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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 13

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verses 1-58

XIII 1-53 The Parables of the Kingdom —The foregoing chapter presented our Lord and the Pharisees; in ch 13 our Lord turns to ordinary folk. In contrast with the direct teaching of the Sermon, chh 5-7, his teaching is now in ’parables’. They are of various kinds) but the subject throughout this’ day of parables ’ is one—the kingdom of God, the great subject of our Lord’s preaching, 4:17; 10:7; cf.Luke 4:42-43; Luke 10:9; Acts 1:3. The term ’parable’ (pa?aß??ð+´) means ’comparison’. The Gospel parables may be defined as: fictitious though likely stories designed to clarify a moral lesson or doctrinal truth by means of comparison; cf. Prat, I, 320-1; 549-54. The parable is a comparison to be taken as a whole; its details are inserted merely to make the story live. In this it is distinguished from the allegory which is a chain of metaphors of which each link has its own significance. It follows that the lesson of the parable inclines to simplicity and clarity; the lessons of the allegory are multiple and tend to obscurity. Yet some allegories may be clear and some parables obscure by reason of the circumstances of their utterance or of the difficulty of the subject treated. The gospel parables, especially those concerning the Kingdom, often contain allegorical elements. This phenomenon has been used to prove that such parables have been decorated with allegory by the evangelists. Jesus, it has been claimed, would not have used allegory since it would obscure his message. In this theory the evangelists, anxious to explain to pagan and Jew the blindness of the Messias’s own people, have deliberately obscured the parables with allegorical elements. The theory is exiggerated. Allegory and parable are similar literary forms and the intrusion of allegory into parable is a natural process (* C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, London 1936). Moreover, the mixture of the two is equally characteristic of the rabbinic ’parables’ in the first centuries of the Christian era; cf. D. Buzy, Introduction aux Paraboles Evangéliques, Paris 1912, 148-54

1-2 The Setting (Mark 4:1; Luke 8:4)—Mt’s phrase ’the same day’ may be as vague as his other phrase ’at that time’, or (if intended to be exact) may apply only to some of the parables in the chapter. Leaving the house (cf. 12:46; on this’ house, Matthew’s own with some probability, cf. Lagrange, Mt, lxxvif.) our Lord goes down to the lakeside. So that all may see and hear he addresses the throngs from one of the boats moored there.

3-9 The Sower (Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8)—3-4. In Palestine the farmer sows after the first autumn rains (usually November His bedgeless fields are bordered, and often traversed, by stony paths. Willy-nilly some seed, scattered from his basket, must fall on the track (’on’ rather than ’by’—apa?a+^wapa is probably a mistranslation of the ambiguous Aramaic ’al; cf.Luke 8:5 where the seed is ’trodden under foot’, Black 120). The greedy Palestinian sparrow is not slow to seize it.

5-6. Even in Galilee the stony soil lies thin on outcrops of rock. The very lightness of such soil favours too rapid growth (perhaps within a few hours) and the sun, still strong in November, will shrivel the delicate shoot unsustained by moisture from a deep root.

7-8. The Palestinian farmer prefers to cut his weeds. The result is disastrous: they stifle everything in the vicinity. As for the more fortunate seed, it is a mistake to look for botanical precision in a parable. Our Lord’s figures are selected at random to illustrate the abounding virtue of the seed. In special cases one seed may produce (even in Palestine) two or three hundred grains of cereal ( Bi 8 [ 1927] 84-5), but the ordinary Palestinian farmer (from whom our picture is taken) is content with an average yield of 12 to 1. 9. Far from wishing to puzzle his audience our Lord seriously asks them to reflect upon his words. His formula (again in 11:15; 13:43, cf.Deuteronomy 29:4 where the absence of the listening ’ear’ suggests guilt) implies that in these matters goodwill facilitates understanding; cf.John 3:21.

10-17 Purpose of the Parables (Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10—10. The disciples (not only the Twelve; cf. Mark 4:10, WV) seem puzzled at this indirect method of teaching. Their question, however, was not put until they were alone with Jesus, Mark 4:10.

11. The notion of the ’kingdom of heaven’ embodies the hidden design (µ?stð+´????) of God. The mass of the Jewish people were ill-prepared for a direct and sudden revelation of its profound nature. The indirect teaching by parable must for the time suffice; direct light would only blind. But the inner circle of disciples, willing to be taught and destined to teach, can and must be told. It should however be noticed that this inner circle was not a closed circle. It was open for all who heard the parables to show their goodwill by making further inquiries.

12. Our Lord observes that a worldly practice, common but not admirable, here finds its spiritual application. The rich are flattered with gifts, the poor suffer violence and loss. Those who accept and are rich in the gifts of God (which include docility, pliant will, generous heart) amass further treasures; cf.John 1:16. The spiritual pauper has only himself to blame (cf. ’Ask and it shall be given’, 7:7) —and this explains how an axiom of unjust worldly practice can have its counterpart in the spiritual order. He is said, by a paradoxical hyperbole, to lose what he has—which is nothing. The application of this dictum to the present situation seems to presuppose some fault (as it does in 25:29 where it is used again) on the part of the people at large.

13. This fault is a lack of spiritual perception. Confronted with this, our Lord did not withdraw as he did from the actively malignant Pharisees, 12:15. He mercifully remained to do what he could in the circumstances. Like stupid children the people could learn only from little stories—analogies which, though helpful, could not plumb the drpths of the mysterious ’Kingdom’.

14-15. Cf.Isaiah 6:9-10. Isaias had been thwarted by the same dispositions. His experience rehearsed that of the Messias-Prophet as the OT history in general was a rehearsal of the Messianic era. Mt reproduces the LXX version (translate: Assuredly you shall hear . . . assuredly you shall see but . . .). This softens the harsh (but heartbroken) irony of the Semitic imperatives: Hear and understand not! See and comprehend not! Harden the heart . . .’ (cf.Isaiah 6:9 with notes). The words expand, by more literal quotation, those of 13 and like them they explain why our Lord is forced to use parables. Whether the purpose of the parables is of chastisement or of benefit is much discussed. In effect we cannot exclude either element. The difficulties of the texts, however, (especially Mk) must be resolved in the light of three certain facts. First: our Lord’s own love for. this people; his mission is mercy not judgement; he has come to save that which was lost, 18: 11. Second: the parable is designed not to obscure but to clarify; absolutely speaking, it is not the most direct and efficient form of teaching, but relatively to the capacity of the audience’s mind and heart it may be the only possible one; the only alternative would be silence. Third: graces refused become matter for condemnation. The question is treated at some length in, e.g. Buzy, Introduction aux Paraboles, 231-413; A. Charue, L’Incrédulité des Juifs dans le Nouveau Testament, Gembloux 1929,141-4; Durand, ER 107 ( 1906) 256-71; Lagrange RB 7 ( 1910) 5-35 and L’Evangile de Jésus-Christ, Paris 1932, 168-71; Lebreton, Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ (Eng. tr.), London 1935, 239-53; F. Prat, Jésus-Christ, 1, 340-1; Skrinjar, Bi 11 ( 1930) 291-321; 426-49; 12 ( 1931) 27-40. 16-

17. Our Lord does not praise the docility of the disciples, but invites them to be grateful for God’s free gift. Born in less happy times men as just as they and even the prophets could only peer into the great dim future, 1 Peter 1:10 ff. In that future, now present, the disciples are privileged to live and not only to live but to be the pupils of the Master in the new era; cf. ’therefore’ in 18.

18-23 The Sower Parable explained (Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15)—’You therefore’, says our Lord, ’hear ye the parable’. Actually it is the meaning of the parable that they are about to hear, but in Aramaic there is no exact expression for ’significance, explanation’; cf. similar defective phrases in Mark 4:10; 9:10; Luke 8:11; Joüon 86f. The seed is the doctrine (??+´???) of the Kingdom, sown by our Lord and later by the Apostles. For three classes of men it remained fruitless.

19. In some it is a total lack of spiritual appreciation. The word lies unregarded. Satan alone benefits. ’This is he that was sown by the wayside’. ’The various kinds of soil represent the various kinds of hearers. But since the fate of the seed really represents the spiritual fate of the hearers, the seed and the hearers are in part identified’, WV.

20-21. In others there is a thin layer of spiritual perception, but the superficial are given to sudden and ephemeral enthusiasms. The quick growth is not of deep root and soon disappears; the personal sacrifice entailed and even active opposition ’presently’ (i. e. ’immediately’, e?+?T?+´?) prove a snare in the moral path of such men.

22. The third category is of those in whom the root strikes deepest. Yet here too the seed will not come to maturity if side by side with it grow preoccupation with the affairs of the world and particularly with the seductive glamour (WV) of riches. 23. Not all the successful seed bears the same fruit, but in all cases it is abundant; cf. 8 note.

24-30 The ’Cookie’ (Mt only)—The parable has a setting similar to the previous one and completes it.

24. From the outset our Lord makes it clear that he is speaking of the Kingdom; contrast 3. But, in the rabbinic manner, the term of the comparison is said to be ’a man who sowed’ when, in reality it is the whole situation which is thus compared; cf. also 13:31, 33, 45, 47; 20:1; 22:2; 25:1. 25-26. The ’cockle’ is the lolium temulentum (so named from its effect of dizzi. ness on men and cattle)—more accurately not ’ tares’ (KNT) but ’darnel’ (it is sown secretly and in spite. The weed is indistinguishable from the wheat until its more slender ear appears.

27-29. This plant (rare in England) is common in Palestine, but the servants are astonished at the amount. The farmer himself immediately senses the hand of an enemy, but it is too late, or too early, to act: the roots of weed and wheat are intertwined.

30. He must wait until the ears are ripe and then the wheat, which grows higher than the weed, may be cut near its head while the sickle leaves the weed untouched. It is unusual to sheave weeds, but then it is unusual to sow them: it is an unusual operation to meet an unusual case. Nevertheless there may be allegory here though the shearing is not mentioned again in the explanation; 40 mentions only the gathering and burning. For the explanation of the parable see notes to 37-42.

31-32 The Mustard-Seed (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19) —Once again it is not precisely to the seed that the Kingdom is compared but to the whole situation; see on 24. It would seem wiser, therefore, not to attempt to emphasize the pungency or other property of the seed except its apparent insignificance which is an integral part of the parable. This would be allegory without warrant. In the world of nature, as in the word of history, insignificant beginnings may be misleading. It is so with the world-event known as the Kingdom of Heaven. The human activity of our Lord was limited, its immediate results unspectacular. The mustard-plant is the brassica nigra of the botanists. The seed, proverbially tiny (cf. 17:20 and SB 1, 669) is not in fact the smallest known, but our Lord is not giving a lesson in botany. It is the smallest of the familiar seeds, DBV 5, 1601. Its bush is common on the banks of the Jordan and of the Galilean Lake, often reaching a height of 12 ft and therefore called a ’tree’ by the Arabs; cf. Biever, Conférences de Saint Etienne ( 1911) 281. That the’ birds of heaven come and dwell in its branches recalls the prophecy of Ez 17:22-24 where the tree’ (a cedar) is the future Messianic kingdom and every bird and winged thing’ the people of all the nations. This reminiscence seems to warrant for the ’birds’ the allegorical sense of all peoples.

33 The Leaven (Luke 13:20-21)—The preceding parable stressed the contrast between small beginnings and enormous end; the present one covers the intermediate process. The Kingdom’s development is not a matter of almost inevitable, natural growth from its Old Testament beginnings. It is the issue of forces intrinsic to the element (the yeast) now for the first time implanted in the world. These forces work powerfully, secretly, in every corner. The yeast is small compared with the dough, perhaps one ounce to sixteen or seventeen pounds of flour nowadays in Palestine; cf. Buzy, 178. The ’measure’ chosen by our Lord for his parabolic purpose is the sa+?t?? (Aram. sa’ta’; Heb. se’ah; which is one-third of an ephah. The ’three measures’ are therefore equivalent to one ephah, the unit of capacity slightly more than our ’bushel’, RB 28 ( 1931) 212. This large amount is chosen to illustrate not the size of the kingdom (cf. previous parable) but the power of the ’ yeast ’.

34-35 Parabolic Teaching foreshadowed (cf.Mark 4:33-34)—Mt again seizes the opportunity of pointing out the reflexion of the New Order in the Old. The psalmist in 77(78) 2, about to expound the mystery of God’s way with his people, dubs his exposition a ’parable’ (mašal; LXX pa?aß??ð+´; in this case a didactic poem). Struck by the word itself, so apt to the teaching he describes, Mt points to the divinely constituted precedent. He insinuates the uniformity existing between the teaching method in the word of God of old and that of the Son of God now. But he insinuates, too, as elsewhere when he quotes the OT, that the psalmist’s words would be more profoundly true on our Lord’s lips. This last point appears to be emphasized by the form in which Mt puts the second half of the quotation. Unlike the first half it is not identical with LXX but seems to be a more impressive translation of the Heb. ’Enigmatic things of old’ (HT, LXX—referring in the psalm to the early days of Israel’s history) becomes: ’Things concealed from the time of the foundation ’ of the world; cf. 25:34. The psalmist (’Asaph’ is named in Psalms 77:1 and called ’prophet’ in 2 Par 29:30) had a much more restricted purpose. Our Lord’s doctrine is not contained within the temporal or spatial bounds of Israel.

36-43 Cockle Parable explained (Mt only)—Not all the elements of the parable are allegorical. The sleepers of 25, for example, are not careless pastors; nor does the ’binding’ of 30 indicate that not one of the wicked shall escape. Such applications may be tentatively made, and were often made by the Fathers, but they were not made by our Lord. He explains the allegory of the main elements only. The conditions described in the parable are said to be those of the early Church, e.g. by * G. D. Kilpatrick, The Origins of the Gospel according to St Matthew, ( Oxford 1946)97; 107. The implication is that the parable, in its present form, is not traceable to Christ. This position, however, makes no allowance for our Lord’s divine foreknowledge and refuses him even human foresight. It also ignores the fact (cf.1 Corinthians 5:2) that in the early Church the ’cockle’ was not always allowed to go unmolested until the ’harvest’, This attitude of the early Christians makes it evident that they did not consider our Lord as laying down exhaustive legislation for a fully constituted society. It makes it still more evident that the parable-allegory is not the invention of the early Church. Moreover, the objection forgets that the problem of God’s tolerance (cf. note to 13:19) was not to rise only in the distant future—one of the Twelve was already a traitor, as Jesus knew; cf. Lagrange, Mt36. Dismissing the multitudes our Lord returns to the house; 13:1 note. The disciples, emboldened by his words, 11, ask a more detailed explanation of the parable of which, doubtless, they already have the general meaning.

37-38. The field is the world—or that part of it in which the Son of Man has sown. The seed is not now the Word, as in 19, but every ’citizen’, every loyal subject, of the Kingdom (in Semitic phrase: ’child of the kingdom’). The ’cockle’ is the offspring of evil (or ’of the Evil One’?) i.e. evil deeds and evil men alike; 41 note.

39. The Evil One himself is the spiteful enemy of the Son of Man, attacking him indirectly and by stealth. The explanation takes a leap to the end of the world; the intermediate period of growth is not mentioned, presumably because here it is not significant. It appears, therefore, that the object of the parable is not to define the duties of the leaders in the early Church but simply to explain God’s tolerance of evil. The angels who execute God’s judgements Bonsirven 1, 235) gather the crop, wheat and weed. 40. The emphasis on the fate of the ’cockle’ (40-42; the ’wheat goes unmentioned) is in accord with the purpose of the parable: the exercise of retribution is only delayed.

41. The Son of Man must present a perfect Kingdom to his Father, hence it is he who executes judgement (cf.John 5:27) through his ministers. (This quiet assumption of authority should not go unnoticed.) These will cleanse the Kingdom of scandals (of acts constituting a moral snare for the faithful) and of those responsible for them (cf. the same distinction in 18:7; cf. also in HT, Soph 1:3 of which our Lord’s phrase is probably a reminiscence: ’I will destroy. . . . scandals together with the wicked’).

42. The cockle will be cast into the ’furnace of fire’, a contemporary synonym for the place of the damned, Bonsirven 1, 537. The ’weeping and gnashing of teeth’ sorts ill with the suggestion of burning, but the phrase is stereotyped in Mt (8:12; 22:13; 25:30; in which places it is more naturally associated with the ’exterior darkness ’).

43. Finally a word of comfort for the disciples. Their future glory is expressed in terms familiar to Jewish thought (Daniel 12:3; Wis 3:7 and the uninspired; Esd 7:97; and cf. Bonsirven 1, 520f.). The Kingdom thus purified now passes from the hand of the Son and becomes the kingdom of the Father; cf.1 Corinthians 15:24. For the concluding formula cf. 13:19 note.

44 The Treasure (Mt only)—Mt records this and the following parable without either preamble or explanation. Doubtless the two were proposed to all, like the previous parables. Explanation was scarcely necessary; they are already sufficiently clear. A man finds buried treasure, struck perhaps by his random spade, in another’s field—not an unlikely experience in a country familiar with invasion and flight; cf. Jos., BJ 1, 7, 5, 2). He buries it again for security and in his joy (WV) goes off and sells his possessions (the significant trait of this parable as of the next). He buys the field, clearly without acquainting the owner (landlord or employer, presumably) of his discovery. The morality of his action need not be discussed: it lies outside the purpose of the parable which is to teach that the Kingdom is worth the sacrifice of all worldly possessions (cf. 10:37-39).

45-46 The Pearl (Mt only)—A pendant of the former arable with the same moral. The parable naturally finishes with the acquisition (again, at all costs) of the single and valuable pearl. The merchant may have turned connoisseur but, in any case, he is parabolically pictured as retaining the pearl; suggestion of re-sale would have injured the parable.

47-50 The Drag-Net (Mt only)—From pictures of farm and kitchen and market-place our Lord turns to that of lake-fishing, equally familiar to the Galileans. The net (often about one-quarter of a mile in length and about 6 to 10 feet in depth) is sustained by cork floats and weighted with lead. The men on shore pay out the net as the boatmen, holding the other end, describe a wide are in the lake until they disembark further along the bank. The net, now semicircular, is evenly drawn towards the shore by both parties. Of the thirty or so species of fish in the Lake of Galilee none is worthless (sap??+´?) though the cat-fish (clarias macracanthus) being scale-less was not eaten by practising Jews, Leviticus 11:9; Deuteronomy 14:9. It is unnecessary, however, to seek ichthyological exactitudes: the moral of the parable demands a mixture of bad and good (as in the ’Cockle’ parable) and the picture becomes subservient. 49-50. The application of the parable is similar to that of the Cockle’ (without the epilogue concerning the ’just’) of which it is a twin. Both parables make it clear that the Kingdom exists amid. earthly conditions before it reaches its final stage of perfection.

51-52 The Scribe In the Kingdom (Mt only)—The disciples assert that they have grasped the implications of the foregoing parables of the Kingdom. Our Lord in reply defines the advantage of such understanding. It is only when he possesses this comprehension of the Kingdom (d?a+^ t??+?t?) that the ’scribe’, thus instructed, becomes comparable to the careful householder. Old garments have not been destroyed. but put away in his store-cupboard ready for emergencies. The new must not be used to patch the old, 9:16, but the old has its subservient uses. The ’scribe (or law-learned) of the new order (cf. 23:34), unlike his counterpart of the old, has the essentials of the Old Law at his finger-tips precisely because he possesses the knowledge of the Kingdom which is the perfection of the Law, 5:17. He is in a position to expound the working-out of God’s design not only in its preliminary expression (the Mosaic dispensation) but in its present activity (the Kingdom in being) and even in its consummation, 39-43; 49-50.

53-58 Hostile Reception at Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6a; Luke 4:22b-30.)—53-54. From the account of the parables Mt (having already, in chh 8-9, narrated the miracles of Mark 4:35-41; