SCRIPTURE: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
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VERSES 13-33, 44-52: A COLLECTION OF PARABLES
This is a collection of five or six parables (depending on how we count vv. 51-52) of the kingdom of heaven –– each including the words, "the Kingdom of Heaven is like." These parables do not describe the kingdom in a systematic way, but show us a series of snapshots taken from different perspectives. No single picture is definitive, but each provides a glimpse that adds to our understanding.
VERSES 31-33: PARABLES OF GROWTH
31He set another parable before them, saying, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; 32which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches."
33He spoke another parable to them. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, until it was all leavened."
"He set another parable before them" (v. 31a). Both the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven contrast the smallness of the kingdom with the greatness of its effects.
What could be less significant than a baby in a manger –– or little Israel, a vassal of mighty Rome –– or a Jew from Nazareth and a handful of not-very-promising disciples –– or a cross? What could be less significant than a little village church? We expect to find the kingdom in cathedrals and mega-churches, but these parables suggest that the real kingdom-power is to be found in the humblest places among the least likely people.
And, over the past two millennia, we have seen the proof. Today, the Roman Empire appears only in history books and crumbling ruins, but people sing Jesus' praises all over the world.
VERSES 31-32: THE PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds" (vv. 31b-32a). The mustard seed is tiny, but is not, in fact, the smallest of all seeds –– its small size is proverbial.
"But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs" (v. 32b). This parable offers hope, promising great outcomes from small beginnings. Jesus intended to encourage the first disciples, who faced daunting odds, and this parable continues to encourage disciples today. Most of the church's work gets done in inauspicious circumstances. Our mission seems overwhelming, and our resources seem too few. But Jesus promises that God's power makes everything possible.
"and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches" (v. 32c). The shrub that grows from the tiny seed is great by comparison with its beginnings, but the mustard plant tops out at 8 or 10 or even 12 feet. If Jesus is contrasting a small seed with a great tree, why not pick a truly magnificent tree?
Perhaps the best clue comes from the church that has developed over the centuries. The church is, indeed, a far cry from its beginnings, extending into every nation on the face of the earth. It has grand cathedrals and occasionally wields real power, but for the most part the church manifests itself in modest ways –– more like a mustard shrub than a towering cedar.
VERSE 33: THE PARABLE OF THE LEAVEN
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast" (v. 33a). Like the mustard seed, yeast is small relative to the flour that it leavens and the power that it exerts.
"which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, until it was all leavened" (v. 33b). Three measures of flour are enough to bake bread for 100-150 people. The point is that even a tiny quantity of leaven has power to affect a large quantity of flour. So it is with the kingdom of heaven. We who live under Christ's rule seem unimportant –– but watch out! By Christ's power, we make a huge difference!
Leaven can do its work only when mixed into a large quantity of raw dough. Otherwise it is useless. So it is with those who would serve Jesus. He calls us to go into all the world, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching (28:19-20).
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VERSES 44-46: PARABLES OF JOY
44"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.
45"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, 46who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it."
The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl are both parables of discovery, joy, and action. The merchant is actively looking for pearls, while the other man just stumbles onto treasure in a field. Both, however, recognize the overwhelming value of their discovery, and sell everything so that they might buy it.
There are two lessons to be learned here:
• One is the demand that the Gospel places on us. Grace is not free, but requires response.
• The second is that joy, not duty, drives these men to act. They do not sell everything to buy the treasure because they ought to do so, but because their hearts demand it.
VERSE 44: THE PARABLE OF THE HIDDEN TREASURE
"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field" (v. 44a). It was not uncommon in that time and place for people to bury valuable possessions, because there were no secure banks to safeguard valuables.
"which a man found, and hid" (v. 44b). Even today, people discover hidden treasure and purchase the property before others can discover the treasure and bid up the price.
"In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field" (v. 44c). Savvy people will still purchase a farm after realizing that the asking price has not taken into account the value of mineral rights or a stand of walnut trees. Others purchase control of a company after determining that the breakup value exceeds the cost of the shares.
VERSES 45-46: THE PARABLE OF THE GREAT PEARL
"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls" (v. 45). "People desired to possess a lovely pearl, not only for its money value, but for its beauty" (Barclay, 96).
"who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it" (v. 46). Merchants buy to sell, but we get the sense, in this short parable, that this merchant wants this pearl for the pleasure of possessing it. Circumstances might force him to sell, but we expect that he will pursue even a profitable sale with reluctance.
VERSES 47-50: THE PARABLE OF THE DRAGNET
47"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet, that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind, 48which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach. They sat down, and gathered the good into containers, but the bad they threw away. 49So will it be in the end of the world. The angels will come forth, and separate the wicked from among the righteous, 50and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth."
"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet" (v. 47a). This parable makes essentially the same points as the Parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30). The lessons are that:
• Judgment belongs, not to the disciples, but to God.
• Judgment will come.
"a dragnet, that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind" (v. 47b). In this parable, a dragnet scoops up all sorts of fish, both good and bad.
"when it was filled" (v. 48) "corresponds to... 'in the end of the world' (v. 49)…. The evil, false disciples, will experience eschatological judgment" (Hagner).
"when it was filled, they drew up on the beach. They sat down, and gathered the good into containers, but the bad they threw away" (v. 48). "Note the words sat down: the division is quiet, deliberate, and with no chance of error" (Buttrick, 422).
"So it will be in the end of the world. The angels will come forth, and separate the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth" (vv. 49-50). "This parable is another word encouraging the church to adopt an open and freewheeling approach to evangelism" (Long, 158). God does not make us responsible for keeping out riff-raff, but delegates the separation of the evil from the righteous to the angels at the end of time.
This parable is not a call to overlook grievous sin. A few chapters hence, Jesus will establish procedures for reproving sinners and for excommunicating them if they fail to mend their ways (18:15-20).
VERSES 51-52: TREASURE NEW AND OLD
51Jesus said to them, "Have you understood all these things?"
They answered him, "Yes, Lord."
52He said to them, "Therefore, every scribe who has been made a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a householder, who brings out of his treasure new and old things."
"Have you understood all these things?" (v. 51a). Understanding is important in this Gospel, and was raised earlier in this chapter (13:10-17). "To 'understand' …is an essential quality of authentic discipleship" (Senior, 158).
"They answered him, "Yes, Lord" (v. 51b). The disciples' bold "Yes, Lord" however, leaves us wondering. The kind of question that Jesus asked usually gains an affirmative response. The disciples, however, understand in part. Only after the resurrection will their eyes really be opened.
"Therefore, every scribe who has been made a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a householder" (v. 52a). Jesus compares his disciples to scribes –– those qualified to teach the meaning of scripture.
"who brings out of his treasure new and old things" (v. 52b). These disciples "draw on the rich biblical heritage of ancient Israel (what is old). But they interpret this old word in the light of God's final self-disclosure through Jesus' message and ministry (what is new)" (Gardner, 218).
While old and new are not defined, it seems likely that the old are Hebrew Scriptures and the new are Christ's teachings.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Blomberg , Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
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Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word, 1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13, Vol. 33a (Dallas: Word, 1993)
Hanson, K. C., Proclamation 6: Pentecost 1, Series A (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)
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Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Keener, Craig S., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Matthew, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Niedenthal, Morris and Lacocque, Andre, Proclamation, Pentecost 1, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975)
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Read, David H.C., "Life Under the Rule of God: Discovering the Kingdom" (a sermon)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Tiede, David L. and Kavanagh, O.S.B., Proclamation 2: Pentecost 1, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981)
Wallace, Ronald S., Many Things in Parables (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1955)
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