Pp - see under separate headings
Definition of a parable
Why speak in parables?
The bits inbetween the parables
1. Mtw 13:14-15
2. Mtw 13:17
3. Mtw 13:34-35
1. The Sower
a. The well-trodden path
b. The shallow soil
c. The thorns
d. Good soil
2. The Tares
3. The Mustard Seed
4. The Leaven
5. The Treasure
6. The Fine Pearl
7. The Dragnet
The New Scribes
How might they have remembered the parables?
I would have liked to have dealt with this long passage on numerous web pages, breaking it up to make it more accessible to the reader. However, the format of the passage prevented me from doing this, seeing as it isn’t a series of parables strung together under which demarcation lines can be easily drawn - rather, the passage is somewhat integrated by the insertion of a few passages which deal with the reason why parables were spoken to the crowds (Mtw 13:10-17, 34-35 - I have dealt with both these under the headings ‘Why speak in parables?’ and ‘The bits inbetween the parables’) and the breaking up of one parable and its explanation with the other parables (Mtw 13:24-30, 36-43).
It seemed that the only option, therefore, was to commit the entire body of notes to one web page and allow the reader to pick and choose which passages he read.
The passage is somewhat unique in the Gospels and is the only place where a series of parables is placed together with explanations as to why they were given to the crowds rather than teaching which was more in the form of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5 to 7.
Mark 4:1-34 partly follows Matthew chapter 13 but it only records for us the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-9, 14-20) and that of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32) while adding a parable about the growing Kingdom (Mark 4:26-29) which some marginal reference systems see as being paralleled in the parable of the tares even though this is far removed from the intentions of that parable. There’s also a record of the disciples’ lack of understanding (Mark 4:10-13) paralleled in Matthew but lacking any Scriptural justification in Mark and he also adds an explanation by Jesus which Matthew only records one verse of (Mark 4:21-25, Mtw 13:12).
Luke’s parallel passage is even shorter than Mark’s (Luke 8:4-18) and contains only the parable of the sower and the explanation of Mark which Matthew doesn’t carry (Mark 4:21-25). Luke does, however, record the parable concerning the mustard seed and the leaven in a later passage (Luke 13:18-21) which comes as a response to more sabbath problems and which, therefore, was probably spoken at another time and in another place in addition to the place where Matthew records it as being delivered.
The parables of the tares (Mtw 13:24-30, 36-43), the treasure (Mtw 13:44), the fine pearl (Mtw 13:45-46) and the dragnet (Mtw 13:47-50) are entirely unique to Matthew’s Gospel (that’s over half of them - though not over half by words used!).
This marks Matthew’s chapter 13 out as a unique passage and it should be dealt as such. However, as some of the parables occur in a different context in the other Gospels and their record of the parable of the sower is much more condensed in terms of the discussion Jesus and the disciples have, would it be a fair assumption to conclude that the writer of this Gospel has deliberately gathered parables together which deal with the theme of the Kingdom of Heaven and presented them to the reader as an event which took place in one specific location on one particular day?
The person who’s been following my discussion of this type of question on previous web pages will already know that I don’t accept that a parable, teaching or illustration would only ever have been used once and then forgotten but that Jesus would have used teaching to suit the situation He was in and have repeated His message as more people came to Him.
It should also be noted that, outside this passage, the label ‘parable’ is only used in Mtw 15:15, 21:33, 21:45 and 22:1, the first three of which could only have been used in the context presented to the reader there. The last of these four, however, the marriage feast, could theoretically have been included in Matthew chapter 13 as it deals with the Kingdom of Heaven and the conclusion of its establishing - as such, it would have provided the reader with a fitting finale to the chapter and it’s difficult to accept that Matthew neglected to include this parable along with the others here.
But there’s also a good reason why we shouldn’t think of Matthew as drawing parables from other places together into one coherent form to deal with the subject of ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ - that is, because over half the parables here don’t exist outside this Gospel!
If we take Mark’s parallel passage, for instance (Mark 4:1-34), both the sower and the mustard seed are recorded along with a story which Matthew doesn’t record of the growth of natural seed (Mark 4:26-29). Why would Matthew choose to compile a list of all the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ parables and then omit one which he must surely have known about? And why include four which aren’t even so much as repeated by the other Synoptic writers?
Besides this, Matthew’s explanation of the reason for speaking in parables is extensive and, again, not paralleled in either Mark or Luke to this degree. It appears more likely (to me) that Matthew is recording an event which took place as a response to the increasing hostility directed towards Jesus rather than attempting to put together a series of parables, held together by Jesus’ explanations - an attempt which, if he did do it, has been done with such great skill that we can’t now see the join and which is complicated by the dichotomy between those told to the crowds and those exclusively related to the disciples!
Apart from the parallel passages noted as such above - that is, those ones which appear in Mark 4:1-34 or Luke 8:4-18 - Matthew chapter 13 needs to be dealt with as one separate unit, not as a loose compilation of parables drawn from other places which occurred during the life and times of Jesus.
Again, the chapter divisions tend to obscure the continuation of thought with which Matthew writes, for this chapter sits as a response of Jesus to the opposition which has just been recorded for us in chapter 12. Indeed, had it not been for the trouble which Jesus was now beginning to experience from both the religious leaders and the people (who possibly had been paying heed to the former’s pronouncements on the subject and were being swayed against following Him - Mtw 12:24), it’s probably true to say that Jesus would never have begun to speak to the people in parables (where the concept behind that word is the one I’ve defined later and which I use throughout this web page).
The passage opens with the RSV’s translation
‘That same day...’
and it necessarily forces us to attach what transpires in this chapter onto the preceding incident of His mother and brothers approaching where He was in order to ‘seize Him’ and take Him away with them (Mark 3:21). Mark 4:1 also places this incident following the arrival of the family though he doesn’t state that it naturally followed on from that on the same day.
Luke also mentions a boat (Luke 8:22) but, there, he’s plainly jumping to another day when Jesus and the disciples crossed to the other side of the sea of Galilee and his introductory phrase ‘One day’ doesn’t tie the incident in with the family’s request to speak to Jesus.
It appears that this wasn’t the only time that Jesus used this method to get away from the crowds so that they didn’t press around Him to the point of personal injury (Luke 5:1-3). It seems unlikely, however, that Luke’s incident is the same as that of both Matthew and Mark’s especially as he also records the parable in a similar context to Mark at 8:4-18.
Matthew 12:46 has already caused the reader to infer that Jesus was teaching and healing people in some sort of building so that Matthew’s statement that He now went out of the house is entirely logical and in keeping with where the writer has placed Him if these events did transpire on one and the same day.
What Jesus’ reasons were for going to the sea are not obvious but, if we assume that He did exit the building where He was to take some time to talk to His family (Mtw 12:46-50), we may assume (probably very wrongly, I hasten to add!) that He continued on from there to get away from the crowds but was followed. Perhaps, even, His family suggested to Him that He should get away for a little while to catch up on some rest and to eat (Mark 3:20) - all speculation, I know, but I mention it anyhow.
In a house, there are natural ways to prevent people from gaining access when the room’s full and I can’t help but imagine some of the disciples acting like bouncers at the doorways and windows to limit the amount of people who were inside the building. By the open sea (the sea of Galilee, presumably), there are no such restrictions and Jesus, aware that multitudes were coming towards Him and gathering around, made use of a boat and cast out into the lake so that they wouldn’t press around Him.
I am reliably informed by friends (and a couple of commentators, too!) that water is a good medium to preach across for it reflects the sound being made rather than absorbing it as the land does. The acoustics of this set up were therefore being used by Jesus to good effect but we must naturally presume that the weather was favourable, with very little wind and a calm sea or else the noise from the moving water would have drowned out His voice and the waves would have distorted it.
The scene, then, is one in which Jesus isn’t healing but making sure that the people only hear the message which He wants to bring them. This is extremely important for us to grasp, for Jesus is concerned here primarily with the message rather than to confirm it with a demonstration of the miraculous. He had done this and been rejected by the religious leaders (Mtw 12:22-24) and had been asked for a sign from Heaven and refused to give the type that had been wanted (Mtw 12:38-39) so that, for this period at least, He turns His attention exclusively to teaching.
One final point needs to be made here and that concerns Mtw 13:10 which tells us that
‘...the disciples came...to Him...’
something which would have been exceedingly difficult if He was in a boat and they on land! Presumably, Jesus was sat in the boat (being seated was the normal posture for a teacher to adopt in first century Israel while the crowds stood - we tend to do things the opposite way round in the Church today!) with some disciples also on board and that they came to Him after listening for a while to question His methods. That Jesus came back to dry land before the end of the chapter is plain from Mtw 13:36 but, from here to the end of the passage, the scene is of a private meeting in a house (the same one as Mtw 13:1?) with the disciples.
Definition of a parable
To many people, a parable is a simple illustration of spiritual truth that’s delivered to people so that they might understand more easily the things which are being taught them. So, for instance, if you were speaking to a farmer about spiritual matters and trying to convey something to him that would underpin your words and which would remind him of the teaching, you’d probably struggle to find a relevant ‘illustration’ which would say the same things in picture form.
This, to many people, is a parable. In the early days when I first started writing the George the Hamster stories, I offered an explanation at the end of the page which explained the story and applied it to a spiritual situation that might be encountered, thus allowing a silly story to bring truth to the person who was reading it ‘for fun’ (though, believe me, there were a great many people who got extremely angry that I was writing such ‘garbage’! I shan’t, of course, saying anything at all about Pharisaic parallels - that wouldn’t be fair).
Towards the end of the third series of stories, it struck me that I should desist from writing such explanations and allow the reader to get from the stories whatever they could. Therefore, starting with the last story of that third series and continuing almost consistently from the fourth series onwards, I began deliberately not giving an explanation.
To some, this was tantamount to stupidity, I know. To others, they found the cute little stories about furry hamsters to be ‘delightful’ and it hit them only on a very shallow level. To still others, they not only enjoyed the stories but they also understood the spiritual truths being conveyed (and, of course, to yet others, they didn’t like the stories and never bothered reading them - I seem to have already mentioned them above).
But, if we take the definition of what a parable is from Matthew chapter 13, then we see that the first stories with explanations were not parables at all - they were simply illustrations of spiritual points. The true parables were contained in the stories written from the fourth series onwards which contained no explanation whatsoever for this is exactly what Jesus does in this chapter. The only explanations He offers are, firstly, about the parable of the sower when His disciples say (Mtw 13:10)
‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’
implying that they lacked understanding and made more obvious by Luke 8:9’s statement that
‘...His disciples asked Him what this parable meant’
and, secondly, when the disciples plainly ask Jesus (Mtw 13:36) to explain
‘...the parable of the weeds of the field’
All the other five parables go unexplained, though Jesus does ask them directly whether they’ve understood all these things in Mtw 13:51, so that those who have ‘ears to hear’ will hear, but those who have already hardened their hearts against Him and His message will miss the truth that’s being conveyed (Mtw 13:11-15).
This chapter must be understood in the context of where it sits, for opposition to Jesus has been increasing since the beginning of His ministry and suddenly bursts into open conflict from the opening of chapter 12 where the scribes and Pharisees (with some of the people also, it has to be said) begin to openly oppose both Jesus and His message, taking exception to His actions on the sabbath (Mtw 12:1-14) which resulted in their plotting to kill Him (12:14), of declaring that the power at work in and through Him was of demonic origin (Mtw 12:24) and of demanding a sign from Heaven when they refused to accept the miracles that were already being performed in their midst as proof of Jesus having been sent from God (Mtw 12:38).
As we saw on the previous web page, even His immediate family seem to possibly have thought that Jesus had lost His marbles and were making an attempt to get to Him to seize Him and take Him away from the crowds so as not to bring dishonour on their family name (Mark 3:21).
