Matthew’s entire discussion about Jesus’ parable-teaching is worth our close attention. Earlier on, as Jesus was just beginning his ministry – in the wake of John’s arrest and incarceration, he went a short way up a mountain, sat down, and “opened his mouth” in teaching. The phrase “opened his mouth” is given its Old Testament anchorage by Matthew (13:34-35) in connection with Psalm 78:2 – and in this sense the law and the prophet were indeed coming to fulfilment in Jesus’ parables, his proverbs, his wise teaching. Indeed, that is what he had said: he had come to fulfil the law and the prophets (5:17-20).
We can even go so far as to say that Matthew 5-7 (coupled together, perhaps, with the Epistle of James) is the New Testament’s updating of the Proverbs of Solomon, the definitive version as given by the True Son of David.
Matthew’s discussion of what we have come to call “the parables of Jesus” gives every indication that he understood that this teaching is the definitive fulfilment of the so-called Old Testament Wisdom Literature. Therefore we should not approach them as if they are something of an altogether different literary classification from the Psalms and Proverbs. The Hebrew term for The Proverbs of Solomon [מָשָׁ֣לי] is translated in the Septuagint rendering of Psalm 78 as “parable” [παραβολαῖς].
We note that he not only “sat down” to teach from a boat, when convening a meeting of his open sea-side synagogue, but the passage from Isaiah (6:9-10) that Matthew quotes (13:14-16):
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
is a Messianic passage. It concludes with a reminder that though the tree of God’s people have proved to be so barren, the “holy seed” is yet the stump of this seeming fruitless tree (Isaiah 6:13).
And that raises the question: why does our reading of Matthew at the point where Jesus replies to the question of his “inner circle” suggest such a harsh judgment upon the multitudes in comparison with the elevation Jesus ascribes to his closest disciples? The disciples came asking:
Why do you keep on teaching them parables? (13:10)
He answered this by saying:
This is because the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven have been given to you, but to them it has not been given (11).
So, as we consider the parables that are presented here (in Matthew 13), we are made privy to the questions of the twelve about Jesus’ teaching and of the answers Jesus gave. The sower parable expounded indiscriminately to the multitude – like the seed of this sower – becomes a means by which Jesus explains to his “inner circle disciples” – those he has specifically subjected to his eye-ball to eye-ball nurture – that they are the prepared ground who are therefore expected to bring forth 100, 60 and 30 fold. This implies their responsibility for the ongoing education of the multitude to continue what Jesus has begun.
So here there is further parabolic subtlety in Jesus’ “close up” explanation to his “inner circle”, presumably Matthew is referring to “the twelve”. They too are still view when Matthew recounts the application of Isaiah 6 (and God’s perpetual faithfulness to the “holy seed”) and then also of Psalm 78 (13:34-35). The disciples are portrayed as construing the parables for “them” (i.e. the crowds) and yet they are those who are having their ears unblocked and their eyes opened.
To us, Matthew depicts Jesus the teacher implicitly suggesting to the twelve that they have a task to think about the parable and to work it out for themselves in terms of the work that he has already commissioned them to undertake (10:1). This is not a “free-for-all” where any retelling of the parable is as good as any other. It is a call to discipled circumspection, to corporate consideration and discussion – to listen and to digest. To heed the word of the Lord and to do it.
But then Matthew tells us that the work of interpreting what is conveyed by the parable of the sower should not be allowed to distract those learning about the Kingdom of Heaven from the “the state of the world”, and how we are called to understand it.
Now, says Jesus, I have given you a parable to think about all the dimensions of the work I have been engaged upon in sowing the seed here in this setting and thus all the work that you will undertake in following after me. Here I am as a sower … but what is the Kingdom of God like?
And he then proceeds to tell the crowds how the rule of the Lord God makes itself manifest in this world, creation. Matthew tells us that it was concerning the first of these three parables (of Wheat and Weeds) that when the “inner circle” were alone with Jesus they asked him to explain it further. Keep in mind that their initial question, as Matthew records it after the parable of the sower, was not about the content of the parable but why Jesus taught “them” in parables. Jesus then went on to explain the parable in detail. But here, with Wheat and Weeds, the disciples have decided to come and ask Jesus for his explanation.
Is Matthew drawing attention to the fact that of all the parables Jesus gave out to the crowds, this one intrigued the most? They were keen to get the “inside” teaching about its meaning. This one, along with the third in a set of three subsequent parables listed by Matthew – the Kingdom of God is Like a Big Fishing Drag-net (13:47-50) –
the other two are: The Field with Hidden Treasure (13:44) and The Pearl of Great Price (13:45-46)
refers to the separation between the good and the bad fish, the faithful and the faithless, the obedient and the disobedient.
