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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 13

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-58


A Day of Parables

1-3a. Teaching by parables begun (Mark 4:1; Luke 8:4). This chapter introduces a new type of teaching, that by parables. St. Matthew gives us a group of seven, the first four of which (the Sower, the Tares, the Mustard Seed, the Leaven) were addressed to the multitudes, and the last three (the Hid Treasure, the Pearl, and the Draw-net) to the disciples. St. Mark gives only four parables on this occasion, St. Luke only two. St. Matthew's group of seven forms 'a great whole, setting forth the mystery of the kingdom in its method of establishment, its corruption, its outward and inward growth, the conditions of entrance into it, and its final purification.' St. Matthew and St. Mark both agree that Jesus did not begin to teach regularly in parables until opposition to His teaching had developed, and the people under the influence of the Pharisees and scribes had begun to harden themselves against His influence, and to critieise His doctrine (Matthew 13:10-16 Mark 4:11-12 : cp. also Luke 8:10). One purpose of His parabolic teaching was to conceal His doctrine from the unfit (see on Matthew 13:10-16) as a punishment for their wilful blindness and spiritual unreceptiveness. But the parables also served to reveal the truth in suggestive and stimulating forms to the fit. They arrested the attention, remained in the memory, and could not fail in a reflective and devout mind to unfold gradually somewhat of their meaning. They acted as a test. They repelled those who were unreceptive and lacking in industry and earnestness, but they attracted the earnest disciples who knew that precious treasure was concealed beneath the surface, and were willing to dig deep until they found it.

The method of teaching by parables was not new. There are several good examples in the OT. (see e.g. 2 Samuel 12:1-4; 2 Samuel 14:5.; 1 Kings 20:39; Isaiah 5:1-6; Isaiah 28:24-28). It was also known to the rabbis: e.g. it was said of Rabbi Meir that a third part of his discourses was tradition, a third allegory, a third parable; but Christ made the parable form so completely His own that few since His time have ventured to imitate Him. Neither the Apostles nor any of the Christian fathers (except Hennas) are known to us as authors of parables.

There is some doubt as to the exact extent to which the details of our Lord's parables are intended to be interpreted. Many recent writers maintain that each parable is intended to enforce a single idea, and that none of the details are significant. This seems going beyond the evidence, and even against it. All the synoptic evangelists represent Jesus as interpreting the details of the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18; Mark 4:13; Luke 8:11), and St. Matthew represents Him as giving a minute and detailed explanation of the parable of the Tares (Matthew 13:36). It may be admitted that details are not always significant, and that interpreters of the allegorical school have often erred in leaking too much of unimportant features, but the evidence seems to suggest that Christ's parables are carefully constructed and finished works of art, of which the parts as well as the wholes are often intended to be interpreted.

1. The house] i.e. Simon and Andrew's at Capernaum (Mark 1:29, etc.).

3. Parables] In the NT. the word parabole is almost confined to the Synoptic Gospels, the only exceptions being Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 11:19; (RV), where it is used of the OT. types of NT. realities. In the Gospels it occasionally means a maxim or proverb (Matthew 15:15; Luke 4:23; (RV) Luke 5:36; Luke 6:39), but nearly always a parable, that is (so far as our Lord's parables are concerned) 'a narrative, fictitious, but agreeable to the laws and usages of human life, by which either the duties of men or the things of God, particularly the nature and history of God's kingdom, are figuratively portrayed.' A parable is to be distinguished from a fable. The former is probable and might be true, the latter introduces impossibilities, such as trees talking; the former teaches important spiritual truths, the latter does not advance beyond homely lessons of worldly prudence. The parable is also to be distinguished from an allegory. The parable is a story complete in itself, quite apart from its interpretation, whereas an allegory has no meaning at all apart from its interpretation. The parable differs still more from the myth, in which allegory and fact are so mixed that the allegory is taken for fact. No parables occur in the Fourth Gospel: their place is taken by paroimiai, 'allegories,' of which the most complete are those of the Fold (John 10:1), the Good Shepherd (Matthew 10:7), and the Vine and the Branches (Matthew 15:1): cp. John 10:6; (RM).

3b-9. The Sower (Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8). For the meaning of the parable, see on Matthew 13:18-23. Our Lord probably took as His text an actual field and an actual sower within view at the time. Stanley, who visited the probable spot, writes, 'There was the undulating cornfield descending to the water's edge. There was the trodden pathway running through the midst of it, with no fence or hedge to prevent the seed from falling here or there on either side of it or upon it; itself hard with the constant tramp of horse, mule, and human feet. There was the good rich soil; there was the rocky ground of the hillside protruding here and there through the cornfields; there were the large bushes of thorn—the nabk, that kind of which tradition says the crown of thorns was woven—springing up, like the fruit-trees of the more inland parts, in the very midst of the waving wheat.'

9. Who hath ears] cp. Matthew 11:15; Matthew 13:43; Luke 8:8; Luke 14:35; Revelation 2:7 : see on Matthew 13:10.

10-17. The reason for speaking in parables (Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10). Because Christ's prejudiced hearers (see prefatory remarks) will not receive plain teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, they shall be punished by having the truth withdrawn from them, according to our Lord's own precept (Matthew 7:6), 'Grive not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.' But those hearers who are worthy, i.e. those who are of the household of faith, and already 'have' religious truth, shall understand.

11. Unto you] i.e. not only to the Apostles, but to all spiritually receptive persons—to 'those who are within,' as opposed to 'those who are without' (Mk). Cp. the rabbinical saying, 'God entrusts not His mysteries save to the just.' The mysteries] The deeper things of Christ's kingdom can only be understood by the initiated and spiritually enlightened, hence they are rightly called 'mysteries.' Although the parables are said to be concerned with the 'mysteries of the kingdom,' they are, in fact, largely concerned with the person of Christ Himself. This is because He is the King of the Kingdom, and only by acknowledging His sovereignty can men enter into it. In NT. usage 'the mystery' of God generally means His plan of salvation for all mankind, concealed or dimly adumbrated under the old covenant, but manifested to the elect since the coming of Christ. This seems to be the principal meaning here.

Some think that the Christian use of the word is derived from the Greek religious mysteries; others that it is a metaphor taken from Eastern courts, in which the king's counsels and designs are spoken of as his 'secrets' or 'mysteries,' because they are communicated to none but his most intimate friends.

12. 'You who are spiritually minded, who already “have” religious truth, shall learn more and more by My parables, until you become spiritually rich. But those who “have not,” and do not desire to have spiritual knowledge, so far from learning more from My parables, will have even the poor confused notions of truth which they have (“seem to have,” Lk) bewildered and darkened.' In Matthew 25:29; Jesus applies the proverb not merely, as here, to the use of the talent of spiritual understanding, but to all the talents or faculties of man.

14. Esaias] RV 'Isaiah.' The quotation is from LXX version of Isaiah 6:9. The prominence of this passage in the NT. is remarkable: see John 12:40; Acts 28:26; Romans 11:7-8, Romans 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:14. The Christians found in it a reason for the surprising fact that God's own people refused to accept His promised salvation: see on Matthew 13:1-3, Matthew 13:10, Matthew 13:12.

17. Those things] i.e. the mysteries of the kingdom of God, not merely Christ's earthly life and miracles in their outward aspect.

18-23. The Parable of the Sower interpreted (Mark 4:13; Luke 8:11). The sower is, of course, Christ, and Christian teachers generally, but is not a prominent figure in the parable. The seed aptly stands for Christian truth, 'the word of the kingdom,' or 'word of God,' because when implanted in the heart and conscience, it grows, develops, and brings forth spiritual fruit. The sower scatters the seed not only on the good ground, but on the bad, as an example to Christian preachers not to neglect the unreceptive and the wicked in their ministrations. The seed falling by the wayside, or rather on a hard, beaten track across the field, is the case of those whose assiduous attention to business, social calls, and worldly affairs, renders them unreceptive to spiritual truth. Even while the sermon is being preached their minds are full of their own affairs, and when it is finished their first contact with the world sweeps all recollection of it away—'Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts' (Mk). The seed falling upon the rocky places, where there is a thin layer of soil above and hard rock beneath, is the case of those who are susceptible—quickly and readily susceptible—to religious influences, but on whom, owing to their want of spiritual stamina, no permanent impression can be made. They are generally of an enthusiastic and excitable temperament, who when brought under strong religious influences 'run well' for a time, but soon tire, and fall away. The seed falling among thorns is the case of those who have every capacity for developing the highest spiritual gifts, but who fail because they deliberately attempt to serve two masters, God and mammon, which is impossible. The seed falling on good ground is the case of good and receptive Christians, who respond to the teaching of Christ in proportion to the spiritual capacity with which God has endowed them.

24-30. Parable of the Tares (peculiar to St. Matthew). One of the greatest, most characteristic, and most fruitful of the parables. In it Christ looked from the present into the distant future. He foresaw that scandals and offences would soon arise, which would cause great searchings of heart; the denial of Peter, the treachery of Judas, the deceit of Ananias, the quarrels among the Apostles, the parties in the Church, the sensuality of the Corinthians, the treachery of false brethren and false teachers, the falling away of some, the love of others waxing cold; and looking further over the later history of His Church, He saw a saddening picture of low morality, low ideals, avarice, ambition, disunion, and seeming failure. And therefore he warned His disciples beforehand that thus it must be, that 'in the visible Church the evil must be ever mingled with the good,' and that earnest men must not lose heart nor be impatient because they cannot make the Church as pure as they would have it.

The parable is interesting from the light it throws upon our Lord's person. He is the chief character throughout, and is endowed with divine attributes. He is the householder, the sower of the seed, the antagonist of Satan, the Lord of the world. The angels are His ministers and do His bidding. In the kingdom of heaven He is the King, and has the power to doom to heaven and hell. Christ Himself interprets the parable (Matthew 13:37-43).

24. The kingdom of heaven] in this parable, as often, is identified with the Church on earth, regarded as a visible society embracing good and evil.

25. While men slept] This detail may indicate the subtlety of the evil one in introducing evil into the Church in ways that cannot be traced. His enemy] By no more striking expression could the greatness of the power of Satan be indicated than by this, that he is described as the antagonist of Christ Himself. Nothing in the NT. lends colour to the modern tendency to minimise evil, or to regard it as another form of good. Tares] or 'bastard wheat': so much like true wheat, that until the corn is in the ear the two cannot be distinguished. Hence any attempt to root up the tares would result in rooting up the wheat also. So in the Church any attempt to distinguish between true and false Christians is doomed to failure.

27. The servants] i.e. the apostles and those in authority or having influence in the Church.

31, 32. Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30; Luke 13:18). This parable, and that which immediately follows, the leaven, are more hopeful and cheerful in tone than those that went before, in which most of the seed sown failed to bear fruit, and tares sprang up among the wheat. Both parables describe an enormous extension of the Kingdom of God from small beginnings, but there is this difference. In the parable of the mustard seed the growth of the Kingdom as a visible and powerful organisation is described, in that of the leaven its hidden and secret influence, spreading wider and wider until the whole of society is leavened with Christian ideas.

31. Christ takes the grain of mustard seed, by which is to be understood Christianity both as a doctrine and as an organised society, and plants it in His field, which is the world. Mustard seed] The vegetable or herb, not the so-called mustard tree, is meant. In hot countries it sometimes grows to a great size. The Jerusalem Talmud says, 'There was a stalk of mustard in Sichin from which sprang out three boughs, of which one was broken off, and covered the tent of a potter, and produced three cabs (12 pints) of mustard.' Rabbi Simeon said, 'A stalk of mustard was in my field, into which I was wont to climb as men are wont to climb into a fig-tree.' Although the mustard seed is not really the smallest of all seeds, it was so in popular estimation. The rabbis called the smallest possible quantity 'the quantity of a grain of mustard,' and Mahomet uses the same expression in the Koran.

32. Insignificant in its beginnings, founded by a supposed criminal in an obscure province, directed by twelve Galileans of little wealth or education, the Christian movement rapidly expanded into a world-wide Church, so powerful as a bond of union, that the Roman empire itself sought to strengthen itself by its alliance, so strong to succour the oppressed, that the poor and lowly took refuge under its protection, so majestic in its ordered stability that the rude barbarians who conquered Borne submitted to its sway. Its growth in modern times has been still more striking. From the year 1700 to 1800 it is estimated that the Christian population of the globe advanced from 155 millions to 200 millions. From 1800 to 1900 the progress has been from 200 millions to more than 500 millions, so that the disciples of Christ now equal, if they do not exceed, a third of the human race.

33. Parable of the Leaven (Luke 13:20-21). The leaven (or 'yeast') is here the Spirit of Christianity working secretly in the world until the whole is leavened. Devotionally the parable may be applied to individual souls. St. Ambrose says, 'May the Holy Church, who is figured under the type of this woman in the Gospel, whose meal are we, hide the Lord Jesus in the innermost places of our hearts, till the warmth of the divine wisdom penetrate into the most secret recesses of our souls.'

33. Leaven] i.e. the influence of Christ, the power of Christianity. The figure is taken from the power of leaven ('yeast') to make the dough light and wholesome, and to spread through an enormous mass of it with great rapidity. Generally leaven is used as a figure for wickedness (Matthew 16:6, etc.), and some wrongly so regard it here, taking the woman for the apostate Church, and the leaven as the 'mystery of iniquity' with which she corrupts the purity of the gospel.

Three measures] lit. 'three seahs,' a seah containing 1½ pecks. Since this was the usual quantity to be baked at once (Genesis 18:6 : cp. also Judges 6:19; 1 Samuel 1:24, where the equivalent amount, an ephah, is mentioned), no special significance attaches to the number 'three.' The meal is mankind, as uninfluenced by the gospel. Took] i.e. from elsewhere, for Christianity is not of this world, but introduced from without. Till.. was] The past tense is a prophetic way of speaking of the certainty of the result.

34, 35. Christ's parabolic teaching (Mark 4:33-34).

35. By the prophet] i.e. Asaph the seer, the author of Psalms 78, from which the quotation (Matthew 13:2) is taken.

36-43. The Tares interpreted. See on Matthew 13:24. The field is called the world as well as the Kingdom of God or the Church, because the Church is charged with a mission to the whole human race, and is destined to be universal.

The children of the kingdom] true Christians.

The children of the wicked one] false Christians.

41. His kingdom] His Church.

All things that offend] RV 'that cause stumbling.'

42. Gnashing] indicating rage and disappointment, not pain. Their punishment continues because their sin continues: cp. Matthew 8:12, etc.

43. In the kingdom] in the final bliss of heaven: cp. Daniel 12:3.

44-46. The Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (peculiar to St. Matthew). These two parables were addressed to the disciples in the house on the subject of personal religion. Their teaching is that it is not enough to be outwardly a Christian or to be under Christian influences. The true Christian must be inwardly convinced that his religion is the most precious of all things. He must know Christ as a personal Saviour, and feel in his heart the spirit of sonship, crying, Abba, Father. In comparison with this he must despise all other things. But there is also a point of difference. The first parable (the hidden treasure) describes the case of a man who finds a treasure without looking for it. By some accidental circumstance he becomes aware that a treasure is buried in his neighbour's field, and immediately sells all that he has to buy it. This is the case of a man who has long been possessed of the outward form of Christianity, but has been entirely unacquainted with its power. Then suddenly it is revealed to him what a surpassing treasure it is to love God and to know Christ. He sells all that he has, i.e. gives up all that can hinder him in his quest, and enters on possession of the treasure. The second parable, that of the merchant seeking goodly pearls, describes a man who all his life long has been in the pursuit of truth and at last finds it. Such a one was the philosopher Justin, who, dissatisfied with all the schools of pagan philosophy, found rest for his soul in Christ.

44. Treasure] Christ Himself and all that Christ brings with Him to the believing soul.

Afield] the outward forms of Christianity, as distinguished from their spirit. He hideth] i.e. throws the earth over it again, so that no one else may discover it, until he has effected the purchase. Selleth all that he hath] i.e. gives up every sin or self-indulgence which hinders him from giving himself wholeheartedly to Christ. Buyeth] In itself an immoral transaction, for the seller did not know that the treasure was there. But this is not t*he point which is proposed for imitation.

47-50. The Net (peculiar to St. Matthew). At first sight the teaching of this parable is the same as that of the parable of the tares. There is the same identification of the Kingdom of Heaven with the earthly Church, and the same idea that it will embrace the evil as well as the good. But whereas in that, the stress was laid upon matters pertaining to this life, in this the stress is laid upon what will happen in the next. In that the rulers of the Church were warned not to anticipate by too rigid a discipline the final separation between good and evil, in this they are taught that the process of separation will one day be performed, and that effectually, by the unerring judgment of Him who can read the heart of man. Then, and then only, will there be an absolutely pure Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing.

47. A net] lit. 'drag-net,' i.e. an oblong net of immense length, employed near the shore. The bottom edge was weighted with lead, and swept the bottom of the sea. The upper edge floated on the surface of the sea, supported by corks. Escape from it was impossible, and when it was dragged to shore, it contained every fish in the area of sea which it had swept. The net is the Church, and the fishermen, on whom, however, no stress is laid in the parable, are the apostles and their successors. The sea] the nations of the world, as often in Scripture: Psalms 65:7; Isaiah 8:7; Revelation 17:15. Of every kind] not merely of bad and good, but of every nation, kingdom, and tongue. A prophecy that the Church will be Catholic, or universal.

48. Shore] i.e. the end of this dispensation, or world. Sat down] In the parable those who drag the net, are not the same as those who sort the fish. The latter are the angels, the ministers of judgment. Vessels] i.e. the heavenly habitations, the final reward of the just.

50. On gnashing of teeth, see Matthew 13:42.

51, 52. Concluding remarks to the parables (peculiar to St. Matthew).

52. Every scribe which is instructed (RV 'who hath been made a disciple') unto the kingdom of heaven] Jesus is pleased with their answer, and speaks of them as the future scribes or teachers of His Church. A man that is an householder] i.e. Christ Himself the master of the house (the Church). Afterwards the apostles themselves will become 'householders,' exercising Christ's authority committed to them. His treasure] i.e. the chest where money and jewels are kept. The 'treasure' of the Christian preacher is the Holy Scripture, and His own inward experience of what true religion is. Things new and old] the old truths which God had long made known to the Jews, as well as the new truth declared by Christ. It is also an exhortation to the preacher to adapt his discourse to his hearers, to put milk before babes, and strong meat before men.

53-58. Second visit to Nazareth and its neighbourhood (Mark 6:1). The first is described Luke 4:16, where He received similar treatment and used the same proverb.

55. The carpenter's son] St. Mark has 'the carpenter.' His brethren] see on Matthew 12:46-50.

57. Were offended] lit. 'were caused to stumble,' i.e. were hindered from believing.

A prophet] see on Luke 4:24; John 4:44.

58. Did not many] St. Mark has 'could not do.'

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 13:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/matthew-13.html. 1909.

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Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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