Matthew chapter 13, therefore, forces us to interpret the word ‘parable’ as something which doesn’t easily give up its truth to the recipient. If the person is already receptive to the message of the Gospel, it will add to their resource of knowing what God requires and what He wants and does, but to those who have not given themselves over to the message, there will be a lack of understanding or, even worse, a misunderstanding of what is being openly declared.
We shouldn’t wonder that people who neither know God nor follow Christ fail to comprehend the truth of the Gospel and come out with statements that misrepresent God. When self-inflicted blindness is present in an individual, it’s unlikely that most foundational truths will ever be comprehended.
Having said that, the word ‘parable’ is not used exclusively with the meaning attached to it as here in this chapter and it appears to have had a range of meaning that sometimes included it meaning that what was being delivered was an open illustration rather than a concealed truth.
Peter’s request to Jesus in Mtw 15:15 (paralleled in Mark 7:17) to
‘Explain the parable to us’
is a bit perplexing seeing as what’s just gone before wouldn’t immediately have been categorised as such but as an open rebuttal of the Pharisees’ charge that the disciples were eating with defiled hands. In this place, the only thing which ‘parable’ can be referring to is Jesus’ statement in Mtw 15:10-11 which records Him as saying
‘Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man’
But that this was a parable? And was it that the disciples weren’t able to understand what is, for us, a fairly easy saying? Peter certainly interprets it as a parable but perhaps the best explanation here is that it’s solely because the disciples don’t understand it that Peter thinks it is a parable - in that case, it’s only through their slowness to understand spiritual matters that’s caused the misunderstanding.
The only other places where parables are mentioned as being the correct description of what Jesus is saying are in two places. Firstly, Mtw 21:45 (Pp Mark 12:12, Luke 20:19) which seems to summarise Mtw 21:28-41 (where the word also occurs in 21:33 Pp Mark 12:1, Luke 20:9). Jesus does, however, provide His listeners with an explanation of the latter of the two parables here (Mtw 21:42-44), something which doesn’t happen in Matthew chapter 13 except by a direct request. The other place is preceding another story in Mtw 22:1 but this follows the Mtw chapter 13 concept.
Mark follows Matthew with his use of the word as noted above with the one exception being 3:23 where we read that Jesus
‘...called [the Pharisees] to Him and said to them in parables “How can Satan cast out Satan?”’
This is a passage which we’ve already seen recorded by Matthew in 12:25-26 but there the writer says nothing about either the words spoken being parabolic in nature or that the teaching recorded is the explanation of the parables which they’ve omitted from the text - either explanation is possible.
Perhaps the most obvious explanation of Jesus’ words is that Mark 3:23-27 is supposed to be understood as the ‘parables’ which are being referred to. If that’s the case, we wouldn’t necessarily class them as ‘parables’ by a Matthew chapter 13 definition as they appear to be quite straightforward illustrations of the point which Jesus is making.
Luke seems to come into a world of his own, however, when he decides to use the word ‘parable’ and to attribute a concept to it. Apart from the usages previously mentioned in Mtw chapter 13 parallel passages and the other places in Matthew noted above, he uses the word more often than each of the other two writers.
So, for example, Luke 5:36-39 becomes, in Luke’s definition, a parable (Pp Mtw 9:16-17) which appears to be a straightforward illustration rather than a word which can both conceal and reveal truth. Perhaps, though, we’re attributing too much spiritual perception to the people who came to listen to Jesus? There are most definitely people in the present day Church who haven’t yet grasped the truth of these verses and neither what it means for them in terms of the new works of the Holy Spirit that come to fellowships.
Also obvious in meaning appears to be Luke 12:35-41 and explanations are offered from the mouth of Jesus rather than as an explanation by the writer in 12:16-21, 14:7-11, 15:3-7, 21:29-31. Parables as defined in Matthew chapter 13, however, also raise their head in Luke 6:39, 13:6-9, 18:1-8, 18:9-14, 19:11-27.
Matthew, therefore, seems to have almost an exclusive meaning attributed to the word ‘parable’ and we need to note that, for him, a parable was a tool that was to be used in the face of opposition. For Luke - and to a lesser degree Mark - a parable was something which could serve as an illustration of a teaching just given or be the teaching itself with an explanation offered at the end of the story. Though Luke does also know the concept that Matthew uses for the word, this is only one aspect of what the word conveys in His Gospel.
This web page will be using Matthew’s understanding of the word and readers who approach either Luke or Mark’s Gospel should note that there are other concepts attributable to the word ‘parable’ which need to be understood in the context in which the word’s used.
One final point needs to be made here before we continue. Parables have often been battered violently by commentators to yield every last bit of truth that can possibly be extracted from them, interpreting each character, each object, each action with the utmost precision.
If these interpretations give support to the straightforward message then the exposition is all well and good. However, it’s often been my experience that in so feeling bound to make a short parable a novel in its own right, we tend to lose the simple truth that Jesus is trying to convey and I have, as far as has been possible, tried to stick with a simplicity of interpretation but also provide relevant background.
Why speak in parables?
A rework of my notes on parables which relate to the George the hamster web site.
Matthew chapter 13 begins a new phase of Jesus’ teaching and, when He opted to speak to the crowds in parables, that’s all the people got from Him (Mtw 13:3,34). They didn’t serve as illustrations to back up what Jesus was teaching them but were the sum total of all that He said.
Mtw 13:11-12 states that the parables concealed truth. Although they weren’t gibberish, the spiritual principles were not always easily discernible by the multitudes and, even those who’d been with Jesus for some time found it difficult to discern what it was that Jesus was talking about (Mtw 13:36, Luke 8:9). If you’d been around in Jesus’ day and gone to hear this new ‘rabbi’ speak expecting some great revelation of God, you may have come away with a handful of quaint stories about rural life but with very little spiritual teaching that you fully understood.
You may have been able to remember the sower sowing His seed in a field that was rocky and hard - you may even have stood in a place where there was similar natural scene before you - but, try as you might to remember what the point of it was, you wouldn’t have heard any explanation from Jesus’ lips.
But Jesus didn’t tell parables to deliberately veil the Truth so that it would be difficult for anyone to be saved. The veiling of the truth in parables was a result of the reaction of the people to His former unveiled teaching such as that contained in chapters 5-7 and to the miracles that He was performing in their midst.
There can be no doubt when that passage is read that He did speak openly about the things concerning the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 7:28-29 speaks of ‘the crowds’ being astonished at His teaching, even though He had begun His discourse addressing the disciples - Mtw 5:1-2) and that such discourses were plain statements about the requirements of God upon each Israelite.
So why the sudden change from open teaching to that which was veiled?
Many of the people who had heard Jesus’ previous words had opposed His message and also His works (Mtw 12:14, 12:24 - mainly the scribes and Pharisees). They had closed their spiritual eyes to believe what the miracles were telling them was happening, deafened their spiritual ears to believe and act upon the teaching that was being brought to them and, by a choice of their own freewill, had caused their hearts to become ‘dull’ or ‘hardened’ (Mtw 13:15).
Those who had closed their eyes to His previous teaching couldn’t perceive the spiritual insight that His words contained. Matmor notes an illustration here from Gutzwiller who
‘...draws attention to Augustine’s remarks about a man who looks at beautiful writing in a foreign tongue; he may admire the calligraphy, but the meaning he cannot appreciate. So when a person who rejects Jesus hears parables’
Although they’d heard the Gospel presented to them without any complex arguments and with the authority that they plainly recognised as being from God (Mtw 7:28-29), many of them still failed to respond positively to the message which was brought to them (Mtw 11:20-24).
And those who’d refused to accept and receive His previous teaching, heard the parables and understood what was said but they didn’t perceive the truth of the matter. Although the stories registered in their understanding, they couldn’t interpret the passage correctly, having rejected the previous teachings and, thereby, they’d ultimately rejected Jesus.
Jesus is truly the only Key that can unlock the truth contained in His words. I mention this only as an aside but, when I first started studying Matthew chapter 24 many years ago when I first went through this Gospel, I used seven different commentators to compare and think about. Now, each one should be both listening to God and receiving truth directly from the Holy Spirit to pass on to the person who reads their words. However, what I actually found was that I had seven different and very distinct interpretations of the text that contradicted one another! And the passage isn’t one which was spoke in a parable that only the followers could understand - the passage is spoken plainly and openly in language that’s easily understandable! And my interpretation of the passage differed from those seven as well (is there any surprise?!).
Probably all that can be said is that we’re not close enough to the Key to unlock the door of our understanding to interpret many of the things which Jesus said even now - though we can but try!
Because of the crowds’ response of hardening their heart against the Gospel message and against the clear implications of the miracles being performed in their midst, God responds by not giving them the capacity to be able to discern the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 13:11).
But it’s not God who’s the primary cause of that inability. God wants all men to be saved (Acts 17:30) but those who harden themselves against Him risk the consequence that their freewill will blind and deafen them to the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven. People can become cold to the message of the Gospel because it’s just ‘the same old message’ that they heard before and which they didn’t respond to. Although many unbelievers long for a new message to be given them, often no further truth can be imparted until the foundation stone is laid while people often stray into beliefs that even undermine the position which they’ve heard as the entry requirements to the Kingdom of Heaven.
There’s a similar passage in Romans chapter 1 where Paul writes that those who reject what is plain to them about God, God ‘gives up’ or ‘gives over’ to worse sin (Rom 1:24,26,28). God ‘takes the brakes off’ a life, so to speak, and lets them choose the way they want to live with all its consequences.
Over the years, I’ve heard many an MP and, sadly, many a nominally-saved (if saved at all) church leader use Scripture to justify the teaching that they want to promote. Being blind and deaf to the things of God, it’s not surprising if they can’t perceive what both truth and error is and be able to distinguish between them.
The reason for this blindness and deafness amongst listeners throughout time is that they don’t want to be followers of Christ (Mtw 13:15). So, why listen in the first place? A good question and one that is unanswerable from this passage - indeed, individual people would have their own individual answers. But the inference from the passage is still that Jesus’ listeners had already decided that they didn’t want to be moved by the teaching they were coming to hear. They had put their spirits in straight-jackets so that they would never be able to respond.
But those who’d been receptive to His previous teaching were open to the things that Jesus said and were in a position where they would seek after the correct interpretation until they found it (note below about the disciples, though). Parables only hid the Truth from people who were opposed to Christ, but revealed it to ones who were thirsty for more of God (Cp Mtw 13:34-35 which is a quote from Ps 78:2 which deals with the disobedience of Israel and their rejection of God [Ps 78:8,10-11,17-19 etc.,] and which is paralleled in Jesus’ use of parables).
Mathen summarises both aspects of the use of parables well. He writes
‘Jesus...begins to speak in parables in order
a. to further reveal the truth to those who accepted the mysterious [ie parables] and
b. to conceal it from those who rejected the obvious [ie plain teaching]’
If a person rejects what is obvious, they will never be able to accept the mysterious.
A warning is here for us also and one that we would do well to heed - should we harden our hearts against what is plain to us about the Kingdom, that which is not as plain will become confusing, consequently robbing us of what we thought we had in the first place (Mtw 13:12). Jesus’ listeners went away hearing and remembering the parables but it did them no good as they made no sense except in a purely superficial way. What they thought they had (the story) was, in fact, nonsensical and it robbed them of receiving the truth that had been intended that they receive.
If we receive the ‘little’ that is obvious then more that is not so obvious will be added to us. But if we reject the ‘little’ that is obvious by not living in its truth, then even that which we think we’ve grasped will not become a reality in our lives and will be wasted. We’ll end up with nothing because we’ve hardened our hearts against what is plain and open. A little truth accepted is the foundation block upon which more will be made plain.
Notice that Jesus’ words about those who have receiving more (Mtw 13:12) doesn’t relate to the materially rich but to the spiritually rich. Jesus is not saying that His followers will become financially prosperous - though that may, at times, happen - but He’s concerned to deal with their relationship with, and their understanding of, the ways of God.
