Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

82. Four Short Parables (Matt. 13:44-52)

Just as the Mustard Seed and the Leaven are twin parables, so also are the Hid Treasure and the Pearl of great price. They have the common element of a readiness to sacrifice all else for that which is deemed to be of surpassing value.
Since, in those days, the ordinary individual did not have access to a bank (in the modern sense of the term), the safe keeping of money and valuables was no easy matter. The solution adopted by many was to make a hiding-place under the floor of the house or in a cave or in the ground in some remote spot. The man in the parable who hid his one talent is an example of this.

It could happen that a man died without revealing to others the secret of the hiding place, and accidental discovery of the cache might follow generations later. In more recent times this has been a not infrequent experience of archeologists and even ploughmen. If one may assume the passing of generations, one aspect of the morality problem in this parable is taken care of.

Jesus put this intriguing situation to work, in order to set his disciples thinking on yet different lines about the gospel of the kingdom. But what conclusions did he intend them to draw? There are two very attractive but markedly different interpretations.

Christ and his redeemed?

In one the man is Christ himself. The treasure in the field is the community of the redeemed. In order to gain them for himself, Jesus was prepared to sacrifice everything else, even to forfeit life itself, that he might gain title to the whole world, and this specially in order that he might bring to himself those who are “the called according, to God’s purpose”.
Similarly, the merchant seeking goodly pearls represents Christ, and again the pearl of great price stands for God’s elect for whom Christ was prepared to give his all for the sake of acquiring this special prize.

The particular satisfaction which these interpretations offer is the emphasis on the single-minded devotion of Christ to the very purpose for which the Father brought him into the world.

But there are difficulties.

There is an essential distinction of idea between these parables. The treasure was found by chance (its finder was not looking for it), whereas the merchant was seeking. But can it be said with confidence that the hid treasure was found by accident? To this the answer must be “Yes”, for, had the man known that the treasure was somewhere in the field and meant to have it, he would surely have bought the field first and then set about his explorations. Another difficulty is that the merchant man was “seeking goodly pearls” (plural) until he came across the one which was outstandingly precious. And the implication seems to be that he was willing to get rid of all those already acquired for the sake of the unique one now found. These details are not easy to find room for if this is an allegory of the redemptive work of Christ.

A man finds the Gospel

It is at these very points where the alternative interpretation goes with special smoothness.

The first parable describes the reaction of a man who is not looking for the Truth of Christ, but comes upon it, as it would seem, by chance. A casual remark, the fortuitous reading of an advertisement, a change of neighbours or of employment, a new friendship made on holiday -in a hundred different ways men come upon the Truth when they are not looking for it, and, recognizing at once its surpassing value, they are willing to make any sacrifice of time, effort, professional advantage, social standing, in order to “seek first the kingdom of God”.

But the treasure is hidden in a field which has to be acquired first before the treasure can be appropriated. The field, then, may stand for the Scriptures in which the Truth about salvation in Christ is embedded. Or it may represent the ecclesia which holds the Truth of the gospel. Either way, the parable is meaningful. The eager seeking out of knowledge revealed in the Word is a necessity if a man is to know and cherish the Hope of Israel. But also he cannot regard himself as a solitary unit of Truth. He must set himself to experience the fellowship which salvation in Christ also means if indeed the suddenly-discovered prize is to be his.

Two Scriptures are specially apposite here. “I am found of them that sought me not. I said, Behold me, Behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name” (Is. 65:1). Did Jesus have in mind particularly the finding of Jewish treasure by spiritually poverty-stricken Gentile? - “having nothing, and yet (now) possessing all things”, for “in him (in Christ) are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”.

The finder is a poor man, or he would manage the purchase without such extreme measures. His eager selling-up of all his present possessions so as to buy the field and its treasure is well expressed by Paul: “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:7,8).

The specific mention of the treasure being hidden again until the field is acquired calls for special interpretation. But how? Is there intimation here of a deep personal appreciation of the gospel which is incommunicable to others (Ps. 119:11; 1 Pet. 3:4)?

He does this “for joy thereof”. It is a joy not of present possession but future prospect — “rejoicing in hope” (Rom. 12:12; and also 2 Cor. 6:10; 1 Pet. 1:8; 4:13).

