Matthew 13 Parables Explained
Some of the issues the reader encounters in Matthew 13 are how to understand the seven or eight parables found in this chapter and how to utilize the explanation when there is one as with the Sower and the weeds.
How to understand the two OT quotes from Isaiah and Psalms.
The first is Isaiah’s commission to tell the people not to understand or perceive and to have dull hearts in Isaiah 6. Then comes Asaph’s Psalm 78 example of mashal, a common Semitic teaching tool. Mashal are pithy metaphors or similes. It was translated into Greek in LXX and NT original Greek as parabole. That word became parable in the English translations of the OT and NT.
What is a mashal or parable? They are stories or similes taken from everyday examples as found in farming, fishing, gardening, baking or in the marketplace. All of these venues were in plain view in or near the village house and beach where Jesus stayed and kept their boat during this healing and teaching session in Galilee. The audience is the twelve immediate disciples, the extended disciples and the multitudes.
Jesus’ parables were about his message of the kingdom of God which he had already initiated from the beginning of his ministry. It officially began when he was baptized by John the Baptist. It was there that God announced that Jesus is God’s perfect Son. From that point, Jesus called his disciples and gave his first sermon at the mount. He told other parables before Matthew 13 (fishers of men 4:19, sermon parables using salt, light, birds of air, lilies, the sparrow, the gate, trees and fruit, etc. (see Matthew 6-12).
Jesus’ parables were readily understood as we see at the end of his ministry. He says at his arrest prior to the trial before the Sanhedrin, that he spoke plainly to them in the Temple every day during the passion week, his last on Earth. He had spoken plainly before; in the Matthew 13 explanations and after Matthew 13 starting with chapter 15 and so on. Chapter 18, in fact, has both forms of teaching.
A little background.
The chiasmus was also a popular form of teaching or rhetoric in Biblical times and is often found in both testaments. Typically found in lists of seven or eight statements, chiasmus involves paralleling the first few statements with restatements in the last few. The middle one or two are the main point. In Matthew 13 which focuses on having the right faith, the middle one or two similes are the leaven and the treasure. Some additional explanation is embedded between them in a powerful position in the chapter. Matthew says that Jesus used plain speech and parables not only to fulfill prophecy but to explain things previously hidden to them. Specifically, the nature of his message of the kingdom of God and mission, including death and resurrection and ascension. He also explains the weeds parable, which is about believers and non-believers, especially deceivers, co-existing in the world until the Parousia (Second Coming). Back to the central part of this chiasmus, the leaven and the treasure. The leaven in flour represents Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God in the heart of the believer and how it pervades their life ever increasingly over time. This word in one’s heart and life is a wonderful gift and is treasured by those that find it. The simile of the treasure in the field shows that it is worth investing all one has. That means one’s life and possessions. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus’ parables were straightforward without intent to deceive with rhetorical devices such as tricky questions, all-or-nothing thinking, appeal to authority, ad hominem, etc.
The two parables, sower and weeds are straightforward because Jesus explains them. The Sower is explained right in front of the crowd. The disciples have faith. Therefore they want to go deeper in their understanding and application. They have already borne fruit as the good soil receiving Jesus’ message of the kingdom, the word. Jesus is the Word, see John 1. He speaks God’s words. He is God (see John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, Luke 8:11). The seed is the word of God, Jesus and his word. Luke is the master of understatement. Too much focus may be placed on the parable and allegorizing the elements of the parable and missing the point. Jesus, standing on the boat, preaching to the multitude. He is the sower. The seed is his message. The field is the crowd. Different people like soils receive the message and react differently. Some do not receive it, some do not persevere and others persevere going on to reproduce their faith onto others and grow stronger in the faith (see 1 John 2:22 and James 2:17). True faith perseveres and has results, but it begins with receiving the word, the message of Jesus and his kingdom. He explains it.
Before Jesus explains the parable, he tells his listeners why he is teaching that way. He had before. Fishers of men, Sermon items include salt, light, birds of the air. Lilies. The narrow gate. Trees and fruit. The house on rock. Foxes and birds have nests. The well does not need a physician. Wedding guests. Cloth wineskins. Harvest plentiful like sheep, sparrows, the sword, the cross. His yoke. A kingdom divided, a strong man’s house. Trees and fruit, the Sign of Jonah. The unclean spirit story. His disciples are his family. (Matthew 4:19 and 6-12)
Later he asks why they are arresting him, he spoke plainly to them in the Temple everyday. (Matthew 26:55)
Why does Jesus refer to Isaiah 6?
There is a message that runs from Isaiah to Revelation related to warnings and judgment. The wilderness experience with Moses led eventually to the promised land. After that under Saul, David and Solomon, the glory days of Israel arrived. However, then the kingdom was split. The northern kingdom was exiled to Assyria. God then planned the discipline of the Babylonian captivity. Isaiah was not assigned to gain their repentance in Judah to avoid captivity, but to allow it to happen. Isaiah was told to tell the people to keep on hearing and not understand. He also explained the good news to take place after the end of the captivity. God’s history repeats itself. After the rejection of Jesus, at AD 70, Rome chased the Jews out of Palestine to places like Asia Minor where the major churches in Anatolia were taught by Apostle John. They too needed to persevere to keep their lamp stand, i.e. their churches. Jesus in Matthew 13 was there to spread the word of the kingdom already mentioned in 4:17, 24. In earlier chapters, the Pharisees had rejected him. He was using all of his skills to reach as many as possible in the time he had left. Jesus was not hiding anything. He was not encoding it for many years later. His audience understood what Isaiah was talking about in Isaiah 6 and they might avoid it.
Psalm 78’s writer Asaph
One of David’s song writers, has written in this Psalm one-to-one examples of Israel’s disobedience matched to God’s faithfulness. By mentioning Psalm 78, Matthew reminds the reader of God’s faithfulness and Jesus’ call to the multitude to believe and be faithful. “He said nothing to them without a parable,” means his teaching included parables to help communicate the message of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ kingdom which is not of this world. It has no earthly ruler. He rules. King of Kings. Lord of Lords. He is the all high God equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The Parable of the Weeds.
It is appropriate to explain this privately because it applies to those who are living the life of faith. Jesus indeed explains it so let us go straight to the explanation. Note, he doesn’t explain some elements. They are not important to his point or points. There are two groups, the sons of the kingdom who receive his word and the sons of Satan who receive his message. This second group includes Pharisaic legalists, Gnostics, leaders with selfish motives. The end of the age is when the literal angels will assemble the wicked and the wicked will be destroyed. This destruction has not happened. When it does the righteous will join the kingdom. See Revelation 19-22. In Thessalonians, Paul explains that the righteous dead and living will meet Jesus in the atmosphere. It will be paradise unlike anything imaginable in this age. A totally new existence. A totally new earth and a new heaven not separated by a sea but combined.
The barn is not explained. The field is not the church. It is the world. The fiery furnace is the Lake of Fire, ie Hell.
The other parables are examples of how faith grows individually and corporately to the benefit of mankind. Individuals understand it and treasure it. At the end, the wicked and righteous will be separated like sheep and goats and get their just reward. Their righteousness has its basis in faith. Real faith.
The disciples should know the old testament and the new testament and teach wisely and faithfully as servants of God not for their own gain. The residents of Nazareth exemplify a life without faith. They receive nothing and they reject Jesus. What they did have, they lose.
That is what Jesus taught in the Matthew 13 parables. Have faith and persevere in the life of deeper growth and understanding. He who has faith will be given more. The faithless will understand even less.
Part 2 Lee’s teaching on Mt. 13 (to be continued)