Having said that a failure to understand the parables is an indication that the heart of the hearer has become hardened and opposed to the message of the Kingdom, we should note that even the disciples were very slow of learning but that they were still wanting to learn - therefore, Jesus helped them to understand the Truth once they asked Him for understanding and an interpretation (Mtw 13:36-43).
As we go through this life, there are many things that either happen around us or to us but we often fail to ‘see God’ in it. Though some things may forever remain a mystery, a simple question to God about them certainly doesn’t fall on deaf ears.
Besides, being His children, we should begin to receive the revelation we need as events occur. After all, to us it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 13:11).
The bits inbetween the parables
Mtw 13:10-17, 34-35 Pp Mark 4:10-13,25, Luke 8:18
Catchy header, huh?
I’ve dealt with much of Jesus’ reasons for speaking to the crowds in parables in the previous two sections but I haven’t dealt with some verses in Mtw 13:10-17 and 13:34-35 that warrant a bit more space or which I’ve ignored so that a logical argument could be presented to the reader.
Here, I intend adding additional comments to certain of the verses and also expanding some of the incidental asides which we tend to gloss over.
Although this may make this web page rather disjointed, I hope it at least makes it more accessible!
1. Mtw 13:14-15
Pp Is 6:9-10
This is the first of two Scriptures which are said to be ‘fulfilled’ in this chapter, the second of which deals with the reason for the use of parables and are words on the lips of the author himself (Mtw 13:35 Pp Ps 78:2) whereas here, the words are a direct quotation from Jesus and they refer to the attitude of heart that was present in the lives of those who were listening to Him speak. It comes as a result of the disciples approaching Jesus and asking Him why He’d decided to speak to the crowds in parables - and only parables, it would appear (Mtw 13:34).
The original passage records the vision of the Lord that the prophet Isaiah had in the temple in the year that King Uzziah died and the commissioning of the prophet to go to the people of Israel and declare to them the things which God bids him.
Before this time, the prophet’s proclamation has all been ‘Woe to the nation’ and the sins of the people have been declared openly by the prophet. However, here, Isaiah begins to see his own unworthiness before God (Is 6:5) which seems to serve as a sharp reminder that, although the nation has turned against God, the prophet only stands acceptable to God by grace, not because of the cleanness of his own life.
Isaiah’s commission then follows, but it’s slightly different in the OT than it appears in Matthew. The RSV translates the passage (Is 6:9-10)
‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed’
where the prophet is given the commission to be the one who so proclaims the truth from God that the nation will simply turn off and, ultimately, ignore any further word that’s spoken to them. Here is a case of spiritual indigestion if ever there was one and Isaiah, God’s own mouthpiece, is the cause! Motyer comments that
‘Isaiah’s message (9) and his task (10) constitute, a first sight, the oddest commission ever given to a prophet: to tell people not to understand and to effect heart-hardening and spiritual blindness! There is, however, no way to evade the plain meaning of the verses’
Though Isaiah was to proclaim the truth that he heard from God for many years following this commission, he must have realised at the very beginning of his ministry that the more he spoke to the nation concerning God’s will for them, the more they’d turn away from heeding His words. And yet, the Word of God still needed to be proclaimed to them as a witness against them for when the things which were spoken started to fall upon the nation.
As Motyer comments, Isaiah faced the problem of all messengers of God. Namely that, if the people won’t receive the word delivered to them, the only response one has is to repeat the message in even simpler language or with different illustrations that some might comprehend the message but, even so, this exposes
‘...them to the risk of rejecting the truth yet again and, therefore, of increased hardness of heart’
Motyer sees in Is 28:9 the record of a response to his message by the people who heard him - that his words were so simplistic that the prophet was
‘...fit only to conduct a kindergarten’
a statement which could also have been levelled at Jesus’ plain teaching recorded earlier in the Gospel when there was nothing mysterious or concealed but everything was declared openly and in language that was easily comprehensible.
In Matthew’s record of the passage on Jesus’ lips, however, the thought doesn’t appear to be that the message will cause them to become hard of hearing but that they’re already in that state of being unreceptive. Therefore Jesus quotes it as
‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for Me to heal them’
Though Isaiah may have armed himself initially with the hope that many would return to God when he prophesied to them, Jesus is under no such illusion. The people and leaders have already demonstrated their hardness of heart (Mtw 12:23-24) and their failure to acknowledge what is plain and obvious to them (the people only consider whether Jesus is the Messiah while the leaders flatly reject the possibility because he conflicts with their own religious concepts) is proof enough of what’s on the inside. Though they’ve plainly seen what’s been happening and heard the open declaration of the Gospel, they’ve failed to hear and apply or see and believe. Mathen speaks of the leaders as having ‘anaesthetised their heart’ and this phrase puts into words perfectly the attitude of heart which prevented individual people from being reached.
Therefore, the message comes to them openly if they’ve accepted the previous teaching (such as Matthew chapters 5 to 7) for, in the news of the Kingdom of Heaven, they have the Key with which to unlock the truth - but, if they’ve rejected the words and miracles, the parables are simply quaint stories about rural life that tickle the ears but which can’t be truly understood for the reason that the Key has been previously shunned.
There are people who’ve accepted what they’ve heard (Mtw 13:11,16) and, by their reaction to what’s previously taken place, are in a position to receive more (Mtw 13:12). This giving towards people in order that they might know ‘the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Mtw 13:11) must be viewed in the context also of the freewill response of men and women to the open proclamation of the Gospel and it shouldn’t be interpreted outside the plain declaration of Jesus in Mtw 13:15 that the individuals who are now deaf and blind to what’s going on are so because they’ve reacted against what’s been presented to them.
If the ability to perceive is destroyed by refusing to accept what’s obvious, then spiritual receptivity and sight is also maintained by those who simply accept what they both see and hear from the hand of God.
Even though they may have to ask the Source for an explanation (Mtw 13:36), they still know that they can come to the One to receive what they need rather than most of the other listeners who would probably have gone away from the area thinking about why they’d ever bothered coming to hear that Galilean teacher.
Unfortunately, if the hearers have become hard of heart and have closed their spiritual eyes and ears to what God is doing in their midst, there remains only the possibility of judgment, something which Isaiah the prophet also predicted. The destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the nation was a distinct possibility, therefore, just as it was in the days of the OT prophet whilever the nation remained hard to God’s work amongst them (Mtw 22:7).
2. Mtw 13:17
This verse represents a fitting climax not just to the short passage which began with Mtw 13:10 but to the entire Bible and points towards the truth that the OT is incomplete without the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven and the appearance of Jesus Christ.
The prophets ‘looked forward’ - not in same sense as a child ‘looks forward’ to a day out by the seaside but with the meaning that they observed the times which have now come upon those present - and spoke of the times of the Messiah, prophesying to the nation concerning the things which even they didn’t fully understand.
But now the fulfilment of the promises have come and the OT revelation of God is made complete by the outworking of those things which were only vaguely perceived. The writer to the Hebrews lists many of the OT believers and concludes by saying (Heb 11:39-40) that
‘...all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect [that is, ‘completed’]’
Although it’s quite true to say that the Old is not complete without the New, the present day believer must also realise that the New doesn’t stand alone but is founded upon the promises given to men and women who saw the fulfilment many years before it came about and who spoke accurately what has now come in Christ.
Therefore, the NT can never stand alone and neither should it ever be read alone - for, if we fail to understand how God dealt with those believers who lived before Christ came, we will never fully comprehend all that’s been promised to those who seek to be obedient to God in our own day and age. It’s also recorded by Peter (I Peter 1:10-12) that
‘The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you...’
so that both the OT believer and the NT one should stand together, united by the person of Jesus Christ who stands both in the middle of time and in the centre of each person’s life. The ancient believer looked forward to God’s full and final redemption, whereas the modern disciple experiences its fulness.
The true Church, therefore, is the fulfilment of all that believing Israel both foresaw and reached towards in the hope that they might experience. The sadness of that statement is not that God didn’t fulfil His plans, but that the Jewish nation rejected the promises which they’d so carefully preserved in the Scriptural record for so many years and that, when the time of fulfilment came, they hardened their hearts against the open proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven both through Jesus’ works of the miraculous and by the authority of His teaching.
3. Mtw 13:34-35
Pp Ps 78:2
The author of Matthew is specific in his explanation of why Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He’s already quoted Jesus who referred to a totally different Scripture from the OT to justify the reason for the concealing of truth within parabolic stories (Mtw 13:14-15 Pp Is 6:9-10) but here he allows himself to comment on the reason himself, providing the reader with another OT passage, this time from Psalm 78, a psalm which deals with the disobedience of Israel and their rejection of God but which also ends on a positive note with YHWH returning to His people to seek out their welfare at the time of king David - there’s an eerie feeling that one gets from the psalm, however, in that one can’t help but think that, if the history of the nation was one of rebellion, it won’t be long until it happens all over again!
Matthew quotes Ps 78:2 as
‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world’
though the RSV’s translation of the OT passage reads
‘I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old...’
before going on in the next verse
‘...things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us’
which makes the entire phrase a good introduction to what follows for Asaph, the author (labelled by Matthew as ‘the prophet’ which was a title attributed to him in his lifetime - see II Chron 29:30), catalogues the disobedience of Israel from the moment they became a nation and that even though the miraculous wonders God did were observable by the generation of Israelites who rebelled against Him.
Therefore Asaph writes (Ps 78:10-11 - my italics) that
‘[The nation] did not keep God’s covenant but refused to walk according to His law. They forgot what He had done, and the miracles that He had shown them’
Again, the author goes on to catalogue a series of miracles performed on their behalf and for their benefit in Ps 78:13-16 before observing (Ps 78:17) that
‘...they sinned still more against Him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert’
and, even though God again did the miraculous, the writer states (Ps 78:22) that
‘...they had no faith in God and did not trust His saving power’
and (Ps 78:32 - my italics) that
‘In spite of all this they still sinned; despite His wonders they did not believe’
The Psalm continues in like manner and the reader should turn to the passage and observe for himself just how the miraculous is paralleled with the disobedience of the nation almost throughout the entire work. It seems that, the more God did the miraculous for His people, the more they rebelled against observing His commandments and turned away to live their own lives, hardening their hearts against both God and the messengers that were sent them.
And yet, there’s grace in God’s dealings with the nation for, from Ps 78:65 onwards to the end, we read of God waking or rousing Himself to fight against Israel’s enemies and of establishing king David over the nation to look after and shepherd His people. Therefore, no matter how much the nation had rebelled, the psalm sees David as an outworking of God’s unfailing love for His people and, just as the psalm ends on a positive note, so, too, Jesus, the greater Son of David, is the end of all the nation’s rebellion, sent by God in mercy and compassion to restore them.
As I said at the beginning, however, one gets the feeling inside that a nation which has rebelled against God in its history is almost inevitably going to do the same thing again even when God returns to the nation to begin to do great works in their midst once more.
As such, the psalm is well paralleled in the situation in which Jesus now finds Himself for, even though Jesus had performed the miraculous openly, the nation still didn’t turn to Him and acknowledge that He was the One that they’d been waiting for. Even to accept that the works which Jesus were doing were God’s hand would have been a start (Mtw 12:24)!
Towards the beginning of the psalm, Asaph notes that these things are recorded (Ps 78:2)
‘...that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God’
but the truth of the matter is that, even though the generation of Israelites who lived in the times of Jesus saw great signs and wonders, they too hardened their hearts against the move of God and opposed the work which Jesus had been sent to do in their midst.
What Matthew appears to be pointing towards, therefore, is not one verse in isolation but to an entire psalm which catalogues the disobedient acts of the nation of Israel and which was being paralleled in the situation that was unfolding at this time in the life of Jesus.
There’s little that needs to be said here which hasn’t already been explained in the background articles to the parables above and which will be explained as directly referring to the parables below.
