Third Discourse: Parables (Matthew 13)

Third Discourse: Parables (Matthew 13)

Matthew has highlighted the parable teaching of Jesus in this 13th chapter. After the initial parable about the soils, we have three parables introduced by the phrase “another parable” (vv. 24, 31, 33), but in each case followed by “the kingdom of heaven is like.” Then three others begin directly with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” (vv. 44, 45, 47). The first one explains why parables are used to communicate the kingdom message of Jesus. The last six parables are explicitly defining some aspects of the kingdom of heaven.

Three of the parables have interpretations (soils, sheep and goats, and the net). In three sections there are reflections on the use of parables (vv. 10-17, 34-35, 51-52), with the first two reflections incorporating material from the Old Testament. In the first instance Jesus teaches that his use of parables flows from Isaiah’s prophecy (v. 14) and in the second instance (v. 34-35) Matthew inserts an editorial comment which contains a quotation from Psalm 78:2 introduced by “that which was spoken through the prophet.”

There is also a flow between the crowds and the disciples. Jesus addresses the first parable to the crowds, but then interprets it to his disciples. The next three parables are taught to the crowds, with the interpretation of the weeds’ parable given to the disciples privately “after the crowd left” (v.36). The last three parables are addressed to his disciples in this private context apparently, enhancing in some sense his explanation of the parable of the weeds. They culminate in Jesus’ question (v. 51) “Do you understand all these things?”

Mark also has a chapter devoted primarily to parables (4) and Matthew follows his sequence up to 13:23. The only other parable from Mark in this section is the one about the Mustard Seed (31-32). Other elements in Mark 4 are scattered (i.e., Matthew 13:12,34).

What is a parable and why did Jesus incorporate so many into his teaching? As we note from 13:3, “Jesus spoke many things in parables” to the crowds. In v. 13 Jesus repeats that he “speaks to them in parables” and in v. 34 Matthew, paralleling Mark, confirms that “without a parable he was saying nothing to them.” The term parable as used in the Old Testament covers a wide range of literary forms – stories, wise sayings, riddles, etc. Essentially it defines a form of speech which incorporates two levels of meaning: the literal meaning relates to a secondary level of meaning. The story makes sense in terms of its literal meaning, but the intended and more critical message of the speaker lies in the secondary level.

Craig Evans in a recent essay[1] provides the following background related to Jesus’ use of parables:

  1. apart from the parables of Jesus there are very few Jewish parables that can with certainty be dated to this period;
  2. the character of the parables derived from Rabbinic sources are not exactly comparable to those of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels;
  3. Jesus derived the parable form of teaching either directly or indirectly from the Scriptures of Israel.

He notes about ten parable stories in the OT Jewish Scriptures, some in the wisdom tradition, some in the Pentateuch, but most in the Prophets, particularly Ezekiel.  As well, a number of parables occur in the contexts of visions (Joseph, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar). There are about 325 Tannaitic parables, a period roughly parallel to the first two centuries of the Christian church. Themes incorporated within these parables relate to God as King and his sovereign rule of his kingdom. To what degree Jesus ‘borrowed’ from this rabbinic practice or Jesus in fact influenced this rabbinic practice is a moot point and cannot be determined, in my view. Klyne Snodgrass in the latest, most comprehensive review of Jesus’ use of parables (Stories with Intent. A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus) says:

To our knowledge no one else used parables as frequently or as forcefully as Jesus does in the Synoptic Gospels. When parabolic material does appear, it often mirrors the prophetic and confrontational stance of the OT parables. (p.42)

Jesus seems to have used stock characters or motifs in his parables. Many of them are agricultural in flavour (sowing seed, harvesting, growing plants). Some of them relate to family matters or judicial issues. Others focus on construction, fishing, shepherding, and domestic elements (cooking).

In Matthew’s narrative Jesus uses parables from the very beginning of his ministry. The Sermon on the Mount has several. So we should not see Matthew 13 as marking the introduction of parables into Jesus’ ministry as a response to Israel’s rejection of Jesus. Rather, as Blomberg says:

The parables appear here as an important explanation of why the response to Jesus is becoming increasingly polarized and as a prediction of how that polarization will continue to grow.[2]

If a person is already disposed to reject Jesus, then parables serve to increase that spirit of opposition; if a person is disposed to place faith in Jesus, then parables serve to stimulate and provoke interest and deeper reflection. “The understanding of the parables is not so much cognitive as volitional.”[3] In some sense parables permit Jesus to present the message of the Kingdom of God forcefully, but not so forcefully as to coerce the human spirit. The response is still that of faith. In his parables Jesus both reveals and conceals his message simultaneously, maintaining something of the divine mystery embedded in his mission and message.

