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JESUS' MOST MISUNDERSTOOD PARABLES
The Stories of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price
Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.
JESUS (LUKE 19:10, NLT)
IT FEELS AS IF WHAT SOMETHING is worth is constantly up for grabs. Not long ago, I was in the process of purchasing airline tickets for an upcoming trip, and the price changed while I was in the process of booking them! And, of course, the price went up, not down. Then a week later, after I'd already purchased tickets, an email alerted me to the fact that the same flight, same day, same airline had now dropped in price (again with no price guarantee).
It's not just airline tickets. The "in" toy from last year isn't so "in" anymore. The brand-new car driven off the lot immediately loses value. A company's valuation on the stock exchange can change from moment to moment.
How can we know what something is actually worth?
It's a question we face every day. On one hand, we can confuse something that has only temporary value with something that is of lasting value. On the other hand, there are times when we recognize what is of real value — what is very good and truly valuable — and we organize our lives around those things.
Jesus tells two parallel stories back to back as a way of emphasizing that we are constantly faced with the challenge of deciding what something is worth. How you understand these two stories influences how you understand yourself, God, and living your one and only life. I believe that the following two parables are the most misinterpreted of Jesus' parables. See if you agree.
WHAT IS WORTH WHAT: BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING
[Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said,] "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.
"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 13:44-46 (NLT)
The standard interpretation of these two parables is that we are like the man in the first story or the merchant in the second one. We find the treasure that is the Kingdom of Heaven. Seeing that it is of such great value, we give our all to buy it. We are the one doing the seeking, the finding, and the purchasing. We are the hero in the story.
But is that really what Jesus is trying to tell us? Maybe. But maybe not.
"Am I the man or the treasure?" "Am I the merchant or the pearl?" Before we wrestle with the ends of the stories, we have to wrestle with their beginnings. We have to ask ourselves, "Who is what?"
Just prior to the parables, Matthew tells us,
Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet:
"I will speak to you in parables.
I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world."
MATTHEW 13:34-35 (NLT), EMPHASIS ADDED
If these parables are about "things hidden since the creation of the world," determining who is what in these parables requires us to go back to the creation of the world:
God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them....
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
GENESIS 1:26-27, 31 (NRSV), EMPHASIS ADDED
The Hebrew word that is translated good can also be translated as precious, valuable, excellent, and pleasing. Genesis tells us that for the first five days of creation, at the end of each day's work the creation was good. However, here at the end of the sixth day's work of creation, the day that God made people in his image, it was very good. In other words, Genesis is underlining the value that God saw when he considered the people he had created. All of creation was good, except those beings made in God's image — they were very good.
Living in a global marketplace, we can absorb the illusion that value is determined by "What have you done for me lately?" We often extend that way of thinking to ourselves, measuring our worth based on grades, job reviews, number of social-media followers, or amount of money in our bank accounts. We slip into thinking that our value is determined by how others feel about us or even how we feel about ourselves. That might work well on our good days, but what about on our bad ones?
Genesis offers us a different picture. Humans are created on the sixth day. The people had not even done anything yet. They had not produced or created or even multiplied. And day seven was set apart as a day of rest — the very first full day of human existence was a day of rest.
Our being called very precious and valuable before we had done anything and then given a day of rest to start our experience of life underscores that our value must be intrinsic to who we are, not just what we do.
THE SOURCE OF OUR VALUE
God declares us very valuable, but where does this value come from? It comes from the fact that you and I were created in the image of God. Authentic image gives and determines value. God does not make any counterfeit human beings.
The value of a US hundred-dollar bill is not based on where it has been or how it has been used. Its value is not determined by its shape, size, or color. A one-dollar bill in American currency has the same shape, size, and color as a hundred-dollar bill. If you want to know what the bill is worth, what matters is whose image is on it. George Washington's image tells us that it is a one-dollar bill we are holding. If we have a bill with the image of Benjamin Franklin, then we know we are holding a hundred-dollar bill. How do you determine what you are worth?
