These two parables, the hidden treasure and the costly pearl, are even more closely allied to each other than the two which precede them.
Generically they teach the same truth; but they teach it with distinct specific differences. It will be most convenient to notice in connection with the first, the lessons that are common to both; and in connection with the second, the points of distinction between them.
These twin parables, then, exhibit on the one hand the intrinsic preciousness of the Gospel, and on the other the high esteem in which that precious thing is held by a spiritually quickened man. They set forth first how valuable the kingdom of God is, and next how much it is valued by those who know its worth.
These two, along with the concluding representation of the general judgment, were spoken, not to the multitude on the shore of the lake, but more privately to a smaller audience in a neighbouring dwelling. Many expositors believe that they can discern a difference in the nature and treatment of the subjects between the first four and the last three, corresponding to the different circumstances in which the two portions of the group were severally delivered. It is thought that those which were addressed to the multitude in public represent the kingdom in its more general and external aspects, as was suitable in a miscellaneous audience; while those which were addressed privately to the circle of disciples represent the kingdom more especially in its intrinsic nature and individual, personal application. I would not presume to affirm that there is no ground for this distinction; but I think it is a mistake to make it the hinge on which our view of the whole group must turn. I suspect there are things in the parable of the sower which require, for their appreciation, the faith and experience of true disciples, as much as anything that the parable of the hidden treasure contains; and, on the other hand, that the lessons suggested by the treasure were as necessary and appropriate to the mixed multitude as those which are taught by the sowing of the seed on different kinds of ground. The necessity of personal appreciation and acceptance of the Gospel, which is the main lesson of this parable spoken privately in the house, is pre-eminently a word in season to those that are without. That lesson, accordingly, the Lord and his apostles were wont to teach in promiscuous assemblies. While, therefore, I notice the fact that the three later similitudes of this group were given to a smaller circle after the crowd had dispersed, I am not able to say that the reason of the change is evident in the nature of the subjects. Had these three also been spoken from the fishing-boat to the promiscuous assemblage on shore, I would not have been able to affirm that the themes seemed less appropriate to the audience, or less in accordance with the Teacher's method at other times. I look with interest into the distinctions which some have drawn between the four exoteric parables addressed to a miscellaneous assembly, and the three esoteric parables spoken to a more select and more sympathizing few; but to me they do not appear to be of substantial importance in the interpretation.
The treasure may have been gold or silver or precious stones, or a combination of all three: it may have been anything of great value that lies in small bulk, and is not liable to decay, -- such a treasure as may lie buried under the earth for a long period without any diminution of its worth. In oriental countries and in ancient times treasures were hid in the ground more frequently than in our land and our day; but it is probable that even there and then the subterranean wealth was tenfold greater in the popular belief than it was in reality.
Two distinct causes, or classes of causes, lead to the concealment of treasure under ground: the feeble bury their wealth when they are oppressed, and the guilty when they are scared. As a general rule, we may assume that the treasure which is found buried in the earth has been placed there either by honest men when the law was feeble, or by dishonest men when the law was strong. The two classes of persons who bury gold are the robbed and the robbers.
In both cases, the treasure which is intentionally and intelligently buried is liable to be lost through the removal or death of those who were in the secret. Such secreted and lost wealth is afterwards from time to time found by those who build houses or cultivate the soil. In all lands and ages some such hoards have been actually discovered, and many such have been imagined and expected by the credulous. The conditions of the treasure that may be buried under ground exist in substances widely different from gold and silver and precious stones. On the west coast of Scotland, a few years ago, some men, while engaged in digging fuel from a moss, found at a great depth large quantities of tallow carefully sewed up in raw ox-hides, and in good preservation. In troubled, lawless times, a clan had ravaged their neighbour's territory: not having had time to drive away the cattle, they had buried the only portion of the spoil that could be preserved, intending to return when the danger was past and carry it away. The opportunity of realizing the booty had never occurred, and the clansmen had carried the secret with themselves to the grave.
