Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom)
Note on Parables: Teaching using parables was a signature method for Jesus. That Matthew has a long discourse precede Jesus speaking in parables reflects more his own editorial work than the mixture of teaching using parables and aphorisms that probably characterized Jesus teaching ministry. Here are a couple of extended quotations that help orient us to reading parables. The word “parable” literally means “to throw alongside” and underlies their comparative and revelatory function. These short narratives show something about God’s empire by engaging the imagination and challenging conventional perspectives. They often draw from everyday, peasant life, but an unexpected twist underlies the surprising, gracious, demanding and countercultural nature of god’s reign. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). Parables are an interactive form of teaching…. They tease the mind into active thought and engage the listener in the question, “What do you think?” But, additionally, they probably not only led hearers to think privately to themselves about their meaning, but also provoked interaction among the hearers and between the hearers and Jesus. (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 153) I remember how fascinated I was with scholarly work on the parables during my New Testament class in seminary. Some well-known scholars were working with the parables of Jesus at that time (the early 1980s), people like John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk. Parables are meant to provoke thought. If these are among the most characteristic methods in Jesus’ teaching, do you think Jesus remains interested in provoking thought, in encouraging a thoughtful faith? I do.
Note on the kingdom of God: The parables in this chapter are primarily “about” “the kingdom of God” (“about” is in quotes because being good stories parables can have more than a single meaning). These parables invite us to ask how the kingdom of God is like what is going on in the story. In his most recent book, Jesus, Marcus Borg argues that “Jesus’ mission and message were not about ‘heaven,” not about how to attain a blessed afterlife.” Rather, Jesus’ “mission was about the character of God, the way of centering in God, and the kingdom of God.” (p. 143, 144). Borg notes that Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as a substitute for “kingdom of God.” This was in keeping with a common Jewish reverential practice to about using “God” as much as possible. Borg contends that there is widespread agreement among scholars about certain aspects of the kingdom of God. This kingdom was not for the afterlife, but for the earth. “As a political-religious metaphor, the kingdom of God referred to what life would be like on earth if God were king” (Borg, 187). “The kingdom of God was not only for the earth, but involved a transformed world. It is a blessed state of affairs, a utopia brought about by God, God’s dream for the earth…. It means the end of injustice and violence. Everybody will have enough, and nations will not make war on nations anymore” (187). One of my favorite ways to talk about the kingdom of God is to see it as God’s dream for the world. The gospels are all pretty clear in claiming that Jesus taught that the kingdom of God had come near in the work of Jesus. The gospel writers argue that God indeed was up to something in Jesus. God’s kingdom, God’s dream was breaking into history. There is disagreement among New Testament scholars about whether Jesus (and early Christians) thought that God’s kingdom would fully arrive in the near future. They also disagree about the role of human response to Jesus in making that dream for the world more real.
Chapter 13 in context: Chapter 13 in Matthew follows chapter 12 (chapter 13 in any book follows chapter 12!) and chapter 12 portrayed a growing conflict between Jesus who was both teaching about the nearness of God’s kingdom and making it happen as he healed people and some of the significant religious leaders of his day. Such a conflict was still going on between followers of Jesus and other Jews in the time of Matthew. Crowds were following Jesus, for the power of his teaching and for the power that seemed to come from his person. He pushes out into a boat to continue teaching, and here he uses stories to say more about the kingdom of God. He has already described much of the content of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount, which Brian McLaren calls “Jesus kingdom manifesto” (McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, 117). With stories/parables Jesus now seems to be teaching about the dynamics of the kingdom – how it comes, how it is received, rather than its content. I hope that distinction makes some sense.
Matthew 13:1-23: In these verses we have a parable, an explanation of why Jesus taught using parables and an explanation of the parable itself. The parable itself is probably the part of these verses that goes back to Jesus himself. That does not mean the other parts are unimportant or uninspired, only that they represent faithful response to the parable-telling Jesus, and invite our response. The parable of the sower is well-known. The most common interpretation is that we want to be “good soil” so that the word of Jesus (the seed sown) yields a wonderful harvest. I think that is one helpful meaning. Jesus might have told the story to again indicate that his own ministry, when it met with receptive hearts, brought forth good things – healing, freeing, forgiving. While we might want to be good soil, the story also leads me to ask, “How am I to be like the sower?” Maybe as a follower of Jesus my primary task is to keep sowing the same seeds of love and healing Jesus sowed, knowing that not all will bear fruit, but that some will. Jesus is asked why he speaks in parables. One can imagine that this question reverberates through the centuries. Why couldn’t Jesus just spell everything out instead of telling stories which inevitably evoke multiple interpretations? Maybe because the way God works to make God’s dream come alive in the world has more to do with stories than with checklists. Stories invite imaginative engagement, checklists invite following a linear progression. Maybe God’s kingdom can be found that way, but more often it is found as one finds oneself inside a story. When you get that, you can get even more. If you don’t you may hear, but you won’t finally be changed. This story encourages me to ask myself, “How’s the soil of my heart?” and “How am I doing sowing seeds.” In asking these questions, the kingdom of God draws a little nearer. Eyes that see and ears that hear are blessed. An interpretation of the parable is offered. It is a good one, but if we are to take the form of parable seriously, it cannot be the only interpretation of the story.
