I’ve been looking at the metaphors, similes and controversial aphorisms Jesus used in his ministry and exposition of the nature of the Kingdom of God. One of those similes that stood out to me was the idea of a pearl being worth sacrificing everything else just to possess it. Here is the verse:
“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!” Matthew 13:45,46 NLT
So if I read Jesus correctly, the Kingdom of Heaven is like the pearl merchant who is willing to forego everything else of value to posses the one thing of greater value. Since Jesus’ mission was to bring me — ok, you too! — into the kingdom, just think of the valuation he must be making of my relationship with him! I find it staggering!
But why a pearl merchant? Why not a gold, silver, or diamond merchant?
In the Roman Empire, pearls were a symbol of wealth and power, and were far more valuable than diamonds. Known in Greek as Margaritae they symbolized the highest value object it was possible to possess. So if you are blessed to be named Margaret or any of its derivatives, your parents, perhaps unwittingly, made you an object of inestimable value!
Pearls were considered the ultimate status symbol and were worn only by royalty and the most prestigious of nobility. Julius Caesar passed a law in the 1st century BC that only aristocrats could wear pearls within Rome's borders. We have the receipts from a transaction of that time that sold a pair of pearl earrings for the equivalent of 93 tons of silver!
It is probably safe to say that none of the listeners to Jesus’ teaching was affluent enough to actually own a pearl. Since the Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake, oysters would not be found there, so unless some of Jesus’ hearers were from the Mediterranean none of the fishermen would be pearl harvesters of merchants, either. To the listeners that day, owning a pearl would be equivalent to winning a billion in the lottery! If you’d like more background on the status of pearls in Jesus’ time you can look here https://tinyurl.com/pearl-of-great-price
An easy search reveals many references to the opulence of pearls in the New Testament. For example, here is John’s revelation of the beauty of the New Jerusalem — “The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.” Revelation 21:21 NLT So, structures are built from pearl, and the finest gold is relegated to paving streets!
So let’s talk about pigs.
You might be surprised how few references there are to pigs in the Scripture. The main one is the dietary laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus — “And you may not eat the pig. … it is ceremonially unclean for you. You may not eat the meat of these animals or even touch their carcasses.” Deuteronomy 14:8 NLT.
From our modern medical point of view it is easy to see why those laws made sense. Pigs will literally eat anything (including cannibalized pigs!) and are still the most unsanitary of animals, preferring muck and mud to a good bath! In his apostolic writings Peter reminds us that — “A washed pig returns to the mud.” 2 Peter 2:22 NLT Pigs are so dumb they cannot recognize when they are better off and instead return to the lowest form of existence.
Jesus gives us three references to pigs in his teachings. One is in the parable of the prodigal son who fell so low as to be sleeping with and feeding pigs.
“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.” Luke 15:13-16 NLT
Jesus’ listeners would instinctively know that there was no lower to go for that young man!
The second is when Jesus rehoused demons he had exorcised from a man in Gardarene.
“There happened to be a large herd of pigs feeding on the hillside nearby, and the demons begged him to let them enter into the pigs. So Jesus gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the entire herd plunged down the steep hillside into the lake and drowned.” Luke 8:32-33 NLT
Jesus demonstrated that the pigs were worthy hosts for demons and their death-wish antics. [I leave it as an exercise to the reader to explain why there could actually be a herd of pigs nearby if they were forbidden in Jewish law]
And that brings me to pearls and pigs.
“Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you.” Matthew 7:6 NLT
I have heard this expounded as not wasting the gospel on those who only want to twist it for their own profit, and I admit there is some validity in that position. But I think Jesus is saying something much more basic than that.
Why would we squander our most precious possession, our immortal soul, purchased at an unthinkable price, just to wallow in the mud, muck and mire with which this world entices us?
Jesus says the world will trample our pearls and attack us!
Paul puts it succinctly: “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT
Pigs and pearls don’t belong together!
You are much too valuable to be squandered in mud wrestling!
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black
P.S. if you’d like to read previous ruminations of mine they can be found at https://www.salvationarmyconcordca.org/chronicle/?category=Bible%20Study