Some have been unnecessarily worried about the dubious morality assumed in this parable. In modern times treasure trove belongs to the state, and any finder appropriating it is a law-breaker. But in the first century things were different. And, after all, if there is treasure in a man’s field and he doesn’t know about it, nor is likely to know, he is no loser if someone else gains it.

A pearl of great price

The parable of the pearl presents a somewhat different picture-of a man who from the start has the set purpose of acquiring the best available. The parable implies systematic enquiry, careful scrutiny, rejection of some and selection of others. There are many philosophies in the world, but only one clear harmonious Truth. When a man finds this he worries little about abandoning all the rest. Indeed the Greek text very neatly implies that the merchant was prepared to sell up not only the stock of pearls he had already acquired but also everything else that he had.

The drag-net

The next parable is drastically different in scope. And since Jesus briefly explained its intention there is tolerable freedom from ambiguity. The gospel net gathers in fish of every kind. This can hardly mean different nationalities (in contrast with former Jewish privilege). It must signify varying personalities- every kind of individual. It is to be noted that they all exist in the drag-net together. The sorting out takes place when the boat has pulled to shore, that is, at the end of the age. But the fishing continues until the net is full, that is, “until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11:25). This expression, in its turn, is derived from an Old Testament prophecy using the metaphor of fishes. When blessing the sons of Joseph the aged Jacob deliberately gave priority to the younger, saying: “His seed shall become a multitude of nations”-literally, “a fulness of Gentiles” (Gen. 48:19). So Paul’s words in Romans were interpreting an Old Testament type. But Jacob also said of both sons: “Let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (v. 16). More accurately this is: “Let them swarm as fishes”. Thus both Jews and Gentiles find themselves in the gospel net.

The parable says expressly that “they (the fishermen) drew to shore and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away” (13:48). Here is a mode of speech regularly employed in Scripture with regard to the Judgment. “The judgment shall sit” (Dan. 7:26). “There will I sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi...” (Mal. 3:3).

Judgment by angels

But the authoritative interpretation of this, supplied by Jesus himself, presents a problem: “So shall it be at the end of the age: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just”. How is this to be reconciled with the clear and repeated teaching of the rest of Scripture that “the Father hath committed all judgment unto the Son”? It is he that is “ready to judge the quick and the dead”.

The resolution of this apparent contradiction calls for more detailed investigation than is appropriate here. It has been attempted in “The Last Days”, chapter 11. To summarise briefly the conclusion reached there: it seems that when the angels are sent to gather those answerable to judgment, there will be no element of compulsion. Response to the call will be, in the first instance, optional: and by the varied responses illustrated in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins men will roughly sort themselves out into categories of worthy and unworthy. But of course the final decision will rest with the Lord himself, for “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ”. Considering how few passages speak with any detail about the call of the saints and the ensuing judgment, it is rather remarkable that nearly all of them seem to have some hint of this idea.

The fate of the rejected

I n this parable it is the fate of the wicked which is specially dwelt on: “They shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth”. Since the old orthodox idea of the wicked suffering for ever in hell-fire is so clearly contrary to the over-all teaching of the Bible, it has been customary to read these words as interpreting the parable by means of another figure of speech. John the Baptist used the metaphor of fire to describe the fate of the unworthy (Lk. 3:17).

But it is possible that there is an element of the literal also about this “furnace of fire”. If indeed modern civilisation is to face its own special destruction by fire as Noah’s did by water, there would be a certain appropriateness about consigning worldly disciples to the same fate as the Sodom in which they have felt so much at home. “The heavens and the earth which are now, by the same Word have been stored with fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men... the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:7,10).
At this point Jesus paused and asked: “Have ye understood all these things?” There is a subtle irony about Matthew’s preservation of the disciples’ blithe response: “Yea, Lord”. Probably they meant that, thanks to the explanations Jesus had added, they had grasped the salient teaching of his parables. Yet, almost certainly, as the years went by they would be continually discovering fresh truth in these short but eloquent similitudes.