In modern times, treasures a thousand-fold more valuable than any that have ever been hidden by human hands are frequently discovered under the earth, and wealth correspondingly great obtained by purchasing the field in which they lie. The much disputed and now celebrated mineral at Torbanehill, near Bathgate, in the county of Linlithgow, affords a good example. A person discovered that a coal or other mineral substance of great value lay in the ground. Without revealing, perhaps not knowing to the full extent the value of his discovery, he forthwith concluded, not precisely a purchase, but a long lease of the ground for mining purposes. When his bargain was securely made, he began to bring up the precious substance. As a raw material for the manufacture of gas and oil, it was found precious beyond all precedent. The original proprietor then raised an action for the dissolution of the lease. The action has been several times renewed in various forms, and its fame has resounded through all Europe. Meantime the prudent discoverer of the treasure and purchaser of the field is reaping a rich harvest from his transaction.
In North America, both in the States and in Canada, similar facts have often of late years emerged, especially in connection with oil springs and copper mines. Some men have obtained enormous wealth by purchasing for a small price a piece of ground in which a seam of copper lay, and selling it again when the fact was verified.
A question has been raised and discussed at greater length, I think, than its importance warrants, regarding the conduct of the man who found the treasure and hid it again till he had secured the field -- whether the act was fair or unfair. The parables of the Lord are allowed to flow like a mountain stream in its natural channel. In those at least that are metaphorical, the narrative does not undertake to prescribe what should be, but to represent what is probable in human history. The fact as narrated may or may not be an example worthy of imitation. The moral lesson is found, not by looking directly at the story, but by looking at the shadow which the material case projects on the spiritual sphere. The conduct of the person in the picture may be good, bad, or indifferent; the spiritual lesson is not affected by the moral character of the act which is employed as a leaden type to make it visible. As the lesson on a printed page is not affected by the baseness or the pureness of the metal which constituted the type, provided always that the form of the type were appropriate; so the doctrine left for us after the parabolic picture has passed is not dependent for its purity on the material of which the type was formed. The shifty dishonest factor, and the indolent unrighteous judge of subsequent parables, occur as conspicuous examples.
 It is otherwise, of course, in those that are directly moral, as the Good Samaritan; they are not metaphors to be translated, but examples to be imitated.
The picture is obviously true to nature. When a man became aware that a great treasure lay under ground at a certain spot, he concealed his knowledge of the fact, and took measures to obtain possession of the field. Believing that this hidden wealth was greater far than all that he possessed in the world, or could ever hope to acquire by the ordinary produce of his property, he sold all that he had without a grudge, in order to make sure of the prize. The love of his own possessions, whether hereditary or acquired, whether lands or money, was overbalanced and so destroyed by the estimate which he had formed of the hidden treasure. The new and stronger affection neutralized and blotted out all previous predilections for what was his own. He sold all that he had, and bought the field. The turning-point is here; and here, accordingly, the story is abruptly broken off. There is not a word regarding the subsequent steps of the important and critical transaction. How much he gained by his bargain; whether the validity of the purchase was disputed in a court of justice by the former proprietor, on the ground of a concealment of facts by the buyer; -- these and all similar points are designedly veiled off. If they had been introduced, they would have served only to lead the investigator into a wrong track, and the meaning of the Master would thereby have been lost. The story advances in broad and manifest accordance with nature, both in its main line and in its subordinate accessories, until it has reached and passed the point which marked its goal: then the curtain suddenly drops, resolutely concealing all the rest, and so compelling the reader to fix his regard on the great essential lesson, instead of dissipating his energies on a multitude of interesting but unnecessary speculations.
Such is the material framework which sustains the spiritual truth, -- such the trellis which bears up the fruitful vine: having first gone round it to survey its construction and its form, we now approach it to gather for our own use the ripe fruit that hangs within reach on every side.
1. There is a treasure, placed within our reach in this, world, rich beyond all comparison or conception, -- a treasure incorruptible and undefiled and unfading. "God is love," -- behold the fountain-head, where an exhaustless supply is stored: in the Gospel of Christ a channel has been opened through which streams from that fountain flow down to this distant world. In the Son of God incarnate divine mercy reaches our nature, and supplies our wants. Through the ministry of the Spirit, in the earliest promise and in subsequent prophecy the refreshing water was brought into contact with parched lips. A heavenly treasure lies on this poverty-stricken, bankrupt, accursed world, sufficient to enrich every one of its poor and miserable and wretched and blind and naked inhabitants.
2. The treasure is hidden. In early ages it was concealed under certain veils, constructed of design in such a manner that through their half-transparent folds a halo of the unseen glory should excite the hopes and attract the steps of every generation. The promise given at the gate of Paradise contained the treasure, but contained it wrapped up in allegoric prophecy which nothing but subsequent fulfilment could completely unfold. Down through the patriarchal and prophetic ages it continued a hidden treasure, although the new life of the faithful was secretly sustained by it all the while. Even when Christ through these parables taught his disciples in Galilee, his kingdom was still hidden. A few fishermen, and here and there a ruler, had discovered the precious deposit, and had drawn from it enough to enrich themselves for ever; but to the multitude it was still unknown. Under the form of a man -- under the privacy and poverty of a Nazarene, was the fulness of the Godhead hid that day from the wise and prudent of the world. The light was near them, and yet they did not see; the riches of divine grace were brought to their door, and yet they continued poor and miserable.
But even after the Lord had fully declared his mission, and finished his work, -- after he had died for our sin, and risen again for our justification, -- after his disciples through the ministry of the Spirit had published the glad tidings in many lands, -- the treasure still lay hidden. It was near, and yet out of sight. Those who find it, find out at the same time that they have been almost treading on it for years, and yet ignorant of its existence and its worth. Saul of Tarsus had been often near it, before he found it for himself. When Gamaliel lectured on the Mosaic sacrifices, the attentive, clear-headed and ardent pupil, was on the very point of discovering where the treasure lay; but though often near it, he never fell on it until that day when he fell to the ground near Damascus. Felix was near it when, shut in between his own sin and God's righteousness, he trembled at the sight of the judgment-seat, like an angel with a drawn sword right before him on the narrow path. Agrippa was near it when, caught and carried away ere he was well aware by the close, clear reasoning of a true preacher, he was almost persuaded to be a Christian. Still men may be walking near the treasure of eternal life, -- walking over it, and yet miss it: the treasure that they trod upon remains hidden, and they remain poor.
3. The hidden treasure is at last found. It is noticed by all students of the parables, that on this point there is a marked distinction between the experience of the man who found the hidden treasure, and that of the merchant who found the pearl of great price. It is probable that this man was not aware that there was any treasure in that field: he seems to have been neither looking for it nor expecting to find it. He was probably employed in some other work, and prosecuting some other object. He may have been a labourer toiling there for his daily bread; or he may have been engaged in making a road or digging for the foundation of a house, when the treasure, concealed in a troubled time, was exposed to view. He found what he was not seeking: he was seeking a bit of bread, and stumbled upon a fortune. The merchant, on the contrary, who fell in with the precious pearl was travelling with the express purpose of discovering goodly pearls and buying them. He obtained what he was seeking; but obtained a pearl of greater value than he had previously seen, or expected ever to see.
Outwardly at least, and on the surface, a similar distinction seems to obtain between one man's experience and another's, in regard to the manner of finding the treasures of divine grace. Some seem to find the Saviour when they are not seeking him; and some, after deliberately and consciously seeking him long, are rewarded at length. It is the former of the two classes with whom we are more directly concerned in the exposition of this parable. Looking abroad upon the past history or the present experience of the Church, we observe that some suddenly stumble, as it were, upon salvation, when they neither expected nor desired to find it. Not a few have come to laugh, and remained to pray. Many authentic cases are recorded of persons who entered the house of God bent on making sport of the preacher, and who went away believing in the Saviour whom he preached. A youth has left his home in the country and plunged into a great capital to push his fortune, and has found there, what he did not seek, pardon of sin and peace with God through the Saviour. Another has gone to India as a soldier, dreaming of war and victory, and honour and wealth; but has returned a meek disciple of Jesus, glory to God and peace with men radiating like sunlight from all his spirit and all his life. A young female, chafed and fretting under the enforced dulness of a sober home, has received and accepted an invitation which promises to set her free from restraint for a time, and permit her to flutter at will in the midst of a fashionable throng. At the threshold of the prepared festivities a message meets her, -- a message charged with a mighty sorrow, which drives the crowd of joyful anticipations forth from her heart, as a swollen stream bears down the dry leaves of autumn. She is thrown aside in solitude, in emptiness, in agony. In the silent night, and in the aching emptiness of her soul, the knocking of Christ from without is for the first time heard. The weary heart opens at last, and lets the Stranger in. She has found a treasure which, though often near her before, had hitherto escaped her notice. From the peace of God in which she now dwells she looks out from time to time on the pleasures of sin which she formerly chased, and borrows from the experience of ancient Israel a phrase best fitted to express her mind, -- "The Portion of Jacob is not like them."
The history of the Church is studded with such examples: the hearts of believers, when they are ready to faint, are cheered from time to time by such good news from countries far and near. It is a reproof to us, but a glory to the Lord, that he is often found of those who sought not after him. Perhaps the man in the parable was digging for stones when he fell upon the treasure: they who find the true riches meet often with a similar surprise.
4. The next feature that claims attention is the instant ardent effort of the discoverer to make the treasure his own, now that he knows what it is and where it lies.
In the parable, the man conceals his discovery, because he knows that if the secret leak out, the owner will not part with his field at any price. One can easily imagine the scene and the act that enlivened it. A labouring man, digging for some purpose in a field alone, in the progress of his hard and humble work lays open one side of a glittering golden store. As soon as the first tumult of emotion has subsided, he gathers his wits and goes into action. First of all he throws some earth over the exposed portion of the treasure; then he looks cautiously round to ascertain whether any witness was near enough to observe his motions. He proceeds next, probably, to ply his ordinary task on another spot with an indifferent air, that he may not attract attention. The place where the treasure lies, the place that he loves best, he carefully avoids: he comes not once near it again until he has paid the price, and secured the titles of the property.
Too much has been made of the subordinate circumstances here. A person in the position of this man could not do otherwise than he did, without abandoning all hope of obtaining the prize. To blab it out, would have been to throw it away. If he had talked about it, the fact would have proved that he did not care for it. The concealment is not an essential feature, but a subordinate circumstance of the parable. It was resorted to, not for its own sake, but as an obvious means of obtaining a desired end. The hiding of the treasure is introduced into the picture simply to mark the man's estimate of its worth and his determination at all hazards to obtain it.
In the spiritual department a similar end is pursued, but the adoption of similar means there would not tend to insure success. In the nature of the case it is not necessary to conceal the spiritual treasure from others in order to secure it for yourself. Although the world should discover it, by an intimation from you, and enrich themselves out of it, you would not therefore obtain less. It is thus a vain labour to search, as many do, for something in the spiritual sphere corresponding to the concealment by the discoverer in the story. The best way of interpreting that feature is to represent by it a soul's high appreciation of divine mercy and earnest desire to obtain it, and then allow the feature to drop out of sight, like the husk after the ripened grain has fallen from it and been secured. It has been said that one of the rarest kinds of knowledge is to know when to hold your peace. Many know well how to speak; few know when to be silent. A similar experience emerges here: many have an excellent faculty for opening up the parables, and tracing every feature up to all its springs, and down to all its consequences. The power of attributing a distinct spiritual import to every light and shadow of the picture is common; but the faculty of permitting a subordinate accessory to drop when it has fulfilled its office, and following stanchly on the main track, is comparatively rare.
You may, indeed, find instances in which a man, awakened and persuaded of the preciousness of Christ, has kept all silent within his own breast until he has made his own calling and election sure; but in these cases the secrecy is by no means prompted by a fear that to publish the secret were to lose the treasure; and in many other examples the discoverer, during the continuance of his efforts to obtain possession, publishes the secret to the world, and enters at last into his heritage in presence of many witnesses. The discoverer of Christ's preciousness is like the discoverer of hid treasure, in his ultimate aim, but not in his mediate methods. Concealment would not help him to possession, and therefore he does not uniformly or necessarily take pains to conceal.
5. He parts with all in order that he may acquire the treasure. This is the turning-point of the parable, and the turning-point too of that which the parable represents, -- the conversion of sinners, -- the saving of the lost. The picture, being framed of earthly materials, fails on one point to represent the idea of the Lord. When the man had converted all his property into money, and offered the net proceeds for the field, his offer was accepted as adequate, and the property was conveyed to him in return for value received. The transaction which takes place in redemption between a sinful man and God his Saviour is essentially different. Although it is true on the one side that in accepting pardon we must and do surrender all to Christ, pardon is, notwithstanding, bestowed as a free gift. Our self-surrender does not in any sense or measure give to God an equivalent for that which in the covenant he bestows on his own. The same two things occur, indeed, in the natural and in the spiritual spheres, but they occur in the reverse order. The price which the buyer offers induces the possessor to give him the property; on the contrary, on the spiritual side it is the free gift of the treasure by the Proprietor that induces the receiver to part with all that he has to the Giver. In one aspect the acquisition of the treasure which enriches a soul is a purchase which a needy man makes by the surrender of all that he has, and in another aspect it is a free gift bestowed by God for Christ's sake upon him who had nothing to give in return. In as far forth as it is a purchase which a sinner makes, this parable represents its nature; but in as far forth as it is a gift given on the one side and accepted on the other, this parable is silent. It contains no feature capable of presenting salvation in that point of view.
6. Mark, now in the close yet another specific feature of the material fact which has its counterpart in full on the spiritual side. It is intimated that when the man had discovered the treasure, "for joy thereof" he went and sold all, in order to buy the field that contained it. This "joy" is an essential element in the case. If it is wanting the business will at some stage certainly miscarry, the transaction will never be completed. One love in a human heart cannot be overcome and destroyed except by another. Love, among the affections of our nature, is one of those high born nobles who refuse to be tried or superseded except by their peers. Love of the world will not yield to fear, even though the fear be a fear of God's anger. You cannot overcome and cast it out until you bring against it another and greater love.
A man has joy in his possession, and lives without God in the world: he is a god unto himself. He cannot and will not surrender his joy, such as it is, to any summons except to that which a greater joy sends in. When the preciousness of peace with God through the blood of Christ is revealed to him, the "joy thereof" becomes so great that all his gold becomes dross, and all his fine gold dim in his own esteem. This new joy is so weighty that it tosses up the scale in which all his former delights lay, as if they were only the small dust of the balance.
A young rich man came running once to Jesus, as the owner of the field that contained the treasure of eternal life, and entered gravely into terms for the purchase. He would give so much for it, but the owner held it high: "All that thou hast," this is the price, and there is no abatement. The young man did not close with that offer, and did not complete the transaction. He went away; but what was the state of his mind as he departed? "He went away sorrowful." Ah! the secret is out. Although he desired, in some sense, to obtain what he called eternal life, the "joy thereof" had not been kindled in his cold, calculating heart. His love of earthly riches was too strong to yield to the suggestions of prudence, or the fear of a future judgment. The love of the old portion will yield to nothing but love of the new; and love of the new he had never felt.
The case of Paul supplies an exact contrast. A learned Pharisee, conscious of a power that would one day place the highest dignities at his disposal, he was a man of great and manifold possessions. A curious and interesting inventory of his goods has been preserved like a fossil in the Scriptures (Phil. iii.5, 6). These things he highly valued and fondly loved; but another and opposing love came against them, and the strong man succumbed to the stronger. "What things were gain to me, these I counted loss for Christ:" he parted with all and purchased the newly discovered treasure; but it was "for joy thereof." He went into the transaction not driven by dread, but drawn by the expectation of a greater joy.
It is thus that men buy an incorruptible treasure; it is thus that men win Christ. They deceive themselves who try how cheaply they may get to heaven, -- how much of their idol they may retain and yet be safe in the judgment. The man who was "sorrowful" when the two portions were set before him for his choice, "went away." As long as peace with God in his Son, labelled with its price, "All that you have," makes us sorry that the boon is held so dear, we will never obtain the boon: when the sight of it, price and all, sends a flash of more than earthly joy into the soul, then we shall bound forward, leaving all behind, and win Christ.