However, a couple of points need to be made here that are broad overviews of the seven parables contained in Matthew chapter 13.
Firstly, the reader will, no doubt, notice that there are striking similarities between some of the parables so that they could be thought of as being paired together with only the parable of the sower standing as totally unique amongst them. I’ve noted the parable which bears similarities at the very start of each of the sections but to summarise here, take note of Mtw 13:31-32 and 13:33, both of which speak about the expansion of the Kingdom of Heaven from small beginnings, Mtw 13:44 and 13:44-45 which both speak about the discovery of the Kingdom of Heaven in a person’s life and Mtw 13:24-30,36-43 with 13:47-50 which both speak of the need for the purification of the Kingdom once the final day comes.
Having pointed out that these bear similarities and that there’s good reasons for considering them together, the reader should also note their dissimilarities. For instance, Mtw 13:44 and 13:46 may both speak about personal discovery, but in one the Kingdom is found unexpectedly and in the other it’s found as the conclusion of seeking out something valuable.
Therefore, the parallels are actually contrasts and help to explain to the reader that there are few absolutes when it comes to the way in which people come into the Kingdom.
The parables do cover a wide range of teachings, however, from the reception of the word of the Kingdom (Mtw 13:3-9,18-23) to the final outworking of the received or rejected word (Mtw 13:24-30,36-43, 13:47-50) and including an explanation as to why the Kingdom doesn’t come suddenly and with irresistible ferocity (Mtw 13:24-30,36-43) and how it will grow slowly but steadily throughout the world (Mtw 13:31-32, 13:33). In short, it seeks to give an explanation to those present as to why the Kingdom doesn’t appear to be the One that they’d been waiting for and what it’s true characteristics will be.
There’s also the enigmatic saying
‘He who has ears, let him hear’
recorded as the conclusion to the parable of the sower (Mtw 13:9, Mark 4:9, Luke 8:8) and at the conclusion of the explanation of the parable of the tares (Mtw 13:43) and duplicated in a different form in the Book of Revelation where it appears at the conclusion to each of the seven letters to the churches (even though it doesn’t fall in exactly the same place within each of the messages) as
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’
where it probably means something slightly different than it does here. There, the letters are open declarations to the Church from God Himself and the phrase means something like
‘Those who have set themselves to hear My will and to perform it should give heed to my message to them and actively obey’
Here, though, the appeal is to pay attention to what’s been said and to realise that the parables need to be perceived as truth concealed. Therefore Jesus urges those who haven’t grown hard of hearing in spiritual matters (Mtw 13:15) to consider what’s being presented to them and learn.
This is certainly the meaning of the exhortation in Mtw 13:9 where no explanation is being given to the crowds (as it is in Luke 14:35) but, in Mtw 13:43, we should perhaps see yet another shade of meaning for here the words follow an explanation that’s being given to the disciples as to what the parable of the tares means.
In this place, Jesus is probably urging His followers to accept the saying that’s being explained to them for it flies directly in the face of what was commonly accepted as being the events surrounding the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. As such, it didn’t follow that everyone present would automatically accept the words as being the will of God for the Kingdom’s establishment in the earth (it appears to also be used this way in the only other occurrence of the phrase in Matthew’s Gospel in 11:15).
Concluding, there appears to be no one set meaning behind Jesus’ call to His listeners to hear. One usage may imply the need to realise that the parables need to be interpreted by those who are open to follow after God, another urges His listeners to accept the plain truth that’s being spoken to them because it’s a difficult saying.
As such, we should be warned that other similar phrases may need individual interpretations where they’re encountered in the Bible rather than interpret them once only and apply them to every other usage.
1. The Sower
Mtw 13:3-9,18-23,34-35 Pp Mark 4:1-9,14-20, Luke 8:4-15
Mark’s record of this parable is strikingly similar to that of Matthew and needs little comment. Luke’s passage, however, bears some unique turns of phrase which aren’t used in the other two records. For instance, Luke 8:5 speaks of the first seed as being
‘...trodden under foot...’
though this description of the seed doesn’t figure as part of the interpretation when given to the disciples (Luke 8:12) and seems to be a detail which is entirely superfluous. The explanation of the fate of this seed is explained with the phrase that they have the message removed from them (Luke 8:12)
‘...that they may not believe and be saved’
whereas the parallel passages simply record the occurrence summarised. Neither do we find Luke 8:6’s comments in the other two Synoptic passages that the seed on the second type of soil withers away
‘...because it had no moisture’
and the explanation given as to why it doesn’t grow to fruition is, similarly to how it’s explained in both Matthew and Mark, that it has no root because of the shallowness of the soil (Luke 8:13). A lack of moisture is certainly implied in that the newly germinated seed isn’t able to put out its roots into the earth and so withers when the sun beats down upon it through a lack of an adequate water supply but, again, the detail is apparently superfluous to the overall message. Luke’s record of the interpretation of this seed, however, points towards a time of temptation as being the cause of the falling away (Luke 8:13) whereas the other two note persecution and tribulation (Mtw 13:21, Mark 4:17).
This difference can be understood to represent a cause and effect - the cause of the temptation to go away from Christ
being the trouble which arrives on the believer’s doorstep.
Finally, the good soil in Matthew is the believer who hears the word and understands it (Mtw 13:23) while, in Mark, it’s he who hears the word and accepts it (Mark 4:20) but, in Luke, it refers to those who, when they hear the word (Luke 8:15)
‘...hold it fast in an honest and good heart...’
Luke appears, therefore, to be both recording additional phrases which were used - some of which are small additions that make no difference to the overall meaning of the parable - and to be adding a note of explanation at certain points to instruct the reader as to a wider interpretation. Luke’s additions don’t alter the meaning of the text - rather, they give the reader an opportunity to understand that, for instance, the primary problem of ‘tribulation and persecution’ is that it provides a ‘temptation’ to the believer to forsake the way of the Kingdom of Heaven for an easier, less intense, way of life.
Similarly, Luke’s ‘honest and good heart’ gives a further expansion on what it means to both hear and understand the message of the Kingdom of Heaven for it’s indeed true that, even in our own generation, isolated instances of men and women perceiving the truths of the message and then using them for their own ends could be cited. Luke safeguards against the possibility of taking the words as purely a matter of cerebral assent (as could be the case with either Matthew or Mark’s record) and explains receptivity in terms of a sincere commitment to the message.
Without Luke, therefore, Jesus’ explanation of the parable as it stands would have required a further application to a disciple’s life through an accurate understanding of certain of the words being used. The third Gospel writer, far from changing the message, actually enhances it and brings it more forcibly home.
Taking the three passages as a whole, we should first notice that there are certain constants in this parable which don’t change as it unfolds in the ears of the hearers - such as the sower of the word (who, although taken normally to refer to anyone who is freely dispersing the message of the Kingdom of Heaven, must surely primarily be taken as a reference to Jesus Himself) and the seed (the word or message of the Kingdom).
This latter observation is important to make for we could think that different types of seed distributed to men and women would bring forth a different type of response - the guy who fell away obviously received more like a tomato seed than a runner bean as we did, to put it in natural terms. Indeed, we may even lay some of the blame for unreceptivity of the message in the message itself (that is, if the seed was faulty or of a different type than some of the others which were sown) and so consider that it’s important to make the message more palatable to those people to whom it comes (as opposed to bringing the Gospel in a culturally relevant way to the society in which we live).
But we aren’t told that there’s any difference between any two seeds and the parable presupposes that the sower would be concerned to sow just the one type of fruit bearing seed in his field to safeguard the entire crop. The fact of there being one seed, therefore, becomes indicative of the one message of the Kingdom of Heaven and the results that it produces are determined entirely by the type of soil onto which it falls, explained by Jesus as the state of the human heart that receives the word. As Matfran notes
‘The fault lies not in the message but in those who receive it’
and the constant nature of the seed is presupposed. The point of the parable, therefore, is to detail the variability in the people who respond to the message of the Gospel and not in the failure of the message itself. While the pessimist or pastor concerned with the care of the flock may worry that so much seed is wasted and the optimist or evangelist who looks for conversions forgets about those who are falling away because of the joy of those who respond, the realist will observe that acceptance and rejection are both integral parts of the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The ‘soil’ is usually interpreted to mean the unsaved and the outcome of the seed when it falls upon the soil is normally taken to be referring to the unbeliever when the way of salvation is announced to them. Although to a great extent this is an accurate interpretation, it remains too limited in scope, for the parable can be fully accepted as speaking about the sowing of truth into anyone’s life including believers.
To certain words, many believers may be unwilling to hear because of the riches of the world, thinking that, now they’ve got their lives sorted out (or, rather, that their lives have been sorted out for them), they can meander through the rest of their days picking and choosing which messages they respond to and which works they get involved in, all the time keeping Jesus at arms length.
There is often a genuine conversion in people’s lives only for them to settle down into some sort of spiritual wilderness where they begin to seek after their own welfare and prosperity rather than to be rich towards the proclamation of the Kingdom of God - after all, believers are often told to look to Jesus to supply all their needs and what we often strive after is not so much necessary to our well being but to our own personal comfort.
The good (and bad) thing about men and women, however, is that no one person’s heart normally stays as one type of soil for his entire life. There may be times when receptivity is certain, when the word that’s being proclaimed to them is received into a life that immediately changes to follow after God through obedience and who brings to fruition what has been planted within them.
Other times, receptivity may be impossible, when ministers of God are demonised by fellow believers so that what one may have beneficially received from them becomes unpalatable to the hearer and considered untrustworthy. At still other times, believers may react by refusing to accept that a word spoken can ever be part of the will of God (Mtw 16:21-23).
So there’s a call here for perseverance in both evangelism towards the unbeliever and teaching towards the disciple.
Jesus teaches through the parable that there are primarily four reactions to the word of the Kingdom but we shouldn’t limit reactions to the Gospel in only four responses. Many will probably be able to think of others which are not covered here or which are only alluded to within the descriptions.
a. The well-trodden path
Firstly, there’s the seed which is sown along the well trodden path (Mtw 13:4,19) which has compacted soil, preventing the seed from nestling down into cracks in the earth to escape the attention of the birds looking for a quick and easy meal.
There’s some discussion amongst commentators whether the field in ancient times would have been ploughed either before or after the seed distribution but this hardly seems important - that fields (just like today in the UK) have ancient walkways across them is what’s in mind here and the fact that the soil is compacted refers us either to a freshly trodden path after ploughing but before the seed has been sown or to one which has been well-walked but which has yet to be ploughed after sowing takes place.
The word fails to fall into the heart of these people due to hardness. It’s worth contemplating the situation that Jesus is following on from in this chapter, where the Pharisees have already chosen to consign the works that He’s doing to the work of satan (Mtw 12:24), hardening their hearts against the message of the Gospel and rejecting the plain and obvious word that’s being presented to them as the will of God.
But this rejection doesn’t only feed those who possess it. The open denunciation of the servant of God (Mtw 12:24) is fuel as it reaches the lives of others to prompt them to begin to cynically assess what’s being presented to them and to turn against what is both plain and obvious.
Even though men and women could rejoice at both the works which were being performed in their midst and respond to the message of the Kingdom even though they don’t fully understand it (Mtw 13:19), they simply find that the message is snatched away from them and, although I’ve outlined pressures upon them that lie external to their own lives, many a rejection of the message comes by an attitude of heart that’s already present within the person hearing the message.
Both the Pharisee who refuses to accept the message because of what he already is and the ordinary Israelite who turns against the message because of the distrust that’s being openly spread through the nation from people such as the religious leaders are in the same position - namely, that the evil one is snatching away the message which could have liberated their life and brought them into a correct relationship with God.
There may even be an application to those who were listening to the parables as Jesus was speaking them though I tend to think that He’s summarising the state of the nation as He’d found it in the previous months that He’d been ministering in the Galilee region and the responses that the open declaration was getting.