You need to know whose image you bear.
So here's what is true about you: Regardless of whether things are going well or not, whether you feel great or glum, because you were created in the image of God, you are of the highest value.
This can be a challenge for some of us to accept because the things around us have constantly changing values.
The thing is, you are not a thing.
According to Matthew, the prophecy said that the Messiah will "explain things hidden since the creation of the world." Then Jesus tells a parable about a hidden treasure and then another one about a pearl. We've seen that God has given us great value, but where does the hidden part come into play?
In Genesis 3, we learn that Adam and Eve let fear and skepticism take root in their hearts. Up to this point, they had experienced only good. However, the enemy of God tempts them to believe that the Creator is not planning for their best interest. So they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It's essential to note that the Hebrew word translated knowledge carries with it a sense of experience. It's not just that Adam and Eve were intellectually aware of evil's existence; it's that by becoming skeptical of God's nature and purposes and intentions for them, they opened themselves to the experience of evil. Here's what we are told:
The man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, "Where are you?"
He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid."
GENESIS 3:8-10, EMPHASIS ADDED
God gave us the highest value by making us in his image, but when he comes looking for us, our totally false perception of him causes us to hide ourselves from him. God's plan of sharing his joy with the creatures of his affection — created in his image and dearly precious to him — is challenged by our propensity to doubt that love. How could God's reputation be renewed and light be shed on the now dark, worrisome, and skeptical place in the human soul? How could that happen, and what would it cost? In other words, what is worth what?
THE FOUR STAGES OF LOVE
About a thousand years after Jesus told these two parables, a monk named Bernard of Clairvaux wrote something that has helped shine some light on these parables for me. Clairvaux founded seventy monasteries and observed a four-stage development in a person's relationship with God. See if you can find yourself at any of these stages as a way of moving forward in your relationship with God.
The first stage is the love of ourself for the sake of ourself. We all start here. We are concerned for only ourself, aware of only our own needs. As babies we have no choice but to begin our lives in an entirely self-centered reality. But we don't have to stay there.
The second stage is the love of God for the sake of ourself. We step into loving God but only on the basis of what he can do for us. Clairvaux noted that this is as far as most people ever travel in their lives. One way to tell if this is where we are is to listen to our prayers. If our prayers mainly consist of asking God to give us something or protect us from something or make something happen for us, we are probably at this second stage. If this is where our love for God stops, we are in danger of hating God if he does not give us what we want when we want it.
The third stage is the love of God for the sake of God. This is where we begin to sense that God has value simply because of who he is. Just as he declared that we have value simply because of who we are, we now can make that same declaration about him. Just as he valued us before we had done anything, we can now value him also for who he is.
This is the beginning of joy and wonder for many people. God did not have to be the way he is. He did not have to create animals as wonderful and weird as the platypus, but he did. He did not have to make sunsets so majestic and beautiful to us, but he did. God's character does not have to be filled with mercy, creativity, generosity, and grace, but it is. That such a God does exist becomes the point of delight and joy.
When I first read these stages, I thought that this third one should be the end of it. If we could each get over ourself long enough to love God solely for who he is, that should be the top of the mountain, right? But I was surprised to read about the fourth stage.
According to Clairvaux, the fourth stage is the love of ourself for the sake of God. When I first read this, it rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed selfish, prideful, and arrogant. It seemed to be a great step backward, not forward. And then I thought about how being a pastor serving in the most diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles means that I have had the privilege of sitting with many different people: men and women of seemingly every ethnicity and background imaginable, some exceedingly rich and others exceedingly poor, some very young and some very old. I have learned that it is very rare to find a person who does not suffer from some level of blatant self-dislike or even self-hatred.
Some people focus on physical traits, desiring to be taller or thinner or to look different than they do. Others are introverts wanting to be extroverts (or vice versa). Still others wish they had different natural skills or abilities: "If only I could write music like she does"; "If only I could speak as well as he does"; "If only I could build a business like my friend." Some people seem to think that God did not really know what he was doing when he created them. If you have ever struggled with negative feelings toward yourself, it is a surprising discovery to find out how God feels about you. This fourth stage is when we have caught a vision of the value he has placed within us.
