In 1985 D. A. Carson published a short note in New Testament Studies 31 (277-82) entitled “The homoios Word-Group as Introduction to Some Matthean Parables.” His question was quite simple — why does the writer of Matthew’s Gospel use aorist indicative passive (13:24; 18;23; 22:2) and future indicative passive (7:24, 26; 25:1) forms of the verb homoiō in the introduction to various parables? These forms of homoiō do not occur in the Gospels of Mark or Luke (only future active forms (Mk. 4:30;Lk. 7:31; 13:18,20). Much more frequently the authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel began parables with an equative verb + the adjective homoios (e.g., Mt. 13:31, 33; Lk.6:49; 7:32). This usage does not occur in Mark’s Gospel.
As Carson noted “the question is overlooked in the commentaries, monographs, and journal literature” (277). I am not sure that the situation has changed in the ensuing 35 years. Davies and Allison, Matthew II ICC (1994, 411) discuss it and, echoing Carson’s conclusion, agree that “it seems likely that the aorist is used when the main emphasis is upon what the kingdom has already become, the future when the consummation is the principle focus.” Nolland, Matthew NIGTC (2005, 544) notes Carson’s article and acknowledges his conclusion regarding the sense of the aorist passive forms, but then quickly says that “the constraints of English idiom” lead to a translation such as “‘is like’.” However, in the case of the future passives he renders them as “will be like” (his own translation). The NIV (2011 edition) uses “is like” for all of these passive forms, except at 25.1 (“will be like”). The NRSV (1989) follows a different path, using “may be compared” as the translation for the aorist passive forms and “will be like” to render the future passives. What are we to make of the way commentators and translators are handling these passive verb forms? What is lost in the meaning if we fail to recognize the sense of the aorist or future in these contexts?
We should note that when this verb homoiō does occur as an aorist passive construction, its meaning is something akin to “become like/be like the case of….” In other words this verb has a deponent passive, not a normal passive function.
The first instance of an aorist passive construction occurs in the introduction to the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds in Matt. 13:24. This follows immediately upon Jesus’ description of the Parable of the Sower and Soils in 13:10-23. Having described four different responses to himself and his message, only one of which “bears fruit,” Jesus reveals through the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds what the spiritual situation in the world has become like (13:24). The primary characters in both parables are farmers planting their crops and what happens to the seed during the growing season. By using similar story motifs, Jesus links these two parables and their message together (at least in Matthew’s presentation). The second parable in this sequence explains what “the kingdom of heaven has become like” due to the actions of Jesus and Satan, as Jesus interpretation reveals in 13:36-43). The interpretation first describes what the current spiritual situation of human society has become like (13:37-39) and then shifts to describe a future event, i.e. harvest, when the owner of the field deals with the wheat and weeds in quite different ways. However, the present state of “the wheat and weeds” determines their treatment during the harvest period.
Matthew’s second usage occurs in the introduction to the parable of “The Unmerciful Servant” (18:23). Jesus is responding to Peter’s question about how many times should the Messiah’s followers be prepared to forgive others (18:21-22). The parable provides additional rationale for Jesus’ answer. The writer signals that the parable is a response by introducing it with the adverbial phrase “for this reason” (dia touto). He then states “the kingdom of heaven has become like the case of a person, a king, who…” (13:23). The logic seems to be that because the kingdom of heaven now exists in this manner, those who are part of it must transform their conduct accordingly. Participants in the current phase of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus will display these kingdom values, i.e., God’s values, in their behaviour.
We see similar logic operating in the third instance in 22.2. The context is the running dispute that Jesus has with the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem because of his actions in the temple (Matt. 21-12-17). They challenge his authority to take such drastic actions. Jesus responds with a sequence of three parables in Matthew’s account. The first parable is that of “The Two Sons” (21:28-31), a kind of case study that criticizes their failure to heed John the Baptist’s message. He follows this with the parable of “The Tenant Farmers” (21:33-44), in which criticizes their failure to respond to many of the messengers that Yahweh previously sent and refusal to accept now “his son,” the heir. Judgment will be swift. In 21:45 the writer tells us that these religious leaders knew that Jesus was speaking about them. They want to arrest him, but dare not because of the crowds. Jesus responds directly to them with his third parable, “The King and the Marriage Feast” (22:1-14). In this case “the kingdom of heaven has become like the case of a person, a king who…” (the same wording used at 18.23). He seeks to warn them that their behaviour towards him shows terrible ignorance, because “the kingdom of heaven has become like…” The kingdom is present and they are not discerning the new kingdom reality. As a result they reject the invitation of the king to the marriage banquet he has prepared for his son. Events are already in motion and if they ignore the signs, they will be left out.
There is insufficient space in this blog article to consider in any detail those parables introduced by the future passive tense-form of this verb (7:24, 26; 25:1), but they uniformly point forward to how people’s current response to the new kingdom reality determines their future relationship with the kingdom of heaven and its king — “the kingdom of heaven shall become like ten virgins…” (note the time indicator tote in 25:1).
It seems that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel was intentional in his use of this verb in its various tense-forms and we should not ignore the sense their usage in these six contexts. It is another question whether Jesus himself introduced these parables with such verb forms or Aramaic verb forms that would communicate a similar sense. For an appropriate interpretation of Jesus’ parables it is important to pay attention the language used as well as the literary context in which the writers set them.