Considerable discussion has occurred about the “allegorical” interpretation of Jesus’ parables that we find in Matthew 13. Did Jesus offer these or are these the constructions of the early church? I think within the context of the parable genre the secondary level of meaning, which is the more important meaning, often requires explicit definition so that the audience understands the speaker’s message. If the term “allegory” is not appropriate, then we need to find another term. There is nothing inherently peculiar about Jesus’ disciples asking him to explain the meaning of some of his parables, particularly near the beginning of his ministry or at critical transition points. We have to be careful not to read a 21st century understanding of allegory into the first century context. Perhaps one of the contributing factors to the disciples’ struggle to understand is that this method of teaching was not common in first century Palestine and they were not sure about the rules of interpretation. Remember in the OT parables often occurred as parts of dream-visions which God alone could enable humans to interpret.

Parables express subversive ideas. Often some element in the story itself is unusual and will form the basis for the subversive idea being communicated in the second level of meaning. For example, the bizarre behaviour of the young son in Luke’s parable of the Two Sons highlights how some Jewish people have responded to their role as covenant people of God and Jesus intends to shock his audience by his characterization of the younger son in the story.

Finally, I think it is important to interpret the parables within the literary or narrative context that the Gospels provide. We have no other certain context within which to set them and thus to interpret them. Presumably Jesus would share the same story numerous times in his teaching, altering it somewhat as he felt it necessary. He might even use the same story to reflect upon different themes in different contexts.

The Sower and the Soils 13:3-23

Matthew connects the interaction between Jesus and his family and his statement about doing the will of God with the parables. He says “that same day” (v. 1) Jesus addressed the crowds and taught them in parables. Matthew does not specify whose house Jesus was in (cf. 12:46 Jesus is somewhere inside; 13:1 Jesus leaves ‘the house’). The large crowds of people require him to speak from a boat in the water, while they lined the shore.

There are many proposed interpretations of this parable. N.T. Wright, for example, considers this story to be an interpretation of the way God revealed himself to Israel throughout history and the varied responses God received from his people. Others see the parable as a theological statement about why Jewish people are responding to Jesus in diverse ways, explaining which of these variations was, in fact, the right response. Most of us today immediately interpret this parable as a story illustrating how Christians live as disciples.

I think Jesus intends this parable to respond to the controversies narrated in Matthew 12. The struggle to respond correctly occurs in the context of many different kinds of opposition. Sometimes Satan is involved directly; other times he is involved indirectly. For Jesus the critical question is this: people hear the message of the Kingdom, but do not press in to understand it fully. Note the difference in wording between v. 18 and v. 23. In v. 51 Jesus asks his disciples whether “You have understood all these things?” This is the key question. Is this first parable describing failure or success of Jesus’ mission? As the story unfolds the iteration of failures to produce fruit keep mounting. Are the yields in the final category sufficient to enable the farmer to announce a successful harvest? The farmer sows extravagantly; but does he reap in a similar fashion?

The disciples wonder “why Jesus is speaking to the crowds in parables” (v. 10). They seem to regard this form of teaching as unusual. They do not ask him to explain what the parable means. This is their question about the parable of the weeds (v. 36). So in vv. 11-17 (“this is why…” v.13) Jesus gives his explanation and privileges them with a full explanation, revealing what previous prophets and righteous people had longed to see and hear.

He affirms their privilege – “to know the mystery of the kingdom of heaven.” In what sense is it mystery? The idea has apocalyptic roots, particularly in Daniel (2:28, 44; 4:9). God has already prepared his plans; the question is when and how he chooses to reveal them to humanity. Here perhaps it is important to remember that the Father reveals everything to the Son (11:25ff). The inscrutable nature of God’s purposes is also implied. Although the disciples know the secret (whether they realize this or not is another question), the crowds do not. Presumably the crowds still express no committed faith. They see what Jesus does and they hear his teaching, but they have not responded with repentance and committed faith to his invitation to follow. So the parables function simultaneously to reveal and to conceal – presenting the possibility of salvation and incurring judgment upon those who choose not to respond. He illustrates this further in v. 12. Those who have will get more; but, those who do not have, will lose the little may already have. (Is this related to Jesus’ warning not to cast pearls before swine? Or perhaps to Paul’s statements in Romans 1:21ff?) Those who see or hear Jesus and discern nothing extraordinary are in the second category. So Jesus speaks in parables, communicating his message indirectly with them.