Which brings us back to these two parables that Jesus told of the hidden treasure and pearl.
WHAT IS SOME THING REALLY WORTH?
What is a thing worth? It's worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
In Jesus' other parables that have a person searching for something that is hidden, covered, or lost, God is not who is hidden or lost; we are. Just like in Genesis. God is the one doing the searching. This fits exactly with Jesus' understanding of himself: "The Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost" (Luke 19:10, NLT). God is a seeker.
Christ sees our value in spite of all of the broken, messy, value-distorting fears and sin we have covered ourselves in. He sets aside his divine privileges (sounds like a man who "sells" everything) and takes the form of a baby in a manger. Skepticism had set into the human soul from Genesis 3, but in Luke 1:68, interestingly, we are told that God has epeskepsato us.
Many English Bibles translate epeskepsato as "visited." It's an unfortunately bland translation, as it obscures the lightning of what is happening in Jesus' coming down to earth.
Epe means to move toward someone or something with helpful intent. Skepsato is where we get our English word skeptic. Putting it together, when Jesus came, he "moved toward the skeptics with helpful intent." Who are the skeptics? As we just saw in Genesis, me and you. And what are we skeptical of? God's good character, intentions, and plans for us.
And so we hid from God, and Jesus came from heaven to seek and save what was lost. He who set aside his divine rights to visit the skeptics with helpful intent did this by eventually dying on the cross (see Philippians 2:7-8).
He did this all for the joy that was set before him (see Hebrews 12:2). What does that joy consist of? A restoration of the unbroken communion that we were created to have with God from the creation of the world — a treasure that was once hidden and lost and is now being found again.
Most people have at least some time in their lives where they struggle with issues of self-worth or wonder how God sees them. Whether that happens a lot in your life or only episodically, God declares that you are worth the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ, who arrived in a manger to be with us. Zephaniah says it this way:
The Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.
ZEPHANIAH 3:17 (NLT)
With Jesus' arrival in the manger, the Father declared, "You are worth it!"
THE TREASURE IN THE DIRT IS STILL VALUABLE
And now we ask, "But what about my sin? My messed-up life? My addiction? My secrets? Don't those remove my value to God? Just because I once was of great value and great worth does not mean that I still am."
Don't believe that lie about yourself and about God.
Think of it this way. How much is a crisp, clean hundred-dollar bill worth? A hundred dollars. How much is a dirty, crumpled, hidden hundred-dollar bill worth? A hundred dollars. Why? The image might be in need of restoration and cleansing, but it is still there. While we were still in the dirt of sin, in the fear of evil, in the anger, in the isolation we covered ourselves with, God not only came looking for us but came to pay the highest price for us: "He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed" (Isaiah 53:5, NLT).
On the cross, Jesus was the man and the merchant who sold everything he had in order to pay for the treasure that had been hidden, the pearl of great price to him. In Christ, you were "bought with a price" (see Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23; 2 Peter 2:1). God's Word is clear that the mystery of this Good News is now available to all who would hear and respond by faith (see Romans 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:26). If you respond by placing your faith in Jesus and follow him, that is what it means to be "in Christ."
In the book of Revelation, the city of God is described. It contains twelve gates. On the gates are written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and each of the gates is made of a single pearl (see 21:9-21).
A pearl is unique among all the precious stones in creation because it is the only precious stone that is created through pain. It is the result of a grain of sand creating pain within a clam, which then secretes a fluid that hardens around the grain of sand. When we see a pearl, we see something that has been made lovely through the process of pain. That is the very story of the gospel of Jesus. We are forgiven and are being healed, renewed, and restored, but it happened through the process of his freely entering into the pain of the Cross on our behalf. What God thinks you're worth is clear and unwavering: You are worth everything to him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Down To Earth"
Copyright © 2019 Tom Hughes.
Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction The Greatest Stories Ever Told xiii
1 Jesus' Most Misunderstood Parables: The Stories of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price 1
2 A Fresh Chance For A Fresh Start: The Story of Two Sons 13
3 The Startling Forgiveness Of God: The Story of the Unforgiving Servant 25
4 The Secret To A Stronger Prayer Life: The Story of the Uncaring Neighbor 39
5 Maximizing What You've Been Given: The Story of the Talents 49
6 The Surefire Way To Ensure Your Unhappiness: The Story of the Vineyard Workers 63
7 Doing First What Matters Most: The Story of the Ten Bridesmaids 77
8 The Joy of Spending Someone Else's Money: The Story of the Dishonest Manager 87
9 Why Evil Exists Now But Won't Forever: The Story of the Wheat and Weeds 99
10 Rising Hope In Troubled Times: The Stories of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast 111
11 How To Be A Hero: The Story of the Good Samaritan 123
2 Welcome Home!: The Story of the Prodigal Son 137
13 The Creative Potential of a Soft, Deep, Uncluttered Heart: The Story of the Four Soils 151
Conclusion A Window, a Mirror, and an Invitation: Finishing the Stories of Jesus with Your Own Story 167
Appendix The Parables of Jesus 175
Questions For Small-Group Discussion And Personal Reflection 177
About The Author 191
What People are Saying About This
The beauty of this book is that it fully lives up to its title! Tom brings heaven’s stories down to earth for the here and now with real-life application, and you find yourself captivated by the Master Storyteller, Jesus, along the way.
Tom Hughes’s book Down to Earth declares with great joy who God is, whose we are, and the invitation to become changed people. Tom writes and teaches with years of ministry and leadership experience, pastoring us into the stories and heart of Jesus. You won’t regret reading this book that exclaims the power of the greatest story ever told!
Every one of us loves to hear a good story. We weave our own lives into its fabric as we discover that we can identify with the reality it unfolds. There is such joy in finding that in the grand stories of Jesus, there is a place for us. Let Tom Hughes guide your heart in finding yourself on the pathways of Jesus’ stories that bring meaning to your life and godly perspective to living.
The gospel is God’s flesh-and-blood embodiment of life-giving love. Jesus Christ is that life, the living center of that gospel. Tom Hughes is utterly convinced this Jesus alone provides the good news we all need. In Down to Earth, Hughes takes us into some of Jesus’ most powerful stories that to this very day still invite and provoke us to find our truest and fullest life in Christ. Relish these stories and respond to Jesus’ call to lifelife abundant.
In Down to Earth, Tom highlights Jesus’ use of parables throughout his ministry on earth. Tom proffers that Jesus used a parable as both a riddle and a mirror. Certainly, some parables seem straightforward, but others have always felt like a riddle to me. Through reading this book, even the ones I assumed to be straightforward have been unlocked in new ways, like riddles in sheep’s clothing. What I learned through the pages of Down to Earth is how Jesus used parables to mirror back to us how valuable we are to him. These mirrors are meant to show us not how we see ourselves but how he sees us, as image bearers of God. Jesus not only sees us as precious but invites us to see this ourselves, as a way to step out of hiding and into deeper communion with him. Tom articulates how Jesus came not only to prove the existence of God but also to demonstrate the character and compassion of Godand he did this most powerfully through parables.
It’s one thing to tell someone that God is love; it’s quite another to tell them the story of how Jesus suffered and died for them to prove that love through a beautiful song or captivating story. Jesus did the same thing when he taught two thousand years ago. He told stories. Tom Hughes has done a beautiful job of pulling out the sometimes-hard-to-understand truths of these stories in an instructive and inspiring way.
Jesus’ stories have the power to unlock the deepest realities of our lives: our regrets, disappointments, failures, and fears. Hughes helps us wrestle with these life-changing stories . . . with helpful discussion questions at the end of the book. This book contains hope and good news for all. Dig in!