Such cocksureness on the part of the disciples on that occasion has been matched many a time since that day by the similar attitudes adopted by disciples in these days. The gospels are strewn with plenty of examples of the disciples’ marvellous inability to grasp what Jesus was trying to teach them. Then let a man take warning from their experience and avoid the too frequent readiness to measure the scope of the teaching of Jesus (and the rest of Scripture also) by his own limited grasp of its content. The lesson is an important one.

Historical sequence

The complete set of parables in Matthew 13 is worth considering once again, this time as a sequence. Is it just accident that they appear to have special relevance to the changing fortunes of the gospel over the centuries? Their ready conformity to a chronological sequence is certainly impressive.

  1. The parable of the Sower is specially appropriate to the early days of the church, when the message was being disseminated far and wide.
  2. But almost immediately came another era when to the pure gospel of the kingdom there were added many false unbiblical notions-the Tares.
  3. As time went on the church became more and more powerful and materialistic, so that many political forces deemed alliance with the church well worth seeking. This is the mustard tree with the birds of the air in its branches.
  4. Ultimately the Dark Ages set in. Truth was completely obscured. “The whole was leavened.”
  5. With the sudden availability of printed Bibles in the 16th century a dramatic change took place. Men discovered Truth for themselves like treasure hid in a field, not because they were looking for it, but simply because they now had access to the Bible.
  6. However, since the Reformation sectarianism has proliferated. Today there are churches galore. All of them have some truth to offer. But there is one which surpasses all others. This pearl of great price is so manifestly superior that a man is glad to let go all the rest for the sake of this one. This is the position today.
  7. Before very long the Lord’s drag-net of judgment will have its fulfilment when the catch will be found to include a mystical number of great fishes (Jn. 21:11).
“Things new and old”

That such an additional interpretation of this group of parables is possible is in itself an impressive illustration of the main point in the additional parable with which the Lord rounded off this sequence: “Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” (13:52).

Here mention of a “scribe”, that is, one specially tutored in the study of the Law of Moses, suggests that these parables, and indeed all the rest, are best understood by the discerning use of the Old Testament. This has already been illustrated regarding the dragnet. Pr. 2:4; 8:11; 20:15; may have provided the origin of the other two parables (some authorities read “pearls” for “rubies”).

Now this last parable in the sequence furnishes yet another example of the same important idea. The Law made a promise to Israel that “if ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do shall eat old store long kept, and ye shall bring forth the old because of the new”: (Lev. 26:10). It is an assurance of such plenty that, when each harvest comes in, it will be necessary to bring out the still considerable store from the previous year in order to make room for fresh abundance.

This is a marvellously accurate picture of the pleasant embarrassment in which a man finds himself when he has learned well the gospel of the kingdom. In the Old Testament he has vast stores of divine law, history and prophecy. The New Testament brings a further superabundance of even higher quality, so that, be he never so unwilling, due preference must needs be given to the greater blessings of the New Covenant which God has more lately given. This was markedly true in the time of Jesus regarding the scribe whose eyes were opened to the truth that though “the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”. The same is even more true in this age when all the riches of the completed volume of Holy Scripture are poured into the lap of one who is “instructed unto the kingdom of heaven”.

This is privilege unequalled. Let disciples of this day and age recognize it as such with due thankfulness and industry.

It is possible now to see that this eighth parable has its place alongside the other seven in the historical sequence suggested earlier, for the key word is “scribe”. Here, then, is a picture of Jewry in the end of the age recognizing with surprise and delight what a vast store of divine instruction has been lying there in their ancient Scriptures, unperceived, until, offer the day of judgment (the drag-net), there is sudden realisation of divine truth concerning Christ-now even more in the New than in the Old Covenant.

Notes: Mt. 13:44-52

He hideth. Origen says regarding this that there are some secrets of Holy Scripture which a man does best to keep to himself because others don’t appreciate them. Was he right (a) in his interpretation of the phrase? (b) in the reason given?
Se// a//. Cp. Mk. 10:21.
Pearls. The manna is said to be like pearls; Num. 11:7.
A net. Why is it that in practically every other place, except Jn. 21:6 ff the net has an evil or sinister meaning?

Hidden treasure and drag-net come together in Dt. 33:19, but it is difficult to see any connection.
The angels. Does the parable come away from normal practice here? Is it not true that usually it is the fishermen who sort out the catch?

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