Jesus then says in v. 13 “this is why I speak in parables,” summarizing the statement in Isaiah 6:9. All of the Gospels reverse the order found in Isaiah 6:9 – hearing, then seeing. The Gospels uniformly have seeing, then hearing. However, this is the order found in texts such as Jeremiah 5:21. So is Jesus alluding to Isaiah or to Jeremiah in the first instance?  The narrative goes on to reference Isaiah 6:9-10, quoting the LXX form almost verbatim. Matthew’s wording leads us to conclude that this is part of what Jesus says to the disciples. This is not one of the formula quotations. In Mark’s Gospel Isaiah is not mentioned at all as the source and so we are not certain in Mark that Jesus is paraphrasing Isaiah’s or Jeremiah’s words. Regardless, the point Jesus is making is that Israel, as in the time of Isaiah and Jeremiah, sees and hears, but this does not result in understanding (v. 13). Rather, they refuse to repent and discover the forgiveness and healing that Jesus offers to them. Finally, in vv. 16-17 Jesus pronounces the disciples blessed because they have responded. They are in a more privileged position than the prophets of old who yearned to see God at work in this way, but did not.[4] This reflects what Jesus said about John the Baptist in 11:13. His followers are in a unique time in God’s plan of salvation history, a time of fulfillment.

Even though the disciples do not ask for an explanation of this initial parable in Matthew, Jesus nonetheless gives one (vv.18-23). He is very emphatic in v. 18 “You, then, listen to the parable of the sower.” Note the contrast between the first and the fourth categories – hearing and understanding (vv. 19, 23). Hearing also occurs in vv. 20, 22, and some response occurs, but apparently with insufficient understanding so that what sprouts remains fruitless. The issues that prevent fruit from occurring are significant – no understanding, pressure and persecution, wealth and anxiety. Parables of fruitlessness occur in the OT Prophets (e.g. Isa.5).

Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds 13:24-30, 36-43

If the parable of the sower and the soils identified reasons why people were responding to Jesus differently, then the parable of the wheat and the weeds outlines the implications of these various responses. It indicates that there are not ‘four’ different kinds of responses, but essentially two, although the negative responses may arise for varying reasons. I am not sure why the disciples need this parable explained, when according to Matthew the previous one was clear.

While the story line is somewhat unusual, it has a certain logic. How often a person’s enemies would commit such an act is unclear. However, farmers would understand the way that weeds often looked similar to the wheat and the dangers that weeding would pose to the crop.

The interpretation clarifies the references intended by specific elements:

37        sower of good seed                               son of man

38        field                                                     the world

38        good seed                                             sons of the kingdom

38        weeds                                                  sons of the evil one

39        the enemy                                            the slanderer

39        harvest                                                 end of the age

39        harvesters                                            angels

40        gathering of weeds                               judgment at end of the age

41        harvest                                                 son of man sends his angels

What is confusing is the statement in v. 38 ‘the field is the world’ and the statement in v. 41 that “the son of man will send his angels and they will gather from his kingdom all the things that cause offence and those who act lawlessly.” Perhaps we are to understand it this way:

  1. the field, i.e. the world, contains both sons of the Kingdom and the sons of the slanderer.
  2. at the end of the age (v.40) the weeds, i.e. unbelievers, in the world are gathered and condemned.
  3. at the end of the age (v.41) the kingdom, as it is perceived from the human perspective, is purged of those who have infiltrated but who do not truly believe. As in the parable of the soils, there is ‘sprouting and some growth’ in response to the word, but there is not necessarily perseverance.

I am not sure we should press too quickly to affirm that the kingdom and the messianic assembly are two distinct things. However, what is clear is that no false believers will be permitted to participate as a kingdom member beyond a certain point. At some point the Son of Man will make the boundaries of his kingdom perfectly coincident with the boundaries of the messianic assembly.

Again Jesus emphasizes the strongly divergent outcomes that revolve around the response to himself and his message. God will assess all humanity and it is a person’s relationship with the Messiah that marks his or her ultimate destiny. The outcome for the unbelieving is gruesome. For those who believe, “they shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v. 43).

In between the parable and its interpretation Jesus offers two more, much shorter analogies to the kingdom – grain of mustard seed and yeast hidden in the loaf. In both cases Jesus emphasizes that the present form of the Kingdom may seem singularly unimpressive, but the outcome will be more significant than many imagine. These analogies also emphasize, as do the two more extensive parables, the presence of the Kingdom and its activity in the world. It is effective.