But, primarily, one can’t help but notice that preconceived ideas can hinder the reception of the Gospel along with seeds of doubt that have already been sown in lives that come to listen. And all this comes from a failure to understand the true implications and message of the word of the Kingdom.
b. The shallow soil
Secondly, the seed falls onto rocky ground (Mtw 13:5-6,20-21) which provides a shallowness of soil in which the newly germinating seed can’t establish a sufficiently deep root system. The idea seems to be not that the soil is littered with rocks but that the bedrock lies very close to the surface over which only a few inches of topsoil rests.
In this case, the word of the Kingdom is immediately received with the joy that one would expect from a liberating declaration of the word of God where a sudden deliverance from bondage has taken place. But, because the message cannot become firmly rooted in the new believer’s heart, when tribulation and persecution arises as a consequence of the message, the temptation becomes over-powering to forsake the way that they know for a way that begins to oppose it.
It’s not that a release of joy in a newly converted person is wrong for, having been set free from the things which have bound individuals, it’s only natural that some sort of ecstatic emotion should be displayed (and neither is it wrong not to see an open demonstration of excessive emotion - the most important characteristic of a conversion is a change of heart which brings about change throughout the new believer’s life).
But if the message is simply received with joy and not developed, there becomes nothing which can be relied upon in a time of trouble that will cause the believer to remain steadfast.
It’s not that the trouble is too great for them to bear but that the root has not been sufficiently developed for them to be able to withstand what comes upon them. The lack of moisture previously mentioned as being unique to Luke 8:6 is particularly noteworthy for it isn’t the fact that they have no root to secure themselves when the wind comes (such as Mtw 7:24-27) but that they have no way to draw on a sustaining supply of water when a time of heat begins to sap them of what life they have.
Therefore, the shallowness of christian experience and teaching is probably best understood as being an attribute of this believer’s life who has nothing to draw on in the day of trouble.
Although the message is received, it isn’t developed - although it’s accepted with open arms as being the liberating message of God, that’s all it stops at and a measure of the fulness of the Gospel is not run after. Therefore, Peter comments concerning the need to progress beyond the initial act of conversion by describing the necessity for believers to begin with faith (I Peter 1:5-7 - my italics) but to
‘...make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love’
Simply being ‘converted to Christ’ is not, therefore, seen as being sufficient if there’s no development of that commitment within a new believer’s life and, eventually, there needs to be fruit which is grown as a benefit to the One who’s being served. James 2:26 teaches the reader that
‘...as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead’
where the deeds of the saints should be naturally seen as the harvest from the seed of the good soil in Mtw 13:23. To get there, tribulation must be experienced through life and, to survive such an event, there has to be a development of belief and a greater experience of God than simply being converted.
Conversion is not the be-all-and-end-all as many would assert. Though it’s the only way to come into a correct relationship with Christ and to be washed clean through the work of the cross, it has to be remembered that it’s the first step of a long journey.
c. The thorns
Thirdly, some of the seed falls onto soil which appears to be fairly good - judging by the plants which have already established themselves here - but it fails to develop fruit simply because of the vegetation which is already there (Mtw 13:7,22). One might point the finger at the farmer for not removing the thorns in the first place (they appear to have been observable if not fully developed at the time of sowing - Mtw 13:7) if this were simply an observation of good farming practice. But that isn’t the point here - it isn’t his responsibility in the parable to do that but to simply distribute the seed and, besides, it may even be that the farmer is unaware of the problem as the thorns are spoken of in terms which makes us think that they were only just establishing themselves.
These points are somewhat superfluous, however, and needn’t be developed. The sole point is that the life of the recipient of the message of the Gospel hasn’t just the one seed growing in his life but others which are developing alongside them.
In this soil, the word germinates and takes root and appears to initially flourish well because of the good soil that’s here.
However, such good soil has already produced the beginning of thorns and thistles so that the word of the Kingdom has to compete alongside them. These weeds are described by Jesus (Mtw 13:22) as
‘...the cares of the world and the delight in riches...’
and is a picture of those believers who will not forsake a worldly way of life and so choose to cling fast wholeheartedly to the message of the Gospel allowing it freedom of development. This phrase has often been interpreted to mean such things as going to the cinema or watching soccer matches (though, if you do either of these two things, it’s very easy to apply Jesus’ words to other pastimes and so absolve yourself of any responsibility in the matter) but even a person who does nothing outside his own household can find that he falls foul of Jesus’ words for excessive devotion to one’s household is just as much a care of the world that pulls away from a sincere and pure devotion to the Lord than anything else which substitutes going after what is heavenly for the pursuit of what is earthly (I Cor 7:32-35).
There’s no doubt that families need to be cared for but excessive devotion to it is a care of earthly concerns which choke the message and development of the Gospel. Matmor summarises Jesus’ phrase well when he notes that
‘It is possible to be so taken up with the contemplation of the threats and opportunities of life that the word from God that we receive and welcome does not get sufficient attention’
The problem, therefore, is always one of balance. As I type this, I have an unopened digital camera on the study floor just waiting to be opened and installed on the computer. I’ve been wanting such a piece of hardware to help me with the articles I put together for a conservation website and for the hamster stories I write but today is also my one day off a week that I take for studying and I’m torn between the camera and study!
I guess I could justify spending all day with the camera on spiritual grounds (I’m pretty good at that, I must admit) or I can leave it up there and get on with study. The cares of the world pull away from the things of God and, though I need to learn how to use the camera, it has its own time and place - now isn’t it. Each of us have to make similar decisions in life and we would do well always to pay them particular attention for, in a very short while, we can find ourselves so taken up with what’s temporal, we forget about those things which are eternal.
A ‘delight in riches’ seems straightforward to interpret, however, and is well described in the story of the rich young ruler who was committed to doing what God wanted from him except for that one small area of his earthly riches (Mtw 19:16-22). Our danger in reading this, however, is to think that it can only apply to material wealth - whereas it rightly applies to a wealth of material possessions when one’s heart lies in them rather than in God.
So, those who have large collections of Star Wars figures - though they may be one of the poorest of people in the neighbourhood - those who have myriads of pets and large CD collections (whether christian or otherwise) are equally covered for, if one takes greater delight in these objects than one does in the message of the Gospel and in the development of it in one’s own life, it can be truly said that God isn’t the most important object within.
Delighting in temporal possessions - however cheap or small they may be - is a thorn which takes the place of commitment to the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven.
All things must be forsaken which are opposed to the revelation of God that’s been received. II Tim 4:10 and Mtw 26:14-16 are both sad reminders of this state of heart whereas Mtw 19:27 is a testimony of one who was sold out for Jesus and willing to forsake all that they had to acquire all that Christ both has and is.
d. Good soil
Finally, there’s the seed which falls on good soil free from hindrances (Mtw 13:8,23). This is indicative of the person who hears the word of the Gospel and understands it, who allows it free development in his own life and forsakes those things which would hinder its growth. Finally, fruit will be born which is useful to the farmer who sowed it (this is why Jesus should be seen primarily as the sower).
Little more needs to be added about this type of soil as Jesus has been more concerned to warn the crowds in a parable as to the wrong reception of the Gospel than He has to relate to them how to correctly respond! However, in the negative, there’s also a positive which can be observed.
We should be concerned not simply to labour on rooting out the negative but in encouraging the positive, in helping men and women to experience God and to allow the full outworking of the Gospel in their lives. Only then can the full work of God be done and come to fruition.
It would probably be foolish to speculate the type of ‘fruit’ that Jesus means here and we shouldn’t think that the only valid harvest are the production of extensive commentaries and the establishing of church ministries (also in mind has to be right living and good conduct amongst men and women as laid out in Matthew chapter 5 to 7) - but it does seem true to make the observation that many people don’t appear to have come to that place where there’s any useful fruit in their lives (Luke 13:6-9). Part of the problem may be the three types of soil which Jesus has just outlined and it’s true to say that a believer set on following after God will always overcome opposition no matter where it raises its head - but church leadership should always be primarily concerned with encouraging development and not with securing their own position.
In that way, good soil and good leadership cannot fail to produce good fruit (Eph 4:11-16).
In conclusion, notice that the fate of the seed is not dependent upon either its quality or the sower but solely on the type of soil that it falls upon . Man is culpable for how he deals with what he hears and it’s the individual who alone can receive and develop wrongly, receive and develop correctly or reject immediately.
2. The Tares
Note - compare this parable with the one below concerning the dragnet.
Again, the disciples fail to understand the meaning of this parable (Mtw 13:36) as they have done with the parable of the sower (Luke 8:9) and, although they’ve correctly responded to the message of the Gospel so that they will be given the truth of the matter (Mtw 13:11), they’re still incredibly slow to understand what it is that Jesus is speaking to them about!
I wouldn’t call them ‘thick’ (that term may come back to haunt me!) and the reason doesn’t appear to be because they were poor, uneducated fishermen who knew little about anything except fishing - it’s more likely that the teaching which Jesus was bringing to the multitudes was radical and not altogether similar to what they’d heard from the religious leaders in the sense that the allusions and pictures used were not similar and didn’t hold the same meaning.
Whereas the religious leaders were concerned to teach the multitudes concerning what the Law required of them, Jesus was more concerned to tailor His teaching to suit the needs of those who were coming to Him and so spoke into a variety of situations that the religious leaders of His day probably never commented on - and, much less, even thought about!
This parable certainly appears to be more readily open to a correct interpretation than the previous one concerning the sower and the seed and the great harvest which was celebrated at the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:39ff) when the Messiah was expected to appear to bring to a conclusion all things must surely have sparked some associations in the people’s minds as they listened.
Not so in the minds of the disciples, however!
Innumerable amounts of commentators I’ve read in times past and preachers I’ve listened to dealing with this subject have asserted that the field being spoken of in this parable must necessarily be taken to be the Church. Matfran, although he doesn’t follow this interpretation, notes that the parable
‘...is usually understood as depicting the mixed character of the Church in which true and false believers coexist until the final judgment. But in Jesus’ own ministry this was not yet an issue...’
and, besides, Jesus doesn’t leave that interpretation open to us for He categorically states (Mtw 13:38) that
‘the field is the world...’
Neither believers nor the grouping together of people who profess to be believers but ‘the world’, the sum total of the population on planet earth. Matmor quotes Carson who writes that the parable is given to the crowds to explain to them
‘...how the Kingdom can be present in the world while not yet wiping out all opposition’
This is an important concept to grasp when we come to the interpretation of the parable for, as the reader will note below, I have more developed the background to detail the fulness of what Jesus is saying than attempted to understand the reason for the giving of the parable in the first place.
Carson hits the nail on the head, however. Many of Jesus’ followers and those in the crowd could have levelled the charge against Jesus that the Kingdom of God which they knew was to be established in their midst was not pushing back the people who were opposing the message of the Gospel and that evil men and women were still raising themselves up to speak against the ultimate word of God to the nation (Mtw 12:24). This parable answers that objection and shows the listener that, although the Kingdom is being established, it will not consume the entire world and overcome all opposition until the time of the final harvest and the close of the age.
That the parable can be applied to the Church as a secondary interpretation is certainly correct but we shouldn’t lose sight of the primary purpose of Jesus’ words. Besides, interpreting the parable in terms which refer to the Church can be extremely deceptive and has the tendency either to make men and women think that the person singing the songs beside them are possibly of the devil or, if church unity is strong, the devil’s seeds must be that suspect denominational place down the road who evangelise on street corners (or some other such characteristic - add the problem associated with the fellowship you’re not happy with and you’re free to demonise whoever you wish!).
If the field is the world, the world is also God’s Kingdom in this parable for Jesus says (Mtw 13:41) that the Son of man will send His angels at the close of the age and
‘...gather out of His Kingdom all causes of sin and evildoers’
where the phrase ‘all causes of sin’ expands the work of God on the final day to possibly include not just people but objects as well if the ‘causes’ aren’t meant to be thought of as being personified in the sons of the evil one.