Matthew 13:24-30: It helps in understanding this parable to know that there is a wheatlike weed (darnel, cheat) that is common in the Near East. An explanation is offered in verses 36-43, but as with the previous parable, we should acknowledge that this would be but one interpretation of the parable. The parable itself is about different kinds of seeds sown and about the intermingling of wheat and weeds. Only at some future time will an ultimate distinction be able to be made. The parable takes a gentle attitude in the present toward the weeds, perhaps encouraging us to be more cautious in our judgments (as in 7:1-5). At some point in the future that which was grown from good seed will be appropriately gathered and the weeds sown from bad seed will be burned. This is metaphoric language and we should be careful not to bring to it too much of our preconceived theology. Many of us grew up with notions of a place of eternal punishment, a hell, that was fiery. It is not so clear that this is what Jesus has in mind here. He is merely asserting that at some time that which is evil will get tossed aside as trash to be burned.
Matthew 13:31-32: Here we have another seed parable, but one very different in kind. God’s kingdom often comes in small, quiet ways, which can later burst forth with amazing abundance. When God’s dream blooms, there will be room for many birds of the air.
Matthew 13:33: Another image with a similar message, though the image would have been startling. It would have startled in two ways. The kingdom comes in the work of a woman – this image in a society where women were not considered the equals of men. The kingdom comes like yeast – this in a society in which yeast was almost exclusively used as a negative image. Jesus will use whatever images he can to open up his listeners to the remarkable work of God in the world. The work of God in the world, God’s dream, may include people we would not expect.
Matthew 13:34-35: Matthew inserts another theological reflection on parabolic teaching. Once again he makes use of the Hebrew Scriptures to help understand the significance of Jesus.
Matthew 13:36-43: The parable of the wheat and the weeds is given explanation, but only to the disciples. Seeds become people – good and bad. Let me offer two suggestions for consideration. In this context, Jesus is speaking words of assurance to those who are “good seed” – “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” It reminds me of a passage in the Buddhist Scripture The Dhammapada. “So amid the wretched, blinded ordinary folk, among them who have turned to rubbish, the disciple of the Fully Awakened One shines surpassingly with wisdom.” That word of assurance is primary. Another consideration I offer is to focus on the phrase “all causes of sin” as the primary point of judgment. If that is the focus, we recognize that within our own lives we sow seeds that produce wheat (love, joy, kindness, justice) and that produce weeds (hatred, prejudice, favoritism, exclusivity). In the end, what we ourselves have sown will be revealed, and we will know that parts of our lives will need to be put on the burning rubbish heap, even as parts will help us shine. One final word, from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: “Again, the Gospel regrettably uses imperial goals (destroying all adversaries) and patriarchal images to picture God’s empire.”
Matthew 13:44: One might stumble across God’s kingdom as upon a treasure hidden in a field. With joy, we find ways to respond appropriately to this amazing discovery. Where have you “stumbled into grace?”
Matthew 13:45-46: Sometimes we find God’s kingdom as we actively seek after it, and when we find it it is even better that we imagined, and we give ourselves to it fully.
Matthew 13:47-50: God’s kingdom stretches far and wide, like a fish net bringing in all kinds of fish. Necessary sorting occurs, and again strong images are used – furnace of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth. That evil needs to be seen for what it is, in some ultimate context is important. These stark images remind us of that and perhaps are best left as that, stark images reminding us of something important. Again, if we recognize that within us exist both good and bad fish, we understand that part of the task of the Christian life is to let the transforming power of God’s Spirit work in us so that we produce more of what is truly lasting and valuable, and less “garbage.”
Matthew 13:51-53: Here the disciples tell Jesus that they have understood. This will be a contrast to Mark’s gospel, where the disciples are often portrayed as misunderstanding Jesus. When you begin to get it, you can bring out what you need – old and new. Maybe this is a good parable for reading the Scriptures. As we let the Spirit of Jesus inspire our reading, we can build on what we have learned in the past, but also be open to new viewpoints which help form in us that Spirit of Jesus.
Matthew 13:54-58: Much of the teaching of Jesus has to do with seeing things in new ways, in a new light. The people of his hometown could not see Jesus as anything more than the son of his mother and father, and the brother of his brothers. They can’t imagine where he was getting all this “wisdom” and “power.” Because they were not open to new possibilities, new possibilities were shut off for them. There is a danger when our Jesus becomes too familiar. It is good to read and hear the stories again and again and ask what might be new about them.