William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
MANY THINGS IN PARABLES (Matthew 13:1-58)
Matthew 13:1-58 is a very important chapter in the pattern of the gospel.
(i) It shows a definite turning-point in the ministry of Jesus. At the beginning of his ministry we find him teaching in the synagogues; but now we find him teaching on the seashore. The change is very significant. It was not that the door of the synagogue was as yet finally shut to him, but it was closing. Even yet in the synagogue he would find a welcome from the common people; but the official leaders of Jewish orthodoxy were now in open opposition to him. When he entered a synagogue now, it would not be to find only an eager crowd of listeners; it would be also to find a bleak-eyed company of Scribes and Pharisees and elders weighing and sifting every word to find a charge against him, and watching every action to turn it into an accusation.
It is one of the supreme tragedies that Jesus was banished from the Church of his day; but that could not stop him from bringing his invitation to men; for when the doors of the synagogue were closed against him, he took to the temple of the open air, and taught men in the village streets, and on the roads, and by the lake-side, and in their own homes. The man who has a real message to deliver, and a real desire to deliver it, will always find a way of giving it to men.
(ii) The great interest of this chapter is that here we see Jesus beginning to use to the full his characteristic method of teaching in parables. Even before this he had used a way of teaching which had the germ of the parable in it. The simile of the salt and the light (Matthew 5:13-16), the picture of the birds and the lilies (Matthew 6:26-30), the story of the wise and the foolish builder (Matthew 7:24-27), the illustration of the garments and the wine-skins (Matthew 9:16-17), the picture of the children playing in the market-place (Matthew 11:16-17) are all embryo parables. They are truth in pictures.
But it is in this chapter that we find Jesus' way of using parables fully developed and at its most vivid. As someone has said, "Whatever else is true of Jesus, it is certainly true that he was one of the world's supreme masters of the short story." Before we begin to study these parables in detail, let us ask why Jesus used this method and what are the great teaching advantages which it offers.
(a) The parable always makes truth concrete. There are very few people who can grasp and understand abstract ideas; most people think in pictures. We could for long enough try to put into words what beauty is, and at the end of it no one would be very much the wiser; but if we can point at someone and say, "That is a beautiful person," no more description is needed. We might try for long enough to define goodness and in the end leave no clear idea of goodness in people's minds; but everyone recognizes a good person and good deed when he sees them. In order to be understood, every great word must become flesh, every great idea must take form and shape in a person; and the first great quality of a parable is that it makes truth into a picture which all men can see and understand.
(b) It has been said that all great teaching begins from the here and now in order to get to the there and then. If a man wishes to teach people about things which they do not understand, he must begin from things which they do understand. The parable begins with material which every man understands because it is within his own experience, and from that it leads him on to things which he does not understand, and opens his eyes to things which he has faded to see. The parable opens a man's mind and eyes by beginning from where he is and leading him on to where he ought to be.
(c) The great teaching virtue of the parable is that it compels interest. The surest way to interest people is to tell them stories. The parable puts truth in the form of a story; the simplest definition of a parable is in fact that it is "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning." People will not listen, and their attention cannot be retained, unless they are interested; with simple people it is stories which awaken and maintain interest, and the parable is a story.
(d) The parable has the great virtue that it enables and compels a man to discover truth for himself It does not do a man's thinking for him; it says, "Here is a story. What is the truth in it? What does it mean for you? Think it out for yourself".
There are some things which a man cannot be told; he must discover them for himself. Walter Pater once said that you cannot tell a man the truth; you can only put him into a position in which he can discover it for himself. Unless we discover truth for ourselves, it remains a second-hand and external thing; and further, unless we discover truth for ourselves, we will almost certainly forget it quickly. The parable, by compelling a man to draw his own conclusions and to do his own thinking, at one and the same time makes truth real to him and fixes it in his memory.
(e) The other side of that is that the parable conceals truth from those who are either too lazy to think or too blinded by prejudice to see. It puts the responsibility fairly and squarely on the individual. It reveals truth to him who desires truth; it conceals truth from him who does not wish to see the truth.
(f) One final thing must be remembered. The parable, as Jesus used it, was spoken; it was not read. Its impact had to be immediate, not the result of long study with commentaries and dictionaries. It made truth flash upon a man as the lightning suddenly illuminates a pitch-dark night. In our study of the parables that means two things for us.
First, it means that we must amass every possible detail about the background of life in Palestine, so that the parable will strike us as it did those who heard it for the first time. We must think and study and imagine ourselves back into the minds of those who were listening to Jesus.
Second, it means that generally speaking a parable will have only one point. A parable is not an allegory; an allegory is a story in which every possible detail has an inner meaning; but an allegory has to be read and studied; a parable is heard. We must be very careful not to make allegories of the parables and to remember that they were designed to make one stabbing truth flash out at a man the moment he heard it.
The Sower Went Out To Sow (Matthew 13:1-9; Matthew 13:18-23)
13:1-9,18-23 On that day, when he had gone out from the house, Jesus sat on the seashore; and such great crowds gathered to hear him that he went into a boat, and sat there; and the whole crowd took their stand on the seashore; and he spoke many things in parables to them. "Look!" he said, "the sower went out to sow; and, as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside: and the birds came and devoured it. But some seed fell upon stony ground, where it had not much earth; and, because it had no depth of earth, it sprang up immediately; but when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered away because it had no root. Other seed fell upon thorns, and the thorns came up, and choked the life out of it. But others fell on good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who has ears, let him hear."
"Listen then to the meaning of the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, the evil one comes, and snatches away that which was sown in his heart. This is represented by the picture of the seed which was sown by the wayside. The picture of the seed which was sown on the stony ground represents the man who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy. But he has no root in himself, and is at the mercy of the moment, and so, when affliction and persecution come, because of the word, he at once stumbles. The picture of the seed which is sown among the thorns represents the man who hears the word, but the cares of this world and the seduction of riches choke the word, and it bears no crop. The picture of the seed which was sown on the good ground represents the man who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and produces some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold."
Here is a picture which anyone in Palestine would understand. Here we actually see Jesus using the here and now to get to the there and then. There is a point which the Revised Standard Version obscures. The Revised Standard Version has: "A sower went out to sow." The Greek is not a sower, but: "The sower went out to sow."
What in all likelihood happened was that, as Jesus was using the boat by the lakeside as a pulpit, in one of the fields near the shore a sower was actually sowing, and Jesus took the sower, whom they could all see, as a text, and began: "Look at the sower there sowing his seed in that field!" Jesus began from something which at the moment they could actually see to open their minds to truth which as yet they had never seen.
In Palestine there were two ways of sowing seed. It could be sown by the sower scattering it broadcast as he walked up and down the field. Of course, if the wind was blowing, in that case some of the seed would be caught by the wind and blown into all kinds of places, and sometimes out of the field altogether. The second way was a lazy way, but was not uncommonly used. It was to put a sack of seed on the back of an ass, to tear or cut a hole in the corner of the sack, and then to walk the animal up and down the field while the seed ran out. In such a case some of the seed might well dribble out while the animal was crossing the pathway and before it reached the field at all.
In Palestine the fields were in long narrow strips; and the ground between the strips was always a right of way. It was used as a common path; and therefore it was beaten as hard as a pavement by the feet of countless passers-by. That is what Jesus means by the wayside. If seed fell there, and some was bound to fall there in whatever way it was sown, there was no more chance of its penetrating into the earth than if it had fallen on the road.