Although we may speak of the Kingdom in a limited sense as being the groups of believers who perform God’s will on earth, we shouldn’t limit the concept of God’s Kingdom encompassing all the earth and, even more than this, the entire created order. That God may not be seen to be getting His will done in people’s lives doesn’t undermine the fact that time and space is a part of God’s realm where He is seeking to re-establish His will while part of His creation is still in rebellion.
The earth is most definitely proclaimed as belonging fully to God (Ps 24:1) and that He has all things under His feet as ruling over them (I Cor 15:27) even though, as it stands at the moment, we don’t yet see all things around us subject to Him (Heb 2:8).
The ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’, then, is not to be seen as a message which is limited in scope but as the complete word necessary that can redeem mankind and re-establish God’s will ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mtw 6:10). But the Church shouldn’t be concerned to weed out those who don’t belong to God for, in attempting to do so, they will only find that they’ll probably weed out some of the good seed as well! This last point, although correct, does not come from the parable and the best way to take the reference to God’s workers who are told this is probably to see them as angels, not followers of Christ (even though Mathag sees these workers as being the disciples).
The seed is also variously understood and Mathen confuses the issue by associating the good seed with
‘...the kingdom message of salvation through repentance and faith’
even though he does go on to accept the statement of Jesus in Mtw 13:38 that
‘...the good seed means the sons of the Kingdom’
Mathen unfortunately transposes the conclusion of the parable of the sower into this passage, however, by insisting that the sons of the Kingdom are those
‘...in whom the good seed of the Gospel bears fruit’
but here we’re not thinking about the state of heart of the recipients of the message but in a distinction between two very different types of people - those who are useful to the farmer (I have used this label instead of ‘householder’ to emphasise the agricultural nature of this parable) and those who aren’t. In the parable of the sower, the emphasis was on receptivity and there were four classes of hearers outlined - here, Jesus speaks only of two and, to avoid confusion, it would really be better to try and keep them separate.
The seed, then, are those people who will be gathered in to the God’s storehouse at the close of the present age. God sows men and women into society, the entire world, to be both a witness to Him and to ripen to maturity in Christ but, as the symbolism of the tares signifies, the evil one has also not been idle, sowing his own people throughout the world so as, if at all possible, to ruin the crop that has been sown and to reduce the harvest per acre.
If there are competing seeds, there will only be a certain quantity of seed that can be produced from it as the land can only sustain a certain volume of vegetation. Therefore, the action of the enemy is particularly sinister for the tares (possibly the plant known as ‘darnel’) go undetected in the early days of their germination and initial growth until it’s too late to do anything about them (‘darnel’ is normally indistinguishable from wheat until the ears begin to form on the plants) until close to the time of the final harvest of the crop sown.
A light sowing of darnel may be weeded out and removed but, if the rogue sowing has been widely performed, by the time the crop is noticed it’s impossible to pull them out in large clumps for the roots will be inextricably interwoven with the wheat (Mtw 13:29) - and, if darnel is being referred to, that plant, according to Mathag, has roots which are deeper and stronger than wheat - and cutting each down to soil level will be time-consuming and mistakes will necessarily be made.
Matfran notes that to sow darnel amongst a person’s wheat was punishable under Roman Law and this parable may well have been drawn directly from events which were known to most of Jesus’ hearers.
Jesus’ teaching seems to be both a reassurance and a warning and the fact that He proclaimed it to the crowds which were gathered (Mtw 13:24) rather than privately only to the disciples should make us aware that He wanted the multitudes to understand that there was a battle going on in which they could choose to be either useful to the Father or worthless - and that these were the conclusions which originated out of either a positive or negative response to Himself.
Notice that the evil one’s reaction is primarily to the farmer (Mtw 13:25) and that this sower is identified positively as none other than Jesus (Mtw 13:37). The reaction of the enemy is not to the message of the Kingdom, therefore, but to Person who brings the message - and, even if there’s a negative reaction to the messenger who proclaims the message to their own generation, it’s still the case that opposition comes about because of Christ.
The plain teaching of the parable, however, is that there will be evil growing alongside the good in the world until the final day of the age comes when Jesus will separate out the two. God will not perform such a task and desires neither that man do so until He Himself sends out His own workers, the angels, into all the world to gather His followers from the four corners of the earth.
It is surely significant here that the farmer is quoted (Mtw 13:30) as commanding His workers (who aren’t identified in this parable, only the reapers are. It seems difficult to take them as being anything other than angels, however, for to associate them with believers would be to pull away from the identification of such with the germinating seed in the field. Perhaps we should simply not interpret them and see their mention only as a device to bring the truth of what’s happened to the hearer’s attention so that the will of the farmer can be heard) to
‘Let both grow together...’
which seems to oppose the setting up of religious organisations which remove themselves from society such as monasteries and segregated christian communities who feel that they need to purify themselves from the evil that’s in the world.
Also significant in Jesus’ words is that there are only two types of people who appear to have been sown into the world - we aren’t told, for instance, of a scattering of poppies which, although they aren’t reducing the yield per acre by a significant amount, are admired for the splash of colour they bring when they flower!
Rather, there are two types of people (the good soil and all other types as defined by the previous parable) and, ultimately, only two eternal destinations prepared (Mtw 25:46). The full and final establishing of God’s Kingdom is also asserted (Mtw 13:43) where, although ‘kingdom’ does mean ‘world’, we’re thinking of the perfection of Creation being reapplied to those things which are visible and the entire created order once more coming under the sovereign control of God.
Matfran sees Jesus’ use of the term ‘fire’ (Mtw 13:42) as not being indicative in the NT of hell and that the mention again here derives its use from the actual parable (Mtw 13:30) because
‘...darnel was useful where wood was in short supply’
but this seems to rely too much on what we would like to believe. That ‘hell’ or ‘Gehenna’ isn’t being mentioned is quite correct but the phrase that the ultimate destination of the darnel as being a place (Mtw 13:42) where
‘...men will weep and gnash their teeth’
can hardly also be said to have been derived from the original declaration of the parable and the phrase is used to describe such a place of punishment elsewhere (Mtw 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). Besides, ‘fire’ is used in the NT of the final place of punishment (Mtw 25:41, Rev 20:11-15) and this seems to be the best explanation of its meaning here.
The reader of the Gospel upto here will have noticed by now that Jesus consistently emphasised that there were only two possible camps that a man could be in - that there is no middle ground or ‘no-man’s-land’ that can be stood on - and that there is only one possible destination for each.
Yet the glorious truth of the Gospel of the Kingdom is that tares can become wheat by faith in Christ.
3. The Mustard Seed
Mtw 13:31-32, Pp Mark 4:30-32
Note - compare this parable with the one below concerning the leaven.
Matthew finishes off Jesus’ discourse to the crowds in parables by including just two more, each of which receive no interpretation either here or at a later date. They’re very similar in teaching, however, and should really be dealt with together as two aspects of the one truth - that is, how the Kingdom will develop from the smallest of beginnings into something which will be greater than anyone could have imagined from the outset - the mustard seed appears to have been proverbial in Israel for something which was one of the minutest quantities definable (Nazir 1:5, Niddah 5:2, Tohoroth 8:8) though the contrast with its smallness and the final height of a mature plant (between eight and twelve feet) doesn’t appear to have been noted.
Because these deal with future expansions of the Kingdom, the parables are prophetic in nature and they foresee the expansion of the Kingdom of Heaven into great proportions. The parable of the sower has dealt with the receptivity of the message in the lives of those who have been hearing the message of the Gospel and the tares speak of there only being two options in the people’s response. Here, Jesus steps away from the very individualistic messages to overview the entire establishing of the new Kingdom and to see a glorious future for it.
It’s difficult to be absolutely certain as to what the grain of mustard seed is meant to represent and the normal interpretation is to see it as referring to the message of the Gospel just as was the case in the parable of the sower (Mtw 13:18-23) and, therefore, although the message was to gain a response in a small way at first, it would soon be established and grow throughout the world.
However, the interpretation, to me, seems a bit strained and I feel it best to take the seed to be representative of the Kingdom itself and not to limit it to the message - perhaps there’s even a good case to be made for seeing Jesus as being the mustard seed.
But the parable teaches listeners that the Kingdom of Heaven on earth will have only small beginnings - and this in contrast to what was normally believed, that it would come with such force and power that foreign armies and powers would be subdued under its forceful advance and, for the Jew especially, that the Roman occupation of the land of Israel would be expelled when God’s King Messiah was firmly established as reigning from Jerusalem and out into the world.
There’s a parallel usage of the tree which grows strong from smaller beginnings in Daniel 4:10-12,20-21 though there the imagery is used to speak of a man who has exerted his influence over all the known world by conquest and the cutting down of His pride for a short period of time.
Even so, the parallel here that from a small beginning, the Kingdom of God will grow until it extends itself to be the greatest Kingdom on earth is identical. In Daniel 2:34-35,44-45, we can also see that the small stone from God was seen to break in pieces the large statue representing the kingdoms of the earth and, subsequently, grew to become a great mountain which towered over all that had gone before it.
And yet, as the Kingdom grows, nations and individuals throughout the earth will seek protection and comfort within its protection (Mtw 13:32 - the ‘birds of the air’ which is sometimes taken to be a reference to the coming in of the Gentiles. It seems best not to insist on this interpretation, however, and see their inclusion solely for the purpose of proving to the hearers that the plant is fulfilling the functions of a tree) which could be viewed either positively in that many come under it’s influence and commit themselves to it or, negatively, that men and women will find refuge within it even though they don’t become part of it.
This sphere of influence is seen in the OT passage of Ezekiel 31:2-6 where similar imagery is used to speak of the ancient kingdom of Egypt and there seems no good reason to think that this type of application is not what’s required here. In Ezekiel 17:22-24, Israel is seen as a tall tree from which a small shoot is taken and from which a great nation grows, again with similar words describing the greatness into which it finally develops.
The truth of the matter is that the Kingdom of God which has started out with small beginnings will grow to enormous proportions until it can be seen throughout the entire earth - and this in contrast to the popular Jewish view of Jesus’ day that it must come with unstoppable physical force to suppress and overthrow its enemies. That opposition will continue has already been made plain by Jesus (Mtw 13:24-30) and, though that will continue until the final day of the present age, the Kingdom will grow in size so drastically that there will be nowhere that doesn’t feel its forceful message.
The smallest of all Kingdoms at its inception, the Kingdom of God will become the largest of all.
4. The Leaven
Note - compare this parable with the one above concerning the mustard seed.
If the previous parable could be construed as teaching that the Kingdom of God would become the largest of all the Kingdoms on earth from small beginnings, this parable must present to the listener and reader the parallel and contrasting truth that its sphere of influence will also grow from small beginnings to encapsulate the entire world.
Many commentators see the mustard seed parable as referring to the outward manifestation of the Kingdom and this one concerning leaven as referring to the inward - that is, the function of the Kingdom within an individual believer’s life. However, this is not the case - the leaven also refers to the outward growth of the Kingdom from a small beginning and Jesus isn’t concerned to speak about the message or seed of the Kingdom as developing but that the Kingdom of Heaven itself is like leaven.
Others only see the mention of leaven as being indicative of evil or sin and come up with their own unique interpretation of the parable based upon a misapprehension that leaven can only be used as a symbol of what’s opposed to God throughout the Bible’s pages. That Jesus is talking about something positive here is certain seeing as it’s being paralleled with the Kingdom of Heaven rather than the advance of the dominion of darkness. It’s the natural properties of leaven that’s Jesus’ concern here, not a symbolic interpretation drawn from elsewhere.
Three measures of flour was approximately forty litres (enough to feed about a hundred people - as Matfran) so the quantity is a large amount, but the leaven only needed to be a small piece in order for it to work its way through the entire quantity. That the amount is so large for one woman to ever have considered performing such a function shouldn’t be overlooked for, in the normal scheme of things, this would possibly never have happened - but the vast quantity seeks to convey the interpretation of the influence that’s being extended.
One should also note that ‘leaven’ and ‘yeast’ are different substances even though some translations seem to have used the latter to bring home an easier interpretation for the reader. Leaven was part of an old batch of bread that had been baked and which had begun to decay - it was this that was inserted into flour which was to be prepared as bread so that it would rise before baking.
The ‘hidden’ nature of the leaven (Matfran notes that it’s not the usual word which should be employed in the text so that it’s used to emphasise the unseen moving of the Kingdom of Heaven) is indicative of the relative secrecy of the first days of the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, even though nothing that was done was performed out of sight of the multitudes.
But few truly understood the fulness of who Jesus was at that time and few were under His influence to the point of obedience. But, from such small beginnings, the Kingdom is seen to be working its way through the earth until every part of society is affected by it.
Matmor sees this parable as assuring the disciples that their efforts would not be wasted and that they could take heart from the small beginnings of the Kingdom of God. This, I’m sure, they did, but it misses the point that the parable was initially given to the crowds and not at a private meeting between Jesus and His followers (Mtw 13:3,24,31,33). This is the case also with the parable of the mustard seed and Mattask puts both together well to comment concerning the relevance of their teaching to the multitudes present. He notes that
‘The inevitability of growth from what appears a very small beginning to a result seemingly out of all proportion to it is the truth set forth in the parable of the mustard seed (Mtw 13:31-32). Moreover, the presence of the kingly reign of God is bound to penetrate the evil environment in which it is exercised as effectively as yeast penetrates and transforms the flour into which it is put (Mtw 13:33)’
If we couple these two parables with the one concerning the tares (Mtw 13:24-30), we see that Jesus’ thrust of teaching has one common theme and that is to emphasise the inappropriateness of the view that the Kingdom of God will arrive violently and overthrow the established kingdoms of the world. Rather, it’s seen to grow side by side with those present kingdoms and yet to exert an influence which is far reaching in its effects and all pervasive in its influence.
As such, the Kingdom of God is misunderstood by many of those present if they continue to conform it to an outworking of irresistible and immediate power. The Kingdom of God, rather, will be established gradually but effectively.
5. The Treasure
Note - compare this parable with the one below concerning the fine pearl.
The parables now related take on a fundamental change from being ones directed at the multitudes publicly (Mtw 13:3,24,31,33), to ones which are given directly to the disciples at a private meeting in a house (Mtw 13:36) where those present seem to have been limited in numbers.
After requesting an explanation of the parable of the tares (Mtw 13:36-43), Jesus continues with three short parables offering no explanation along with His words but asking the disciples if they’d understood them (Mtw 13:51). Apparently, these three appear to have been much more easy to understand than either the parable of the sower (Luke 8:9) or of the tares (Mtw 13:36) and they ask for no further explanation.
Both this parable and the next one about the fine pearl are immediately noticeable as being of a similar nature for each of them deals with someone discovering something of value which they decide they must have for their own. But there the similarity ends for, in this current parable, the Kingdom isn’t being sought out but discovered unexpectedly while, in the other, the Kingdom is found while searching for something of great value.
There remains two aspects to these parables which we need to understand fully - namely, that it isn’t the case that it’s only those who are seeking out the Kingdom of God who will ever find it. There are many who have been casually going through life almost oblivious to the demands of God upon them when suddenly they come across it when they’re least expecting (Mtw 13:44).
But others, who know that there’s something which they desire to possess, have been actively trying to find that one certain ‘thing’ which pales all other things into insignificance and, when they discover the message of the Kingdom, they forsake everything to obtain it (Mtw 13:45-46).
Here, though, the Kingdom is found unexpectedly just as Paul experienced (Acts 9:1-9) when the apostle was in the process of persecuting the Church. Not even with the most liberal of interpretations could it be said that he was searching for the Kingdom of God but, rather, had settled Himself into a legalistic religion that denied the very One who went after searching him out.
Later in his life, Paul was to write (Phil 3:8 - my italics)
‘...I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ...’
The apostle, having discovered the Kingdom unexpectedly, gladly gave up all that he had to make sure that it became his possession. Indeed, in such a situation, it’s not any wonder that ‘joy’ wells up from within the person as noted exclusively in the parable. After all, if you’re half-expecting to discover what you’re looking for, there’s more of a likelihood that there will be some degree of sobriety in the search.
Matfran comments that
‘It is wrong to describe this “giving up” as “sacrifice”; the man sold from self-interest in order to buy something far greater. The disciple’s “giving up” is in the context of joy!’
This surrendering of all that one possesses is here depicted not as a begrudging spirit that sorrowfully gives all that one is into Jesus’ hands, but a generous one that rejoices that the Kingdom of God has been discovered. Discovering the Kingdom of God brings joy when its found when one least expects it.
The acquisition of unexpected treasure was by no means an unusual occurrence in ancient times if we can judge by the discoveries of artefacts which have come down to us and which are located even outside the boundaries of recognised cities and towns.
In those times, valued possessions would need to be hidden to be protected (you couldn’t go down to your local bank and deposit the objects in their vaults) and, upon the death of the owner, their whereabouts would be forgotten. That sudden death through illness and war were common place is well-known and such sudden fatalities would have had the effect of sealing valuable objects in the earth for the future discovery of another generation.
The new owners of field would therefore inherit the contents of everything which lay under the soil and, according to Matmor, even the lifting up of such treasure from someone else’s field would constitute an infringement of ownership and the treasure would necessarily be the legal right of the owner of the field.
Therefore, the discoverer makes sure that, by the possession of the field, what he knows is there becomes legally his. Some may argue that he should be honest enough to report his finding to the owner in question but, if the owner truly knows what’s on his land, he won’t sell it to anyone. If he’s unaware of anything hidden there, the treasure is equally the right of the person who purchases the land as it would have been the first owner had he discovered it.
After all, both would have inadvertently discovered something which they themselves had not put there. The parable doesn’t deal with legal rights, however, and Jesus is able to tell a story that may not necessarily be morally pure (Luke 16:1-8) in order to get the principles of the Kingdom across as He does here.
In an email, I was told that the above interpretation was 'critical error' and that the correct interpretation was to see the man in this parable as representing Jesus and the field, the world. In this way, so the email ran, Jesus found great treasure amongst the people of earth and went and sold all that He had to obtain it so that He would be able to possess the treasure that He'd seen amongst it.
Just in case one might wonder what Jesus sold, the correspondent spoke later of Jesus 'selling His sinlessness, holiness and life' to obtain the Church through the offering of Himself on the cross.
Although I'm quite willing to see alternative interpretations that are possible within identical texts, I was quite amazed to learn that my interpretation was 'critical error', that the new interpretation was exclusively correct to the exclusion of the traditional one.
However, the problem with this new interpretation is that Jesus is supposed not to have seen anything worthy in the world before He was born and walked amongst us and that, having lived in our midst, became aware that there was 'worthiness' for which He was willing to offer His life.
This foundation of the interpretation, then, makes Jesus die for the worthy - something that the Bible is careful to emphasise was not the case. God showed His love for us in that while we were sinners, Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8) - that is, while we were worthless, redemption was secured.
The interpretation undermines the clear teaching that describes the love of God directed towards us, not on the basis of our worth but on the basis of God's character alone. It also means that, unless Jesus finds something in you that He considers to be worthy, His work on the cross cannot have been done on your behalf.
So, although it may be acceptable to say that Jesus can be seen as giving His life to buy the Church, pressing this parable to teach the concept undermines other foundational concepts concerning the character and purpose of God and will, ultimately, deny the Gospel.
6. The Fine Pearl
Note - compare this parable with the one above concerning the treasure.
As noted in the previous section, here the thought is not that the Kingdom of God is stumbled upon when one least expects it but that there has been an active concern of the individual involved to discover the ultimate treasure which surpasses all others..
There are similarities here with other NT passages such as Luke 2:25-32 where we read that Simeon was a man who was
‘...looking for the consolation of Israel...’
and that he was prompted by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple at that time. What he had been searching for was revealed to him even though it’s doubtful that he ever saw the fruition of what was there in Jesus.
Andrew, also, went after Jesus in John 1:35-41 to try and discover the full meaning of John the Baptist’s words. Seeking out the move of God, even if it meant leaving John’s side, was a good enough reason for them to discover what they’d been wanting to find in the Baptist.
Again, the Ethiopian eunuch was reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah when Philip came alongside (Acts 8:26-40). The man was eager to know, asking Philip about whom the prophet was speaking and receiving the words from him as a conclusion to his quest for an answer.
In all these three cases, there was a certain commitment already to search out the truth of the matter and their seeking wasn’t left unrewarded. So, too, the merchant in this parable. The Greek word (Strongs Greek number 1713) denotes a travelling trader who would move about from town to town and across oceans and continents in order to buy and sell. It doesn’t refer to the local market-stall trader and its use emphasises the commitment of the man’s quest for something of surpassing value over everything else.
Both parables state the need for forsaking everything in order to be able to possess the Kingdom of heaven but we shouldn’t neglect the implication here that the reason for this abandonment is because what’s discovered is instantly recognisable as being something which is worth the sacrifice.
Matfran has already been quoted above as saying that, in one real sense, the sacrifice is based on self-interest and so it is - but people who have only assented in their own minds to the message of the Gospel can never truly find joy in giving up everything to live out the message when they fail to see the worth of that which they’ve understood.
A commitment to give up everything for the Gospel must come through a revelation of the Gospel’s worth and no amount of religious arguing or preaching will convince a person of the need to be wholly committed to it - not, that is, unless a revelation comes to the believer as well that anything is worth doing for the sake of the message of salvation.
Both these parables, as previously mentioned, were delivered to the disciples at a private meeting which took place after the crowds had been taught four parables. Significantly, then, these two parables of the treasure and the fine pearl are immediately relevant to the disciples who could associate with both men and how each of them had either stumbled across the Kingdom when they were least expecting it or found it at the conclusion of their searching.
The message is one which they’ve already experienced in real life by leaving everything they had to follow after Jesus who is, ultimately, both the treasure and the most valuable pearl (Mtw 9:9, Mark 10:28, Luke 5:11).
7. The Dragnet
Note - compare this parable with the one above concerning the tares.
I have previously described the dragnet used in this parable on my web page here where I also contrasted the other two types of nets which are used within the NT, but I here reproduce those notes so that we can remind ourselves of the type of net being referred to:
‘This word (Strongs Greek number 4522) more rightly means a “dragnet” and is only used once in the entire NT [in Mtw 13:47]. Vines notes that
‘”...two modes were employed with this, either by its being let down into the water and drawn together in a narrowing circle, and then into the boat, or as a semicircle drawn to the shore...”
‘Zondervan notes that the sagene could have reached
‘”...several hundred yards long, which is taken by boat around a semicircle and then both ends are hauled in to the shore. All kinds and sizes of fish were taken and then sorted. Much time ashore was occupied with net maintenance including washing...”
‘this last sentence perhaps indicating that this was the type of net normally employed by the four fishermen due to the references in Mtw 4:21, Mark 1:19 and Luke 5:2 even though the more general word for “nets” is used by all three Gospel writers’
Although the modern day use of the term can often be taken to be referring to a net which has an attachment which scrapes along the bottom of the sea floor, thus disturbing fish and causing them to be forced into the net’s path, the ancient use of the Greek word here and it’s application to a fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee would cause us to see this type of dragnet as not being referred to.
At first sight, this parable looks as if it’s just another in similar vein to that of the Tares (Mtw 13:24-30,36-43) and teaching the same truths. After all, it also deals with the end of the age when the good will be sorted out from the bad to their eternal destinations (Mtw 13:49). However, upon further consideration, it has to be noted that they’re very different and that, whereas the parable of the tares referred specifically to the division between the good and bad in the world and that both would grow alongside one another, here the idea is more indicative of a situation where the influence of the Kingdom of Heaven is being drawn around all the people of the world encompassing all.
Notice the words in Mtw 13:47 which speak of the Kingdom net which
‘...gathered fish of every kind’
and which seems to be used in accordance with the parallel OT passage in Genesis chapter 1 where we read that all living beings apart from mankind were created (Gen 1:21)
‘...according to its kind’
Here, the idea is that mankind is having the Kingdom’s influence drawn around them according to all the different languages, cultural divisions and nations of the world so that it might affect all. In this sense, the parable bears similarities also to the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven (Mtw 13:31-33).
Whereas the parable of the tares speaks about both good and bad growing together, here the thought is of both good and bad coming under the influence of the Kingdom of Heaven and, although not blatantly applied in language that was easily discernible, it must have come to have been understood as referring to the expansion of the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles.
The word picture is one that would have been instantly recognisable from everyday living for it would surely have been witnessed by most of the disciples (and probably practised by people such as Peter who were fishermen) as they passed by groups of fishermen going through their day’s catch and throwing away those fish which were considered to be either inedible, unclean or too small for sale in the markets.
It isn’t just that the Kingdom will influence many, for the sum total of the angels’ sorting is applied only to those within the dragnet. Rather, the Kingdom will encompass all men and women so that all will find themselves within its sphere of influence.
Many will see the dragnet as corresponding solely to the Church and limit its application in this way. Although this, indeed, is possible (after all, Jesus doesn’t speak of the angels as separating the evil from the righteous in the Kingdom - but neither is there any mention of the Son of man, Jesus, sending them out. The omission, therefore, doesn’t appear particularly important) it remains a more unlikely interpretation for the ‘Church’ is, by definition, the body of believers who follow after Christ. That we’ve changed the label to mean those who gather together within buildings (or, even, to take it to refer to the building itself) is a later interpretation. Matfran comments that the reference
‘...is not primarily to a mixed church but to the division among mankind in general which the last judgment will bring to light’
and this is to be favoured, for the parable says nothing about the fish needing to sort themselves out into good and bad but that this is left to the angels at the very end of the age (paralleled in Mtw 13:41-42 where similar language is used concerning the furnace of fire, weeping and the gnashing of teeth. Indeed, Mtw 13:42 is identical with 13:50) - the disciples shouldn’t be concerned to divide one from another within the world but simply to get the Kingdom net around all the tribes and nations of the world (interpreted in the light of the mission to the Gentiles). In this way, the net of influence will be brought around the entire world as it’s already been prophesied (Mtw 13:31-33).
Just as in the previous parables, the teaching here cuts across what was generally accepted as being the events surrounding the establishing of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth when God was seen to come with all power and force to eliminate all those who wouldn’t bow the knee to His will and purpose. That’s not the way the Kingdom will be established, says Jesus, but by allowing the Kingdom message to have its influence over all the people of the world and then, finally, the division will be made between those who are for God and those who are opposed to Him.
The New Scribes
Jesus could have finished off this set of three short parables with the addition of
‘He who has ears, let him hear’
which was attached as the conclusion to the parable of the sower (Mtw 13:9) and which challenged His listeners to pay close attention to what had been said and to perceive the spiritual truth which lay hidden beneath the story’s surface.
However, Jesus takes a different approach.
He already knew that the disciples lacked understanding in interpreting the parables (Luke 8:9, Mtw 13:36) but that they were also people who earnestly desired to understand (Mtw 13:11) therefore He addresses His followers with a question as to whether or not they’d fully comprehended what He’d been saying (Mtw 13:51).
That the disciples respond in the affirmative indicates that they seem to have found the last three parables addressed specifically to themselves as being straightforward and easy to understand though it has to be noted that we’re only told how they responded not that this was a true and honest reflection of what was going on inside! Matmor notes that their response seems to be rather ‘glib’ and Mathag notes their response as ‘deceptively confident’ while Matmor continues that
‘...there is evidence in the remainder of the Gospel that their understanding was somewhat imperfect’
Nevertheless, we’d best give them the benefit of the doubt here!
Jesus goes on to declare a fairly enigmatic saying and one which needs some direct comment as to the meaning of certain words within it before we can attempt an interpretation.
The word used for ‘scribe’ here (Strongs Greek number 1122) is the normal word employed to represent that particular person within the religious establishment of Jesus’ day but it’s also the one used by Luke in Acts 19:35 to denote the town clerk of Ephesus and in Mtw 13:52 we shouldn’t think of it as referring primarily to that sect of the Jews who were given that title which Jesus elsewhere condemned (Matthew chapter 23, for instance).
The town clerk in Ephesus, according to Zondervans, was employed as the person
‘...keeping the records of the city, taking the minutes of the council and assembly, caring for official correspondence, receiving the edicts of emperors and governors, plus a great mass of miscellaneous documents, then filing and publishing these as required’
so that the position couldn’t have been held by the illiterate or slow of learning. The direct parallel with the Jewish scribe is noticeable here for the distinguishing characteristic between the scribes and Pharisees is that the former were generally learned men who could read and, because the latter didn’t have to be literate, sometimes they weren’t.
It would be wrong to think of this ‘christian scribe’ being referred to as having to be someone who is naturally literate (and thus paralleled in people such as the writer of Matthew) for the thrust of Jesus’ message is that spiritual understanding is of prime importance - one may write extensive commentaries of Gospels but still fail to be perceptive in the things of God and to accurately represent God’s will.
If the Jewish scribes were taken as Jesus’ intention, it would undermine the context of the passage where discerning truths of the Kingdom of Heaven is uppermost in Jesus’ mind (Mtw 13:51) and where the ‘therefore’ at the start of Jesus’ concluding statement would be seen to be largely meaningless.
The Greek word used here comes from another which means ‘a writing’ and so carries with it the idea of referring to a ‘man of letters’ - that is, a person who’s studied and is in a position to teach others. This ‘scribe’ that Jesus is thus referring to is everyone who was ‘studying’ or learning about the Kingdom from Jesus and who were in a position to be able to teach others as they themselves had been taught, but the reference to a ‘scribe’ under the religion of Jesus’ day is quite possible so long as there’s a clear commitment to what Jesus has been teaching.
The word ‘trained’ (Strongs Greek number 3100) has the straightforward meaning, as Kittels, of ‘to be or become a pupil’ and is one of the words from the group which also produces the English translation ‘disciple’.
In the context of the passage, the meaning is that this scribe has been ‘trained’ or ‘discipled’ for the Kingdom of Heaven (not in the sense of modern day ‘shepherding’ arrangements where the ‘disciple’ becomes committed to a spiritual father figure who guides their progress and who stands in the place of God the Holy Spirit Himself) and doesn’t just ‘know’ but ‘does’ what he’s been taught and so become smaller reflections of the One who’s being followed (I will deal with the concept behind discipleship and its relationship to the philosophical schools of ancient Greece in my notes on Mtw 28:19 but, being so far away, I can’t provide a link to that future page).
We should never think of a disciple - or one who is being discipled or taught - as one who’s only ever filled with head knowledge, but as one who lives out that knowledge so that his life becomes a reflection of what he believes and of what the master is like.
The word for ‘householder’ (Strongs Greek number 3617) is a word that denotes the master of a house - one who’s in charge over a household - and the analogy is that people are seen to be in charge over their own lives and that they choose to withdraw from within themselves those things which they desire to be seen.
In the present application, the scribe who’s been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven is one who’s able to withdraw from the wealth of what lies within both that which is ‘old’ and ‘new’ where the word for ‘treasure’ (Strongs Greek number 2344) is the same as that employed in Mtw 12:35 where the concept of the inward being is duplicated.
This ‘treasure house’ is the place where valuable possessions are kept and therefore contains what’s considered to be valuable by the person who uses it. In computer language, it represents the contents of the person’s hard drive rather than that which is listed under the recycle bin! Those most prized spiritual possessions are what are stored in a person’s treasure and it’s from here that the man or woman will withdraw what’s good and fitting if they’re following after the Kingdom of Heaven.
The contrast between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ seems best to be taken in terms of what a person knows from the Old Covenant and, subsequently, from the new and not, as some commentators maintain, of both Old and New Testaments. Jesus didn’t have the a compilation of books as we do which are clearly demarcated into the ‘old’ and ‘new’ sections and, for Him, that which was ‘old’ would naturally have referred to the Mosaic covenant and the ‘new’ to what He was seeking to bring to Israel.
If a person has sought God truly under the Old Covenant and has an active faith in God, then the new which Jesus brings will echo the witness of what’s already in the person’s heart, causing the believer to be able to proclaim both the new as a fulfilment of the old and the old as a promise of what has now come in the new.
Jesus’ words are rightly understood to be pointing towards the interpretation that He stands as the conclusion and final word on the Old, inaugurating what is coming in the new but fulfilling the old in the process. Matfran sees the mention of ‘old and new’ as being a possible dig at the scribes and Pharisees who
‘...could produce only what was old!’
but, if this is the case, Jesus is giving them the benefit of doubt that what they’re instructing the people as to the correct interpretation of matters is accurately representing the ‘old’ which is a difficult premise to accept. Rather, the two labels appear to be solely applied to the disciple who has been trained in the things of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Mattask comments that
‘...while the Pharisaic scribe interpreted the Mosaic Law as an end in itself, the christian “scribe” interprets it in the light of the fulfilment it has received in the life and teaching of Jesus’
so harmonising the move of God in human history and causing a unity to be perceived in the dealings of God with mankind.
How might they have remembered the parables?
You can call this section the ramblings of a madman if you like - I have no objections - but it’s come about because I began to consider Jesus’ phrase in Mtw 13:12 that runs
‘...from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’
and wondered how the parables might have been ‘received’ and repeated by the multitudes who had come to listen to this Galilean teacher who had recently made a name for Himself through both the authority with which He taught the crowds (Mtw 7:28-29) and the authority with which He healed their illnesses and incapacities (Mtw 9:8).
In my own experience, it’s quite amazing what I’m supposed to have said - not just from the pulpit but in ordinary life when I deal with the public in the course of my work. It never ceases to amaze me that, when I say ‘no’, I’m quoted as saying ‘yes’ or, when I give clear instruction as to what to do, a person believes I told them to do exactly the opposite!
The nature of man is such that we often need to pay attention to the way we hear things and not to add an interpretation.
But, what of the crowds who came to hear Jesus and who didn’t understand? Did they remember small snippets of what Jesus had taught and then tried vainly to piece together the parables on their way home? Did they forget lines and sayings and have to add their own sentences in much the same way as a half-remembered song gets re-written by the next singer?
If they did, it’s hardly surprising that Jesus began to be even more misunderstood by the religious leaders and people who had begun to accept their leaders’ condemnation of Jesus and so demonised His ministry.
In their case, what they actually remember as having heard Jesus proclaim may have run something like this:
‘A sower went out to sow and, as he did, he discovered both tares and wheat growing together in the field that was rocky. In the corner of the field there stood a large mustard tree, grown from one of the smallest of seeds but which had worked its way throughout the field so that shrubs were springing up all about it.
‘And the householder called his servants together and asked them how it was that there were different plants growing in the field and they answered him saying:
‘”Some plants are more suited to grow on shallow soil and along the path than others. The wheat grows abundantly on good soil where it would shrivel up if grown elsewhere”
‘Now the householder perceived this message was from his enemy and he sent out his workers to root out those rogue plants which belonged not to him, instructing them:
‘”See to it that you rip up no wheat for they need to grow until the harvest”
‘And this they did and, behold, some produced thirtyfold fruit while others a hundredfold, but the bad seed that had mildew on was discarded as worthless into the fire where it was burnt with unquenchable fire’
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