Matthew inserts the editorial comment in vv. 34-35 that Jesus used parables consistently in speaking to the crowds. But in this activity, Jesus fulfilled what the psalmist (in this case Asaph who is called “the prophet”) wrote (78:2). This is the eighth of ten formula quotations in Matthew’s narrative. It claims that the parables are revelatory and that Jesus knows the “hidden things of God” as no other (cf. 11:27).

This Psalm criticizes the rebellious spirit that marked Israelite history. “Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel” (v. 40). “Like their fathers they were disloyal and faithless, as unreliable as a faulty bow” (v. 56). It goes on to remind Israel that God became so angry that “He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh,…He gave his people over to the sword” (vv. 60-61). It ends by declaring that God “chose David his servant…and David shepherded them with integrity of heart” (vv. 70-72). The psalmist considers this rehearsal of Israel’s relationship with God as “parables” and as he narrates the story he “utters things hidden from old” (v. 2), i.e., helps his audience discern God’s purposes and intent in Israel’s history. If a reference like this in Matthew’s Gospel is intended to bring the larger context of the Old Testament passage into view, then the use of parables in response to the negative reaction towards Jesus from Israel’s leaders would be consistent with the message of this entire Psalm. Jesus, as the one to whom God is revealing all things (11:25-27), now shares what God is doing in him through parables. However, the pattern of Israel’s response to God’s actions is being repeated. Just as God became angry in the past, even to the point of destroying Shiloh and then generated a new means of accomplishing his plans, so God now in Jesus is developing a new segment of his plan. This quotation points the Matthew’s audience to an OT text that provides a heuristic frame of reference to understand what God is doing in Israel through Jesus.

Parables Spoken to the Disciples 13:44-50

The last three parables Jesus tells to his disciples. The first two focus on the issue of discipleship in the kingdom and the need for total commitment to something as valuable as the Kingdom. Both characters in the parables discover something of immense value and sell everything they own in order to possess the treasure. Whether one stumbles across the truth or is relentlessly seeking it, the action is the same when the discovery occurs. They understand the value of what they have discovered and act upon it. One of the pending questions is whether others in Israel will in fact discern the treasure that is present among them, as apparently the Twelve are doing.

In the parable of the net, Jesus picks up themes he has already expressed in the parable of the wheat and weeds. Earlier in the narrative Jesus has talked about making his disciples “fishers of people” (4:19). However, in this parable Jesus identifies the ‘angels’ at the end of the age as the ones who sort the ‘righteous ones’ from the ‘evil ones’ (v. 49; cf. 12:33 and the fruit of trees). Jesus again describes a terrible punishment for those who are evil – fiery furnace – weeping and grinding of teeth. It seems that true and hypocritical respondents to the gospel co-exist in the earthly manifestation of the Kingdom reality “until the end of the age.” The messianic community (Matthew 18) is given some instruction on how to exercise discernment in matters of discipline, but ultimately it will be the ruler of the Kingdom (the Son of Man) who finally will distinguish the righteous from the evil (7:15-23 – wolves in sheep’s clothing). Why does Jesus essentially repeat this instruction from the parable of the Weeds and Wheat?

Conclusion 13:51-52

Jesus concludes his private session with his disciples by asking whether they understand “all these things?” They answer affirmatively. Whether this is the case will emerge in the last half of the Gospel narrative. They belong to the children to whom God is revealing his wisdom (11:25-26). They are discerning the mystery of the Kingdom (13:11). Their association with Jesus gives them access to knowledge of God that previously was unavailable. Because of what they are learning, being discipled, they become ‘scribal teachers’, the new experts in discerning God’s program and understanding his revelation in Jesus. Nolland notes that scribes also had a judicial function.[5] This requires a careful ability to review the previous revelations from God (the old) and discern from that what should continue to be relevant in the light of the new things God is doing in the Messiah (cf. Matthew 18)

The metaphor of the ‘landowner’ or ‘master of the household’ (v. 52) occurred previously in v. 27 (cf. 24:45). The scribe has treasure (cf. vs. 44-46) gained from his commitment as disciple and faith-based understanding of God’s work in Jesus. He shares this treasure with others. This is the expectation Jesus has for his followers in 28:18-20.

Matthew marks the end of this discourse, as others, with the words “And it happened when Jesus finished these parables, he left there” (v. 53).

[1] Craig Evans, “Parables in Early Judaism”, Chapter 3 in The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables, edited by Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2000): 51-75.

[2] Blomberg, Matthew, 212.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Compare 1 Peter 1:10-12.

[5] Nolland, Matthew, 570.