The stony ground was not ground filled with stones; it was what was common in Palestine, a thin skin of earth on top of an underlying shelf of limestone rock. The earth might be only a very few inches deep before the rock was reached. On such ground the seed would certainly germinate; and it would germinate quickly, because the ground grew speedily warm with the heat of the sun. But there was no depth of earth and when it sent down its roots in search of nourishment and moisture, it would meet only the rock, and would be starved to death, and quite unable to withstand the heat of the sun.
The thorny ground was deceptive. When the sower was sowing, the ground would look clean enough. It is easy to make a garden look clean by simply turning it over; but in the ground still lay the fibrous roots of the couch grass and the bishop weed and all the perennial pests, ready to spring to life again. Every gardener knows that the weeds grow with a speed and a strength that few good seeds can equal. The result was that the good seed and the dormant weeds grew together; but the weeds were so strong that they throttled the life out of the seed.
The good ground was deep and clean and soft; the seed could gain an entry; it could find nourishment; it could grow unchecked; and in the good ground it brought forth an abundant harvest.
The Word And The Hearer (Matthew 13:1-9; Matthew 13:18-23 Continued)
This parable is really aimed at two sets of people.
(a) It is aimed at the hearers of the word. It is fairly frequently held by scholars that the interpretation of the parable in Matthew 13:18-23 is not the interpretation of Jesus himself, but the interpretation of the preachers of the early Church, and that it is not in fact correct. It is said that it transgresses the law that a parable is not an allegory, and that it is too detailed to be grasped by listeners at first hearing. If Jesus was really pointing at an actual sower sowing seed, that does not seem a valid objection; and, in any event, the interpretation which identifies the different kinds of soil with different kinds of hearers has always held its place in the Church's thought, and must surely have come from some authoritative source. If so, why not from Jesus himself?
If we take the parable as a warning to hearers, it means that there are different ways of accepting the word of God, and the fruit which it produces depends on the heart of him who accepts it. The fate of any spoken word depends on the hearer. As it has been said, "A jest's prosperity lies not in the tongue of him who tells it, but in the ear of him who hears it." A jest will succeed when it is told to a man who has a sense of humour and is prepared to smile. A jest will fad when it is told to a humourless creature or to a man grimly determined not to be amused. Who then are the hearers described and warned in this parable?
(i) There is the hearer with the shut mind. There are people into whose minds the word has no more chance of gaining entry than the seed has of settling into the ground that has been beaten hard by many feet. There are many things which can shut a man's mind. Prejudice can make a man blind to everything he does not wish to see. The unteachable spirit can erect a barrier which cannot easily be broken down. The unteachable spirit can result from one of two things. It can be the result of pride which does not know that it needs to know; and it can be the result of the fear of new truth and the refusal to adventure on the ways of thought. Sometimes an immoral character and a man's way of life can shut his mind. There may be truth which condemns the things he loves and which accuses the things he does; and many a man refuses to listen to or to recognize the truth which condemns him, for there are none so blind as those who deliberately will not see.
(ii) There is the hearer with the mind like the shallow ground. He is the man who fails to think things out and think them through.
Some people are at the mercy of every new craze. They take a thing up quickly and just as quickly drop it. They must always be in the fashion. They begin some new hobby or begin to acquire some new accomplishment with enthusiasm, but the thing becomes difficult and they abandon it, or the enthusiasm wanes and they lay it aside. Some people's lives are littered with things they began and never finished. A man can be like that with the word. When he hears it he may be swept off his feet with an emotional reaction; but no man can live on an emotion. A man has a mind and it is a moral obligation to have an intelligent faith. Christianity has its demands, and these demands must be faced before it can be accepted. The Christian offer is not only a privilege, it is also a responsibility. A sudden enthusiasm can always so quickly become a dying fire.
(iii) There is the hearer who has so many interests in life that often the most important things, get crowded out. It is characteristic of modern life that it becomes increasingly crowded and increasingly fast. A man becomes too busy to pray; he becomes so preoccupied with many things that he forgets to study the word of God: he can become so involved in committees and good works and charitable services that he leaves himself no time for him from whom all love and service come. His business can take such a grip of him that he is too tired to think of anything else. It is not the things which are obviously bad which are dangerous. It is the things which are good, for the "second best is always the worst enemy of the best." It is not even that a man deliberately banishes prayer and the Bible and the Church from his life; it can be that he often thinks of them and intends to make time for them, but somehow in his crowded life never gets round to it. We must be careful to see that Christ is not shouldered out of the topmost niche in life.
(iv) There is the man who is like the good ground. In his reception of the word there are four stages. Like the good ground, his mind is open. He is at all times willing to learn. He is prepared to hear. He is never either too proud or too busy to listen. Many a man would have been saved all kinds of heartbreak, if he had simply stopped to listen to the voice of a wise friend, or to the voice of God. He understands. He has thought the thing out and knows what this means for him, and is prepared to accept it. He translates his hearing into action. He produces the good fruit of the good seed. The real hearer is the man who listens, who understands, and who obeys.
No Despair (Matthew 13:1-9; Matthew 13:18-23 Continued)
(b) We said this parable had a double impact. We have looked at the impact it was designed to have on those who hear the word. But it was equally designed to have an impact on those who preach the word. Not only was it meant to say something to the listening crowds; it was also meant to say something to the inner circle of the disciples.
It is not difficult to see that in the hearts of the disciples there must sometimes have been a certain discouragement. To them Jesus was everything, the wisest and the most wonderful of all. But, humanly speaking, he had very little success. The doors of the synagogue were shutting against him. The leaders of orthodox religion were his bitterest critics and were obviously out to destroy him. True, the crowds came to hear him, but there were so few who were really changed, and so many who came to reap the benefit of his healing power, and, who, when they had received it, went away and forgot. There were so many who came to Jesus only for what they could get. The disciples were faced with a situation in which Jesus seemed to rouse nothing but hostility in the leaders of the Church, and nothing but a very evanescent response in the crowd. It is nothing surprising if in the hearts of the disciples there was sometimes deep disappointment. What then does the parable say to the preacher who is discouraged?
Its lesson is clear--the harvest is sure. For discouraged preachers of the word the lesson is in the climax of the parable, in the picture of the seed which brought forth abundant fruit. Some seed may fall by the wayside and be snatched away by the birds; some seed may fall on the shallow ground and never come to maturity; some seed may fat among the thorns and be choked to death; but in spite of all that the harvest does come. No farmer expects every single seed he sows to germinate and bring forth fruit. He knows quite well that some will be blown away by the wind, and some will fall in places where it cannot grow; but that does not stop him sowing. Nor does it make him give up hope of the harvest. The farmer sows in the confidence that, even if some of the seed is wasted, none the less the harvest will certainly come.
So then this is a parable of encouragement to those who sow the seed of the word.
(i) When a man sows the seed of the word, he does not know what he is doing or what effect the seed is having. H. L. Gee tells this story. In the church where he worshipped there was a lonely old man, old Thomas. He had outlived all his friends and hardly anyone knew him. When Thomas died, Gee had the feeling that there would be no one to go to the funeral so he decided to go, so that there might be someone to follow the old man to his last resting-place.
There was no one else and it was a wild, wet day. The funeral reached the cemetery; and at the gate there was a soldier waiting. He was an officer, but on his raincoat there were no rank badges. The soldier came to the graveside for the ceremony; when it was over he stepped forward and before the open grave swept his hand to a salute that might have been given to a king. H. L. Gee walked away with this soldier, and as they walked, the wind blew the soldier's raincoat open to reveal the shoulder badges of a brigadier.
