The parable of the “pearl of great price” and “treasure buried in a field” are well known. Did you know that these are unique to Matthew’s gospel? “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. 46 When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” Buried treasure is the stuff of popular stories at every age and while “pirates” no longer sail the Seven Seas, we seem content with stories of lottery winners. Given Israel’s location at the crossroads of major powers to the north and east and to the south (Egypt) there is a long history of wars and rumors of war playing out upon the promised land. “Buried treasure” was a realistic possibility.
Before banking was generally established, to hide wealth in the form of coins, metals or jewels in a jar or box in the ground was a recognized way of securing it, especially in times of crisis; the famous Copper Scroll from Qumran Cave 3 lists the locations of huge caches of precious metals and other buried treasure. But consider Mt 25:25, where a talent of gold is buried. The “talent” was equivalent to almost 20 years of daily wages would have been a “treasure” worth finding.
In the face of a rumor of war or war itself, a family might very well bury their valuables. If no one survived the battles or sieges, there was indeed buried treasure to find. There were also rabbinic guidelines for what one did when finding such treasures. Even if you were the rightful owner of the land, you were obligated to make a reasonable search for the rightful owner of the buried valuables. Failing to find the original owners, the land owner could rightfully take possession of the treasure.
Presumably in this story the current owner of the field was unaware of it. The finder (presumably a worker employed by the land-owner) really has no immediate rights to the treasure even after he legally purchases the land. But he understands what is at stake and sells all that he may possess the pearl of great price. Many commentators have noted that it is the same with humanity – we have no right to salvation – it is an unmerited gift from God – so when it comes, grab it without hesitation or qualm. So it seems. The man’s action is dictated by pure self-interest, as is that of the person who opts for the kingdom of heaven. The “sacrifice” of all that is sold is no hardship: it is done out of “delight,” not out of a sense of obligation. Once the kingdom of heaven is truly understood, nothing else can compare with it in value. Cf. the OT theme of wisdom as being like hidden treasure (Prov 2:4; Job 28; cf. with a rather different twist, Sir 20:30).
A Pearl of Great Price. Pearls were as highly valued in the ancient world as they are today, and were a conspicuous way of displaying wealth (1 Tim 2:9; Rev 17:4; 18:12, 16). Huge pearls form the gates in the symbolic new Jerusalem (Rev 21:21). Unlike the man who discovered the buried treasure and could presumably live off his treasure once he had secured it, this pearl merchant, though initially a man of some substance, is apparently impoverishing himself to acquire something supremely beautiful and valuable which he could admire and display but could not live off unless he sold it again.
Its point is the same as that of the treasure, an issue of priorities. The fact that what the dealer had to sell included presumably other, lesser, pearls might however have led the hearers to reflect on the value of the kingdom of heaven in relation to other competing ideologies; once you have it, you need no other. Hence the emphasis on the fact that this is just one pearl, whose value eclipses all others put together.
Such are the attitudes for those who deeply treasure the Kingdom of Heaven.