus’ teaching. Notice what he says about the motivation of the characters. In the first story a man finds a treasure hidden in a field. He carefully buries it again so that no one else will find it before he can secure ownership of the field. “Then,” says Jesus, “in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field.” In his joy . . . did you hear it? It’s joy that motivates this man to sell everything he has. Joy, because he knows he’s actually getting a bargain. All of his possessions are as nothing compared to the value of the treasure.
His only worry is that the sale of his other property will take too long. This man can’t wait to get rid of everything he owns in order to take possession of the field and its treasure. Or consider the pearl merchant. He has been searching all his life for a gem like the one he has finally found. Now his entire stock of merchandise, everything he’s ever seen before, looks to him like a bunch of glass beads compared to that one perfect pearl. In other words, when these men sell all that they own it isn’t really a sacrifice. They are moved by joy to give up what they do, because they are getting so much more in return.
“It is no sacrifice to give what you cannot keep in order to gain what you cannot lose.” Those wonderful and often-quoted words are from the journal of Jim Elliot, who was martyred in 1956 along with four other men as they tried to bring the gospel to a remote tribe in the jungles of Equador. He’s talking about his life. It’s no sacrifice to give up our earthly life which we can’t keep anyway in order to gain eternal life which we cannot lose. The gospel is not first and foremost a message of sacrifice and renunciation. First and foremost, it’s an invitation to infinite joy and eternal life.
Whatever it costs you to accept that invitation is more than worth it. Do you remember the rich young ruler? He’s the man who came up to Jesus and asked what he had to do to gain eternal life. “Well,” Jesus answers, “keep the commandments—don’t kill, don’t steal, honor your parents, and so forth.” “I’ve obeyed all of those all my life,” the man declares. “Good!” says Jesus. “Now there’s just one more thing. Go and sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and come join me.”
And the Gospel reports that the man went away sorrowful because he was very rich. But the truly sad thing is that all his possessions were just so much trash compared to the value of knowing Jesus. This man was right to feel sorrow, because his attachment to his things would rob him of the infinite joy that can only be found by following Jesus Christ.
You know, God’s intention is not finally to deprive us of anything. No sacrifice we might be called upon to make in this life can compare with what we will receive—and not just receive in heaven, but already here and now. This is what Jesus promises his disciples.
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now is this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)
God has a treasure in store for us. God’s intention is to bless us with happiness beyond our power to imagine. “He’s a hedonist at heart,” complains C. S. Lewis’s famous demon, Screwtape.
All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the seashore. For at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand “are pleasures for evermore.” “Ugh!” says the devil.C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”
But there is another message in Jesus’ parables of the treasures that we also must make sure we take to heart. If you do want to obtain the treasure of the kingdom it will cost you everything. The men in Jesus’ stories were moved to do what they did because of the joy kindled in their hearts by what they knew they would receive. So selling all their possessions was no real sacrifice. But they still had to do it. Christ and his saving benefits are freely offered to all who will receive them by faith. But to receive them, you must give up everything and everyone else in your life that could compete with your devotion to him. That’s the deal. Jesus says it plainly in another place: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” declares The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s story A Good Man Is Hard to Find,
and he shouldn’t have done it. He [thrown] everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but [throw] away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can….Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Flannery O’Connor saw clearly the central issue of life. If there is no God, if Jesus is a fake, then anything goes. The only thing to do is to try to find a little pleasure in the few minutes you have left.
On the other hand, if Jesus did what he said, then there is nothing left for us to do but throw everything else away, and go and follow him. Then the only smart thing to do is to sell all that we have in order to buy the hidden treasure of God’s kingdom, to give up everything in exchange for Jesus, the pearl of great price. But don’t worry; it’s worth it.
Give me Jesus, Give me Jesus; You may have all the rest, But give me Jesus.In the Morning When I Rise (Give Me Jesus)