The brigadier said to Gee: "You will perhaps be wondering what I am doing here. Years ago Thomas was my Sunday School teacher; I was a wild lad and a sore trial to him. He never knew what he did for me, but I owe everything I am or will be to old Thomas, and today I had to come to salute him at the end." Thomas did not know what he was doing. No preacher or teacher ever does. It is our task to sow the seed, and to leave the rest to God.
(ii) When a man sows the seed, he must not look for quick results. There is never any haste in nature's growth. It takes a long, long time before an acorn becomes an oak; and it may take a long, long time before the seed germinates in the heart of a man. But often a word dropped into a man's heart in his boyhood lies dormant until some day it awakens and saves him from some great temptation or even preserves his soul from death. We live in an age which looks for quick results, but in the sowing of the seed we must sow in patience and, in hope, and sometimes must leave the harvest to the years.
The Truth And The Listener (Matthew 13:10-17; Matthew 13:34-35)
13:10-17,34,35 The disciples came and said to him: "Why do you speak to them in parables?" "To you," he answered them, "it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom, which only a disciple can understand, but to them it has not been so given. For it will be given to him who already has, and he will have an overflowing knowledge. But what he has will be taken away from him who has not. It is for that reason that I speak to them in parables, for although they can see, they do not see; and although they can hear, they do not hear or understand. There is being fulfilled in them Isaiah's prophecy which says, 'You will certainly hear, but you will not understand; and you will certainly look, but you will not see; for the heart of this people has grown fat, and they hear dully with their ears, and their eyes are smeared, lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I will heal them. But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears because they hear.' This is the truth I tell you--many prophets and righteous men longed to see things that you are seeing, and did not see them, and to hear the things that you are hearing, and did not hear them."
Jesus spake all these things to the crowds in parables, and it was not his custom to speak to them without a parable. He did this that that which was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: "I will open my mouth in parables: I will utter things which have been hidden since the foundation of the world."
This is a passage full of difficult things; and we must take time to try to seek out its meaning. First of all there are two general things at the beginning which, if we understand them, will go far to light up the whole passage.
The Greek word in Matthew 13:11, which I have translated
secrets (as the Revised Standard Version also does), is musteria
(Greek #3466). This means literally mysteries which is, in fact, how
the King James Version renders it. In New Testament times this
word mystery was used in a special and a technical way. To us a
mystery means simply something dark and difficult and impossible
to understand, something mysterious. But in New Testament times
it was the technical name for something which was unintelligible
to the outsider but crystal clear to the man who had been
In the time of Jesus in both Greece and Rome the most
intense and real religion was found in what were known as the
Mystery Religions. These religions had all a common character.
They were in essence passion plays in which was told in drama the
story of some god or goddess who had lived and suffered and died
and who had risen again to blessedness. The initiate was given a
long course of instruction in which the inner meaning of the
drama was explained to him; that course of instruction extended
over months and even years. Before he was allowed finally to see
the drama he had to undergo a period of fasting and abstinence.
Everything was done to work him up to a state of emotion and of
expectation. He was then taken to see the play; the atmosphere
was carefully constructed; there was cunning lighting; there were
incenses and perfumes; there was sensuous music; there was in
many cases a noble liturgy. The drama was then played out; and it
was intended to produce in the worshipper a complete
identification with the god whose story was told on the stage.
The worshipper was intended literally to share in the divinity's
life and sufferings and death and resurrection, and therefore
shared in his immortality. The cry of the worshipper in the end
was: "I am Thou, and Thou art I."
We take an actual example. One of the most famous of all the mysteries was the mystery of Isis. Osiris was a wise and good king. Seth, his wicked brother, hated him, and with seventy-two conspirators persuaded him to come to a banquet. There he persuaded him to enter a cunningly wrought coffin which exactly fitted him. When Osiris was in the coffin, the lid was snapped down and the coffin was flung into the Nile. After long and weary search, Isis, the faithful wife of Osiris, found the coffin and brought it home in mourning. But when she was absent from home, the wicked Seth came again, stole the body of Osiris, cut it into fourteen pieces, and scattered it throughout all Egypt. Once again Isis set out on her weary and sorrowful quest. After long search she found all the pieces; by a wondrous power the pieces were fitted together and Osiris rose from the dead; and he became for ever afterwards the immortal king of the living and the dead.
It is easy to see how moving a story that could be made to one who had undergone a tong instruction, to one who saw it in the most carefully calculated setting. There is the story of the good king; there is the attack of sin; there is the sorrowing search of love; there is the triumphant finding of love; there is the raising to a life which has conquered death. It was with that experience that the worshipper was meant to identify himself, and he was supposed to emerge from it, in the famous phrase of the Mystery Religions, "reborn for eternity".
That is a mystery; something meaningless to the outsider, but supremely precious to the initiate. In point of fact the Lord's Supper is like that. To one who has never seen such a thing before, it will look like a company of men eating little pieces of bread and drinking little sips of wine, and it might even appear ridiculous. But to the man who knows what he is doing, to the man initiated into its meaning, it is the most precious and the most moving act of worship in the Church.
So Jesus says to his disciples: "Outsiders cannot understand what I say; but you know me; you are my disciples; you can understand." Christianity can be understood only from the inside. It is only after personal encounter with Jesus Christ that a man can understand. To criticize from outside is to criticize in ignorance. It is only the man who is prepared to become a disciple who can enter into the most precious things of the Christian faith.
Life's Stern Law (Matthew 13:10-17; Matthew 13:34-35 Continued)
The second general thing is the saying in Matthew 13:12 that still more will be given to the man who has, and even what he has will be taken away from the man who has not. At first sight this seems nothing less than cruel; but so far from being cruel, it simply states a truth which is an inescapable law of life.
In every sphere of life more is given to the man who has, and what he has is taken away from the man who has not. In the world of scholarship the student who labours to amass knowledge is capable of acquiring more knowledge. It is to him that the research, the advanced courses, the deeper things are given; and that is so because by his diligence and fidelity he has made himself fit to receive them. On the other hand, the student who is lazy and refuses to work inevitably loses even the knowledge which he has.
Many a person in childhood and schooldays had a smattering of Latin or of French or of some other language, and in later life lost every word, because he never made any attempt to develop or use them. Many a person had some skill in a craft or game and lost it, because he neglected it. The diligent and hard-working person is in a position to be given more and more; the lazy person may well lose even what he has. Any gift can be developed; and, since nothing in life stands still, if a gift is not developed, it is lost.
It is so with goodness. Every temptation we conquer makes us more able to conquer the next and every temptation to which we fail makes us less able to withstand the next attack. Every good thing we do, every act of self-discipline and of service, makes us better able for the next; and every time we fail to use such an opportunity we make ourselves less able to seize the next when it comes.
Life is always a process of gaining more or losing more. Jesus laid down the truth that the nearer a man lives to him, the nearer to the Christian ideal he will grow. And the more a man drifts away from Christ, the less he is able to reach to goodness; for weakness, like strength, is an increasing thing.
Man's Blindness And God's Purpose (Matthew 13:10-17; Matthew 13:34-35 Continued)
Matthew 13:13-17 of this passage are among the most difficult verses in the whole gospel narrative. And the fact that they appear differently in the different gospels shows how much that difficulty was felt in the early Church. Being the earliest gospel, we would expect Mark to be the nearest to the actual words of Jesus. It (Mark 4:11-12) has:
To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for
those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed
see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand;
lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.