In the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, the Kingdom of Heaven involves workers in the field of the Landowner who has sown the good seed who are the children of the Kingdom. Will the workers then proceed to pull up the weeds that have been sown by the Landowner’s enemy? Is that what his servants are called to do? Not at all. It is a parable about worker obedience in the shadow of the Landowner’s patience. He is patient in his waiting for harvest at the right time and his workers should image him in this. Activistic impatience can only proceed in the shadow of his enemy, who is bent on avoiding judgment. And thus the parable is given to Jesus’ disciples – are they going to be the faithful servants of the Landowner who image their employer by maintaining due patience? Are they going to ensure that they do all they can to bring the good seed, the children of the Kingdom, to maturity and hence to the harvest?
And then there is the Mustard Seed parable, which tells of the manner in which the Kingdom of God grows, under rules that God has been pleased to ensure that his creation prospers. And the same goes for the Mixed Yeast parable. The yeast also works according to its own creaturely character but it needs to be patiently and thoroughly “mixed” if its bounty is to be properly enjoyed as it is destined to be, at the right time, the time when the loaf is fully cooked and ready to be taken out of the oven.
Mustard Seed tells of the wisdom of the Lord. How did this man actually plant this mustard seed? (We are told that it is the smallest of all seeds 13:32). We are not told. Luke’s account of a similar parable has the man throwing it into his garden – on the occasion that that version was taught we might have asked whether it was thrown out with the household dust, growing through a self-seeding action. Here Matthew might seem to give us a picture of a man reverently carrying this tiniest of all seeds and painstakingly digging a hole for it, gently placing it within, and presumably watering it. In comparison to the seed that can only be seen by squinting at it, the man is a colossus.And yet in doing this, and in respecting the tiniest of seeds, he takes his place in a process that decisively adds to the life of the birds which live and sing within the tree.
Mixed Yeast is a picture of a competent cooking technique. That too is part of what is called forth in the Kingdom of Heaven. The mustard seed germinates according to the creator’s timetable; the yeast in the dough takes time to work but then the action of mixing it thoroughly by a human agent is a necessary pre-requisite for the finished product.
In this context, where the Kingdom of Heaven is depicted in terms of a peculiar kind of patience, Matthew seems to be suggesting that the “inner circle” were being taught to think again about the ethnic instincts that somehow God stands in need of their assistance for his Kingdom to come and his will to be down on earth as it is in heaven. But Jesus may appeal to zealots, but discipleship is drawn in terms of a persistent, God-imaging ethic of patience and mercy.
And then, as if for good measure, Matthew adds three more parables – The Treasure in the Field, The Pearl of Great Price – what is the Kingdom of Heaven to those who are entering into its realm? – and The Fisherman’s Net. Our understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven can gain clarity by looking carefully at what fisherman need to do when they are confronted with a big catch. The good and the bad will indeed be sorted. It is not going to be an end of age when good and bad are merged, but rather when they are to be finally separated. This too was the message of the Wheat and the Weeds.
In the Fisherman’s Catch, the final parable Matthew lists for us here, we are reminded again of the political context in which Jesus was teaching, because John the Baptist, then in prison, had also taught by parable about the final judgment that is to be inaugurated by the coming of the Son of Man. The trees that do not bear fruit according to their purpose are for the chop (3:10); the chaff will be separated from the wheat and will be consumed by fire (3:12). And here Jesus shifts the metaphor to the fishing industry – it is the same message. A big and final sorting is on the way. Matthew suggests here that Jesus continues to teach in a line developed by John. We are reminded what he has suggested earlier about Jesus’ ministry of mercy to those suffering grief and anxiety now that John had been imprisoned – now that the life of “the voice crying in the wilderness” hangs by a thread. It is in that context that Matthew tells us that Jesus’ developed his ministry of parables to the multitudes and to his “inner circle”.
Matthew tells us what Jesus had to say his “close-up” or “inner-circle” disciples. These were proverbial stories, cracking good tales to get them thinking about what’s what in the Kingdom of Heaven. We have what Matthew has recounted of this “learning and teaching” phase of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew 13. The passage begins with the famous parable of the sower but includes others as well as well as the discussion provoked “up close” by the disciples. So, Matthew recounts that when he asked them whether they understood his parables, they were eager to tell him they were indeed following every word. He held their attention. He was their good teacher.
“Sure thing! We’re on the same page as you are, Lord!” (13:51)
And Jesus’ reply was this:
Therefore every scribe [we might say story-telling journalist] who is well schooled in the Kingdom of Heaven is himself like a living parable, just like the householder who puts her treasure on display from all she has, old and new (see Matthew 13:52).
As we have suggested, this seems to have described how Matthew came to understand his Gospel-writing vocation.