If these verses be taken at their superficial value with no attempt to understand their real meaning, they make the extraordinary statement that Jesus spoke to men in parables in order that they might not understand, and in order to prevent them turning to God and finding forgiveness.
Matthew is later than Mark and makes one significant change:
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do
not see, and hearing they do not here, nor do they understand.
As Matthew has it, Jesus spoke in parables because men were too blind and deaf to glimpse the truth in any other way.
It is to be noted that this saying of Jesus leads into a quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10. That was another passage which caused a great deal of heart-searching. In the Revised Standard Version, which is a literal translation of the Hebrew, it runs:
Go, and say to this people: "Hear and hear, but do not
understand; see and see, but do not perceive." Make the heart of
this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest
they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand
with their hearts, and turn and be healed.
Again it sounds as if God had deliberately blinded the eyes and deafened the ears and hardened the hearts of the people, so that they would be unable to understand. The nation's lack of understanding is made to seem a deliberate act of God.
Just as Matthew toned down Mark, so the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and the version which most Jews used in the time of Jesus, toned down the original Hebrew:
Go, say to this people: "Ye shall hear indeed, but ye shall not
understand; and seeing ye shall see and not perceive." For the
heart of this people has become gross, and with their ears they
hear heavily, and their eyes they have closed, lest at any time
they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and
understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I
should heal them.
The Septuagint, so to speak, removes the responsibility from God and lays it fairly and squarely upon the people.
What is the explanation of all this? We may be certain of one thing--whatever else this passage means, it cannot mean that Jesus deliberately delivered his message in such a way that people would fail to understand it. Jesus did not come to hide the truth from men; he came to reveal it. And beyond a doubt there were times when men grasped that truth.
When the orthodox Jewish leaders heard the threat of the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, they understood all right, and recoiled in horror from its message to say: "God forbid!" (Luke 20:16). And in Matthew 13:34-35 of this present passage Jesus quotes a saying of the Psalmist:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the
words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will
utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and
known, that our fathers have told us.
That is a quotation from Psalms 78:1-3, and in it the Psalmist knows that what he is saying will be understood, and that he is recalling men to truth that both they and their fathers have known.
The truth is that the words of Isaiah, and the use that Jesus made of them, must be read with insight and with an attempt to put ourselves in the position both of Isaiah and of Jesus. These words tell of three things.
(i) They tell of a prophet's bewilderment. The prophet brought a message to people which to him was crystal clear; and he was bewildered that they could not understand it. That is repeatedly the experience of both the preacher and the teacher. Often when we preach or teach or discuss things with people, we try to tell them something which to us is relevant, vivid, of absorbing interest and of paramount importance, and they hear it with a complete lack of interest, understanding, and urgency. And we are amazed and bewildered that what means so much to us apparently means nothing at all to them, that what kindles a fire in our bones leaves them stone cold, that what thrills and moves our hearts leaves them icily indifferent. That is the experience of every teacher and preacher and evangelist.
(ii) They tell of a prophet's despair. It was Isaiah's feeling that his preaching was actually doing more harm than good, that he might as wet speak to a brick wall, that there was no way into the mind and the heart of this deaf and blind people, that, as far as any effects went, they seemed to be getting worse instead of better. Again that is the experience of every teacher and preacher. There are times when those whom we seek to win seem, in spite of all our efforts, to be getting further away from, instead of nearer to, the Christian way. Our words go whistling down the wind; our message meets the impenetrable barrier of men's indifference; the result of all our work seems less than nothing, for at the end of it men seem further away from God than they were at the beginning.
(iii) But these words tell of something more than a prophet's bewilderment and a prophet's despair; they also tell of a prophet's ultimate faith. Here we find ourselves face to face with a Jewish conviction apart from which much of what the prophet, and of what Jesus, and of what the early Church said is not fully intelligible.
To put it simply, it was a primary article of Jewish belief that nothing in this world happens outside the will of God; and when they said nothing they meant literally nothing. It was just as much God's will when men did not listen as when they did; it was just as much God's will when men refused to understand the truth as when they welcomed it. The Jew clung fast to the belief that everything had its place in the purpose of God and that somehow God was weaving together success and failure, good and evil in a web of his designing.
The ultimate purpose of everything was good. It is exactly this thought that Paul plays on in Romans 9:11. These are the chapters which tell how the Jews, the chosen people of God, actually refused God's truth and crucified God's son when he came to them. That sounds inexplicable. But what was the result of it? The gospel went out to the Gentiles; and the ultimate result is that the Gentiles will some day gather in the Jews. The apparent evil is gathered up in a larger good, for all is within the plan of God.
That is what Isaiah was feeling. At first he was bewildered and in despair; then the light came and in effect he said "I cannot understand the conduct of this people; but I know that all this failure is somehow in the ultimate purpose of God, and he will use it for his own ultimate glory and for the ultimate good of men." Jesus took these words of Isaiah and used them to encourage his disciples; he said in effect, "I know that this looks disappointing; I know how you are feeling when men's minds and hearts refuse to receive the truth and when their eyes refuse to recognize it; but in this, too, there is purpose--and some day you will see it."
Here is our own great encouragement. Sometimes we see our harvest and we are glad; sometimes there seems to be nothing but barren ground, nothing but total lack of response, nothing but failure. That may be so to human eyes and human minds, but at the back of it there is a God who is fitting even that failure into the divine plan of his omniscient mind and his omnipotent power. There are no failures and there are no loose ends in the ultimate plan of God.
The Act Of An Enemy (Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-43)
13:24-30,36-43 Jesus put forward another parable. "The Kingdom of Heaven," he said to them, "is like what happened when a man sowed good seed in his field. When men slept, his enemy came and sowed darnel in the middle of the corn, and went away. When the green grain grew, and when it began to produce its crop, then the darnel appeared. The servants of the master of the house came to him and said, 'Sir, did we not sow good seed in your field? From where, then, did it get the darnel?' 'An enemy has done this,' he said to them. The servants said to him, 'Do you wish us to go and collect the darnel?' But he said, 'No; for if you gather the darnel the danger is that you may root up the corn at the same time. Let them both grow together until the harvest time; and at the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather the darnel and bind them into bundles for burning. But gather the corn into my storehouse."'"
When he had sent the crowds away, he went into the house. His disciples came to him. "Explain to us," they said, "The parable of the darnel in the field." He answered: "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world. The good seed stands for the sons of the Kingdom; the darnel is the sons of the evil one. The enemy who sowed it is the devil. The harvest is the end of this age; the reapers are the angels. Just as the darnel is gathered and burned with fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather all the stumbling-blocks, and all those who act lawlessly, out of the Kingdom, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; and weeping and gnashing of teeth will be there. Then the righteous will shine as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. Who has ears let him hear."
The pictures in this parable would be clear and familiar to a Palestinian audience. Tares were one of the curses against which a farmer had to labour. They were a weed called bearded darnel (Lolium Temulentum). In their early stages the tares so closely resembled the wheat that it was impossible to distinguish the one from the other. When both had headed out it was easy to distinguish them; but by that time their roots were so intertwined that the tares could not be weeded out without tearing the wheat out with them.
Thomson in The Land and the Book tells how he saw the tares in the Wady Hamam: "The grain is just in the proper stale of development to illustrate the parable. In those parts where the grain has headed out, the tares have done the same, and there a child cannot mistake them for wheat or barley; but when both are less developed, the closest scrutiny will often fail to detect them. I cannot do it at all with any confidence. Even the farmers, who in this country generally weed their fields, do not attempt to separate the one from the other. They would not only mistake good grain for them, but very commonly the roots of the two are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them without plucking up both. Both, therefore, must be left to grow together until the time of harvest."
The tares and the wheat are so like each other that the Jews called the tares bastard wheat. The Hebrew for tares is zunim, whence comes the Greek zizanion (Greek #2215); zunim is said to be connected with the word zanah (Hebrew #2181), which means to commit fornication; and the popular story is that the tares took their origin in the time of wickedness which preceded the flood, for at that time the whole creation, men, animals and plants, all went astray, and committed fornication and brought forth contrary to nature. In their early stages the wheat and the tares so closely resembled each other that the popular idea was that the tares were a kind of wheat which had gone wrong.
The wheat and tares could not be safely separated when both were growing, but in the end they had to be separated, because the grain of the bearded darnel is slightly poisonous. It causes dizziness and sickness and is narcotic in its effects, and even a small amount has a bitter and unpleasant taste. In the end it was usually separated by hand. Levison describes the process: "Women have to be hired to pick the darnel grain out of the seed which is to be milled.... As a rule the separation of the darnel from the wheat is done after the threshing. By spreading the grain out on a large tray which is set before the women, they are able to pick out the darnel, which is a seed similar in shape and size to wheat, but slate-grey in colour."
So then the darnel in its early stages was indistinguishable from the wheat, but in the end it had to be laboriously separated from it, or the consequences were serious.
The picture of a man deliberately sowing darnel in someone else's field is by no means only imagination. That was actually sometimes done. To this day in India one of the direst threats which a man can make to his enemy is "I will sow bad seed in your field." And in codified Roman law this crime is forbidden and its punishment laid down.
The whole series of pictures within this parable was familiar to the people of Galilee who heard it for the first time.
The Time For Judgment (Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-43 Continued)
It may well be said that in its lessons this is one of the most practical parables Jesus ever told.
(i) It teaches us that there is always a hostile power in the world, seeking and waiting to destroy the good seed. Our experience is that both kinds of influence act upon our lives, the influence which helps the seed of the word to flourish and to grow, and the influence which seeks to destroy the good seed before it can produce fruit at all. The lesson is that we must be for ever on our guard.
(ii) It teaches us how hard it is to distinguish between those who are in the Kingdom and those who are not. A man may appear to be good and may in fact be bad; and a man may appear to be bad and may yet be good. We are much too quick to classify people and label them good or bad without knowing all the facts.
(iii) It teaches us not to be so quick with our judgments. If the reapers had had their way, they would have tried to tear out the darnel and they would have torn out the wheat as well. Judgment had to wait until the harvest came. A man in the end will be judged, not by any single act or stage in his life, but by his whole life. Judgment cannot come until the end. A man may make a great mistake, and then redeem himself and, by the grace of God, atone for it by making the rest of life a lovely thing. A man may live an honourable life and then in the end wreck it all by a sudden collapse into sin. No one who sees only part of a thing can judge the whole; and no one who knows only part of a man's life can judge the whole man.
(iv) It teaches us that judgment does come in the end. Judgment is not hasty, but judgment comes. It may be that, humanly speaking, in this life the sinner seems to escape the consequences, but there is a life to come. It may be that, humanly speaking, goodness never seems to enter into its reward, but there is a new world to redress the balance of the old.
(v) It teaches us that the only person with the right to judge is God. It is God alone who can discern the good and the bad; it is God alone who sees all of a man and all of his life. It is God alone who can judge.
So, then, ultimately this parable is two things--it is a warning not to judge people at all, and it is a warning that in the end there comes the judgment of God.
The Small Beginning (Matthew 13:31-32)
13:31-32 Jesus put forward another parable to them: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, and, when it has grown, it is the greatest of herbs, and it becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches."
The mustard plant of Palestine was very different from the mustard plant which we know in this country. To be strictly accurate the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds; the seed of the cypress tree, for instance, is still smaller; but in the east it was proverbial for smallness. For example, the Jews talked of a drop of blood as small as a mustard seed; or, if they were talking of some tiny breach of the ceremonial law, they would speak of a defilement as small as a mustard seed; and Jesus himself used the phrase in this way when he spoke of faith as a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 17:20).
In Palestine this little grain of mustard seed did grow into something very like a tree. Thomson in The Land and the Book writes: "I have seen this plant on the rich plain of Akkar as tall as the horse and his rider." He says, "With the help of my guide, I uprooted a veritable mustard-tree which was more than twelve feet high." In this parable there is no exaggeration at all.
Further, it was a common sight to see such mustard bushes or trees surrounded with a cloud of birds, for the birds love the little black seeds of the tree, and settle on the tree to eat them.
Jesus said that his Kingdom was like the mustard seed and its growth into a tree. The point is crystal clear. The Kingdom of Heaven starts from the smallest beginnings, but no man knows where it will end. In eastern language and in the Old Testament itself one of the commonest pictures of a great empire is the picture of a great tree, with the subject nations depicted as birds finding rest and shelter within its branches (Ezekiel 31:6). This parable tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven begins very small but that in the end many nations will be gathered within it.
It is the fact of history that the greatest things must always begin with the smallest beginnings.
(i) An idea which may well change civilization begins with one man. In the British Empire it was William Wilberforce who was responsible for the freeing of the slaves. The idea of that liberation came to him when he read an exposure of the slave trade by Thomas Clarkson. He was a close friend of Pitt, then Prime Minister, and one day he was sitting with him and George Grenville in Pitt's garden at Holwood. It was a scene of beauty, with the Vale of Keston opening out before them, but the thoughts of Wilberforce were not on that but on the blots of the world. Suddenly Pitt turned to him: "Wilberforce," he said, "why don't you give a notice of a motion on the slave-trade?" An idea was sown in the mind of one man, and that idea changed life for hundreds of thousands of people. An idea must find a man willing to be possessed by it; but when it finds such a man an unstoppable tide begins to flow.
(ii) A witness must begin with one man. Cecil Northcott tells in one of his books that a group of young people from many nations were discussing how the Christian gospel might be spread. They talked of propaganda, of literature, of all the ways of disseminating the gospel in the twentieth century. Then the girl from Africa spoke. "When we want to take Christianity to one of our villages," she said, "we don't send them books. We take a Christian family and send them to live in the village and they make the village Christian by living there." In a group or society, or school or factory, or shop or office, again and again it is the witness of one individual which brings in Christianity. The one man or woman set on fire for Christ is the person who kindles others.
(iii) A reformation begins with one person. One of the great stories of the Christian Church is the story of Telemachus. He was a hermit of the desert, but something told him--the call of God--that he must go to Rome. He went. Rome was nominally Christian, but even in Christian Rome the gladiatorial games went on, in which men fought with each other, and crowds roared with the lust for blood. Telemachus found his way to the games. Eighty thousand people were there to spectate. He was horrified. Were these men slaughtering each other not also children of God? He leaped from his seat, right into the arena, and stood between the gladiators. He was tossed aside. He came back. The crowd were angry; they began to stone him. Still he struggled back between the gladiators. The prefect's command rang out; a sword flashed in the sunlight, and Telemachus was dead. Suddenly there was a hush; suddenly the crowd realized what had happened; a holy man lay dead. Something happened that day to Rome, for there were never again any gladiatorial games. By his death one man had let loose something that cleansed an empire. Someone must begin a reformation; he need not begin it in a nation; he may begin it in his home or where he works. If he begins it no man knows where it will end.
(iv) But this was one of the most personal parables Jesus ever spoke. Sometimes his disciples must have despaired. Their little band was so small and the world was so wide. How could they ever win and change it. Yet with Jesus an invincible force entered the world. Hugh Martin quotes H. G. Wets as saying, "His is easily the dominant figure in history.... A historian without any theological bias whatever should find that he simply cannot portray the progress of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth." In this parable Jesus is saying to his disciples, and to his followers today, that there must be no discouragement, that they must serve and witness each in his place, that each one must be the small beginning from which the Kingdom grows until the kingdoms of the earth finally become the Kingdom of God
"Though few and small and weak your bands,
Strong in your Captain's strength,
Go to the conquest of all lands;
All must be His at length."
The Transforming Power Of Christ (Matthew 13:33)
13:33 He spoke another parable to them: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened."
In this chapter there is nothing more significant than the sources from which Jesus drew his parables. In every case he drew them from the scenes and activities of everyday lifer. He began with things which were entirely familiar to his hearers in order to lead them to things which had never yet entered their minds. He took the parable of the sower from the farmer's field and the parable of the mustard seed from the husbandman's garden; he took the parable of the wheat and the tares from the perennial problem which confronts the farmer in his struggle with the weeds, and the parable of the drag-net from the seashore of the Sea of Galilee. He took the parable of the hidden treasure from the everyday task of digging in a field, and the parable of the pearl of great price from the world of commerce and trade. But in this parable of the leaven Jesus came nearer home than in any other because he took it from the kitchen of an ordinary house.
In Palestine bread was baked at home; three measures of meal was, as Levinson points out, just the average amount which would be needed for a baking for a fairly large family, like the family at Nazareth. Jesus took his parable of the Kingdom from something that he had often seen his mother, Mary, do. Leaven was a little piece of dough kept over from a previous baking, which had fermented in the keeping.
In Jewish language and thought leaven is almost always connected with an evil influence; the Jews connected fermentation with putrefaction and leaven stood for that which is evil (compare Matthew 16:6; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 5:9). One of the ceremonies of preparation for the Passover Feast was that every scrap of leaven had to be sought out from the house and burned. It may well be that Jesus chose this illustration of the Kingdom deliberately. There would be a certain shock in hearing the Kingdom of God compared to leaven; and the shock would arouse interest and rivet attention, as an illustration from an unusual and unexpected source always does.
The whole point of the parable lies in one thing--the transforming power of the leaven. Leaven changed the character of a whole baking. Unleavened bread is like a water biscuit, hard, dry, unappetizing and uninteresting; bread baked with leaven is soft and porous and spongy, tasty and good to eat. The introduction of the leaven causes a transformation in the dough; and the coming of the Kingdom causes a transformation in life.
Let us gather together the characteristics of this transformation.
(i) Christianity transformed life for the individual man. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul gathers together a list of the most terrible and disgusting kinds of sinners, and then, in the next verse, there comes the tremendous statement: "And such were some of you." As Denney had it, we must never forget that the function and the power of Christ is to make bad men good. The transformation of Christianity begins in the individual life, for through Christ the victim of temptation can become the victor over it.
(ii) There are four great social directions in which Christianity transformed life. Christianity transformed life for women. The Jew in his morning prayer thanked God that he had not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman. In Greek civilization the woman lived a life of utter seclusion, with nothing to do beyond the household tasks. K. J. Freeman writes of the life of the Greek child or young man even in the great days of Athens, "When he came home, there was no home life. His father was hardly ever in the house. His mother was a nonentity, living in the women's apartments; he probably saw little of her." In the eastern lands it was often possible to see a family on a journey. The father would be mounted on an ass; the mother would be walking, and probably bent beneath a burden. One demonstrable historical truth is that Christianity transformed life for women.
(iii) Christianity transformed life for the weak and the ill. In heathen life the weak and the ill were considered a nuisance. In Sparta a child, when he was born, was submitted to the examiners; if he was fit, he was allowed to live; if he was weakly or deformed, he was exposed to death on the mountain side. Dr. A. Rendle Short points out that the first blind asylum was founded by Thalasius, a Christian monk; the first free dispensary was founded by Apollonius, a Christian merchant; the first hospital of which there is any record was founded by Fabiola, a Christian lady. Christianity was the first faith to be interested in the broken things of life.
(iv) Christianity transformed life for the aged. Like the weak, the aged were a nuisance. Cato, the Roman writer on agriculture, gives advice to anyone who is taking over a farm: "Look over the livestock and hold a sale. Sell your oil, if the price is satisfactory, and sell the surplus of your wine and grain. Set worn-out oxen, blemished cattle, blemished sheep, wool, hides, an old wagon, old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave, and whatever else is superfluous." The old, whose day's work was done, were fit for nothing else than to be discarded on the rubbish heaps of life. Christianity was the first faith to regard men as persons and not instruments capable of doing so much work.
(v) Christianity transformed life for the child. In the immediate background of Christianity, the marriage relationship had broken down, and the home was in peril. Divorce was so common that it was neither unusual nor particularly blameworthy for a woman to have a new husband every year. In such circumstances children were a disaster; and the custom of simply exposing children to death was tragically common. There is a well-known letter from a man Hilarion, who was gone off to Alexandria, to his wife Alis, whom he has left at home. He writes to her: "If--good luck to you--you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out." In modem civilization life is almost butt round the child; in ancient civilization the child had a very good chance of dying before it had begun to live.
Anyone who asks the question: "What has Christianity done for the world?" has delivered himself into a Christian debator's hands. There is nothing in history so unanswerably demonstrable as the transforming power of Christianity and of Christ on the individual life and on the life of society.
The Working Of The Leaven (Matthew 13:33 Continued)
There remains only one question in regard to this parable of the leaven. Almost all scholars would agree that it speaks of the transforming power of Christ and of his Kingdom in the life of the individual and of the world; but there is a difference of opinion as to how that transforming power works.
(i) It is sometimes said that the lesson of this parable is that the Kingdom works unseen. We cannot see the leaven working in the dough, any more than we can see a flower growing, but the work of the leaven is always going on. Just so, it is said, we cannot see the work of the Kingdom, but always the Kingdom is working and drawing men and the world ever nearer to God.
This, then, would be a message of encouragement. It would mean that at all times we must take the long view, that we must not compare things of the present day with last week, month, or even last year, but that we must look back down the centuries, and then we will see the steady progress of the Kingdom. As A. H. Clough had it:
"Say not, 'The struggle nought availeth;
The labour and the wounds are vain;
The enemy faints not nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.'
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase even now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And, not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look! the land is bright."
On this view the parable teaches that with Jesus Christ and his gospel a new force has been let loose in the world, and that, silently but inevitably, that force is working for righteousness in the world and God indeed is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.
(ii) But it has sometimes been said, as for instance by C. H. Dodd, that the lesson of the parable is the very opposite of this, and that, so far from being unseen, the working of the Kingdom can be plainly seen. The working of the leaven is plain for all to see. Put the leaven into the dough, and the leaven changes the dough from a passive lump into a seething, bubbling, heaving mass. Just so the working of the Kingdom is a violent and disturbing force plain for all to see. When Christianity came to Thessalonica the cry was: "These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also" (Acts 17:6). The action of Christianity is disruptive, disturbing, violent in its effect.
There is undeniable truth there. It is true that men crucified Jesus Christ because he disturbed all their orthodox habits and conventions; again and again it has been true that Christianity has been persecuted because it desired to take both men and society and remake them. It is abundantly true that there is nothing in this world so disturbing as Christianity; that is, in fact, the reason why so many people resent it and refuse it, and wish to eliminate it.
When we come to think of it, we do not need to choose between these two views of the parable, because they are both true. There is a sense in which the Kingdom, the power of Christ, the Spirit of God, is always working, whether or not we see that work; and there is a sense in which it is plain to see. Many an individual life is manifestly and violently changed by Christ; and at the same time there is the silent operation of the purposes of God in the long road of history.
We may put it in a picture like this. The Kingdom, the power of Christ, the Spirit of God, is like a great river, which for much of its course glides on beneath the ground unseen, but which ever and again comes to the surface in all its greatness, plain for all to see. This parable teaches both that the Kingdom is for ever working unseen, and that there are times in every individual life and in history when the work of the Kingdom is so obvious, and so manifestly powerful, that all can see it.
All In The Day's Work (Matthew 13:44)
13:44 "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure which lay hidden in a field. A man found it, and hid it; and, as a result of his joy, away he goes, and sells everything that he has, and buys the field."
Although this parable sounds strange to us, it would sound perfectly natural to people in Palestine in the days of Jesus, and even to this day it paints a picture which people in the East would know well.
In the ancient world there were banks, but not banks such as ordinary people could use. Ordinary people used the ground as the safest place to keep their most cherished belonging. In the parable of the talents the worthless servant hid his talent in the ground, lest he should lose it (Matthew 25:25). There was a rabbinic saying that there was only one safe repository for money--the earth.
This was still more the case in a land where a man's garden might at any time become a battlefield. Palestine was probably the most fought over country in the world; and, when the tide of war threatened to flow over them, it was common practice for people to hide their valuables in the ground, before they took to flight, in the hope that the day would come when they could return and regain them. Josephus speaks of "the gold and the silver and the rest of that most precious furniture which the Jews had, and which the owners treasured up underground against the uncertain fortunes of war."
Thomson in The Land and the Book, which was first published in 1876, tells of a case of treasure discovery which he himself came upon in Sidon. There was in that city a famous avenue of acacia trees. Certain workmen, digging in a garden on that avenue, uncovered several copper pots full of gold coins. They had every intention of keeping the find to themselves; but there were so many of them, and they were so wild with excitement, that their treasure trove was discovered and claimed by the local government. The coins were all coins of Alexander the Great and his father Philip. Thomson suggests that, when Alexander unexpectedly died in Babylon, news came through to Sidon, and some Macedonian officer or government official buried these coins with the intention of appropriating them in the chaos which was bound to follow Alexander's death. Thomson goes on to tell how there are even people who make it their life's business to search for hidden treasure, and that they get into such a state of excitement that they have been known to faint at the discovery of one single coin. When Jesus told this story, he told the kind of story that anyone would recognize in Palestine and in the east generally.
It may be thought that in this parable Jesus glorifies a man who was guilty of very sharp practice in that he hid the treasure, and then took steps to possess himself of it. There are two things to be said about that. First, although Palestine in the time of Jesus was under the Romans and under Roman law, in the ordinary, small, day to day things it was traditional Jewish law which was used; and in regard to hidden treasure Jewish Rabbinic law was quite clear: "What finds belong to the finder, and what finds must one cause to be proclaimed? These finds belong to the finder--if a man finds scattered fruit, scattered money...these belong to the finder." In point of fact this man had a prior right to what he had found.
Second, even apart from that, when we are dealing with any parable, the details are never meant to be stressed; the parable has one main point, and to that point everything else is subservient. In this parable the great point is the joy of the discovery that made the man willing to give up everything to make the treasure indubitably his own. Nothing else in the parable really matters.
(i) The lesson of this parable is, first, that the man found the precious thing, not so much by chance, as in his day's work. It is true to say that he stumbled all unexpectedly upon it, but he did so when he was going about his daily business. And it is legitimate to infer that he must have been going about his daily business with diligence and efficiency, because he must have been digging deep, and not merely scraping the surface, in order to strike against the treasure. It would be a sad thing, if it were only in churches, in so-called holy places, and on so-called religious occasions that we found God, and felt close to him.
There is an unwritten saying of Jesus which never found its way into any of the gospels, but which rings true: "Raise the stone and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and I am there." When the mason is working on the stone, when the carpenter is working with the wood, Jesus Christ is there. True happiness, true satisfaction, the sense of God, the presence of Christ are all to be found in the day's work, when that day's work is honestly and conscientiously done. Brother Lawrence, great saint and mystic, spent much of his working life in the monastery kitchen amidst the dirty dishes, and he could say, "I felt Jesus Christ as close to me in the kitchen as ever I did at the blessed sacrament."
(ii) The lesson of this parable is, second, that it is worth any sacrifice to enter the Kingdom. What does it mean to enter the Kingdom? When we were studying the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10), we found that we could say that the Kingdom of God is a state of society upon earth where God's will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. Therefore to enter the Kingdom is to accept and to do God's will. So, then, it is worth anything to do God's will. Suddenly, as the man discovered the treasure, there may flash upon us, in some moment of illumination, the conviction of what God's will is for us. To accept it may be to give up certain aims and ambitions which are very dear, to abandon certain habits and ways of life which are very difficult to lay down, to take on a discipline and self-denial which are by no means easy, in a word, to take up our cross and follow after Jesus. But there is no other way to peace of mind and heart in this life and to glory in the life to come. It is indeed worth giving up everything to accept and to do the will of God.
The Precious Pearl (Matthew 13:45-46)
13:45-46 "Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant who was seeking goodly pearls. When he had found a very valuable pearl, he went away and sold everything he had, and bought it."
In the ancient world pearls had a very special place in men's hearts. People desired to possess a lovely pearl, not only for its money value, but for its beauty. They found a pleasure in simply handling it and contemplating it. They found an aesthetic joy simply in possessing and looking at a pearl. The main sources of pearls in those days were the shores of the Red Sea and far-off Britain itself, but a merchant would scour the markets of the world to find a pearl which was of surpassing beauty. There are certain most suggestive truths hidden in this parable.
(i) It is suggestive to find the Kingdom of Heaven compared to a pearl. To the ancient peoples, as we have just seen, a pearl was the loveliest of all possessions; that means that the Kingdom of Heaven is the loveliest thing in the world. Let us remember what the Kingdom is. To be in the Kingdom is to accept and to do the will of God. That is to say, to do the will of God is no grim, grey, agonizing thing; it is a lovely thing. Beyond the discipline, beyond the sacrifice, beyond the self-denial, beyond the cross, there lies the supreme loveliness which is nowhere else. There is only one way to bring peace to the heart, joy to the mind, beauty to the life, and that is to accept and to do the will of God.
(ii) It is suggestive to find that there are other pearls but only one pearl of great price. That is to say, there are many fine things in this world and many things in which a man can find loveliness. He can find loveliness in knowledge and in the reaches of the human mind, in art and music and literature and all the triumphs of the human spirit; he can find loveliness in serving his fellow-men, even if that service springs from humanitarian rather than from purely Christian motives; he can find loveliness in human relationships. These are all lovely, but they are all lesser loveliness. The supreme beauty lies in the acceptance of the will of God. This is not to belittle the other things; they too are pearls; but the supreme pearl is the willing obedience which makes us friends of God.
(iii) We find in this parable the same point as in the previous one but with a difference. The man who was digging the field was not searching for treasure; it came on him all unaware. The man who was searching for pearls was spending his life in the search.
But no matter whether the discovery was the result of a moment or the result of a life-time's search, the reaction was the same--everything had to be sold and sacrificed to gain the precious thing. Once again we are left with the same truth--that, however a man discovers the will of God for himself, whether it be in the lightning flash of a moment's illumination or at the end of a long and conscious search, it is worth anything unhesitatingly to accept it.
The Catch And The Separation (Matthew 13:47-50)
13:47-50 "Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net which was cast into the sea, and which gathered all kinds of things. When it was full, they hauled it up on to the shore, and sat down, and collected the good contents into containers, but threw the useless contents away. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come, and they will separate the evil from the righteous, and they will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there."
It was the most natural thing in the world that Jesus should use illustrations from fishing when he was speaking to fishermen. It was as if he said to them: "Look how your daffy work speaks to you of the things of heaven."
In Palestine there were two main ways of fishing. One was with the casting-net, the amphiblestron (Greek #293). It was a hand-net which was cast from the shore. Thomson describes the process: "The net is in shape like the top of a bell-tent, with a long cord fastened to the apex. This is tied to the arm, and the net so folded that, when it is thrown, it expands to its utmost circumference, around which are strung beads of lead to make it drop suddenly to the bottom. Now, see the actor; half bent, and more than half naked, he keenly watches the playful surf, and there he spies his game tumbling in carelessly toward him. Forward he leaps to meet it. Away goes the net, expanding as it flies, and its leaded circumference strikes the bottom ere the silly fish is aware that its meshes have closed around him. By the aid of the cord the fishermen leisurely draws up the net and the fish with it. This requires a keen eye, an active frame, and great skill in throwing the net. He, too, must be patient, watchful, wide awake, and prompt to seize the exact moment to throw."
The second way of fishing was with the drag-net, the sagene (Greek #4522), what we would call the seine net or the trawl. This is the way referred to in this parable. The seine net was a great square net with cords at each corner, and weighted so that, at rest, it hung, as it were, upright in the water. When the boat began to move, the net was drawn into the shape of a great cone and into the cone all kinds of fish were swept.
The net was then drawn to land, and the catch was separated. The useless material was flung away; the good was put into containers. It is interesting to note that sometimes the fish were put alive into containers rifled with water. There was no other way to transport them in freshness over any time or any distance.
There are two great lessons in this parable.
(i) It is in the nature of the drag-net that it does not, and cannot, discriminate. It is bound to draw in all kinds of things in its course through the water. Its contents are bound to be a mixture. If we apply that to the Church, which is the instrument of God's Kingdom upon earth, it means that the Church cannot be discriminative but is bound to be a mixture of all kinds of people, good and bad, useless and useful.
There have always been two views of the Church--the exclusive and the inclusive. The exclusive view holds that the Church is for people who are good, people who are really and fully committed, people who are quite different from the world. There is an attraction in that view, but it is not the New Testament view, because, apart from anything else, who is to do the judging, when we are told that we must not judge? (Matthew 7:1 http://www.crossbooks.com/verse.asp?ref=Mt+7%3A1). It is not any man's place to say who is committed to Christ and who is not. The inclusive view feels instinctively that the Church must be open to all, and that, like the drag-net, so long as it is a human institution it is bound to be a mixture. That is exactly what this parable teaches.
(ii) But equally this parable teaches that the time of separation will come when the good and the bad are sent to their respective destinations. That separation, however, certain as it is, is not man's work but God's. Therefore it is our duty to gather in all who will come, and not to judge or separate, but to leave the final judgment to God.
Old Gifts Used In A New Way (Matthew 13:51-52)
13:51-52 Jesus said, "Have you understood an these things?" They said to him: "Yes." He said to them: "That is why every scribe, who has been instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven, is like a householder who brings out of his treasure-house things new and old."
When Jesus had finished speaking about the Kingdom, he asked his disciples if they had understood. And they had understood, at least in part. Then Jesus goes on to speak about the scribe, instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven, bringing out of his treasure-house things old and new. What Jesus is in effect saying is this: "You are able to understand, because you came to me with a fine heritage. You came with all the teaching of the law and the prophets. A scribe comes to me with a lifetime of study of the law and of all its commandments. That background helps you to understand. But after you have been instructed by me, you have the knowledge, not only of the things you used to know, but of things you never knew before, and even the knowledge which you had before is illuminated by what I have told to you."
There is something very suggestive here. For it means that Jesus never desired or intended that any man should forget all he knew when he came to him; but that he should see his knowledge in a new light and use it in a new service. When he does that, what he knew before becomes a greater treasure than ever it was.
Every man comes to Jesus Christ with some gift and with some ability. Jesus does not ask that he should give up his gift. So many people think that when a man declares for Christ he must give things up and concentrate upon the so-called religious things. But a scholar does not give up his scholarship when he becomes a Christian; rather he uses it for Christ. A business man need not give up his business; rather he should run it as a Christian would. One who can sing, or dance, or act, or paint need not give up his art, but must use his art as a Christian would. The sportsman need not give up his sport, but must play as a Christian would. Jesus did not come to empty life but to fill it, not to impoverish life but to enrich it. Here we see Jesus telling men, not to abandon their gifts, but to use them even more wonderfully in the light of the knowledge which he has given them.
The Barrier Of Unbelief (Matthew 13:53-58)
13:53-58 When Jesus had concluded these parables, he left there. He went into his native place and he taught them in their synagogue. His teaching was such that they were astonished and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these powers? Is not this the son of the carpenter? Is not his mother caned Mary? And are James and Joseph and Simon and Judas not his brothers? Where did he get all these things?" And they were offended at him. Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honour except in his own native place and in his own family." And he did not do many deeds of power there because of their unbelief.
It was natural that at some time Jesus should pay a visit to Nazareth where he had been brought up. And yet it was a brave thing to do. The hardest place for a preacher to preach is the church where he was a boy; the hardest place for a doctor to practise is the place where people knew him when he was young.
But to Nazareth Jesus went. In the synagogue there was no definite person to give the address. Any distinguished stranger present might be asked by the ruler of the synagogue to speak, or anyone who had a message might venture to give it. There was no danger that Jesus would not be given the opportunity to speak. But when he did speak, all that he encountered was hostility and incredulity. They would not listen to him because they knew his father and his mother and his brothers and his sisters. They could not conceive that anyone who had lived among them had any right to speak as Jesus was speaking. The prophet, as so often happens, had no honour in his own country; and their attitude to him raised a barrier which made it impossible for Jesus to have any effect upon them.
There is a great lesson here. In any church service the congregation preaches more than half the sermon. The congregation brings an atmosphere with it. That atmosphere is either a barrier through which the preacher's word cannot penetrate; or else it is such an expectancy that even the poorest sermon becomes a living flame.
Again, we should not judge a man by his background and his family connections, but by what he is. Many a message has been killed stone dead, not because there was anything wrong with it; but because the minds of the hearers were so prejudiced against the messenger that it never had a chance.
When we meet together to listen to the word of God, we must come with eager expectancy, and must think, not of the man who speaks, but of the Spirit who speaks through him.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
Sunday, February 26th, 2017
Transfiguration Sunday / the Last Sunday after Epiphany
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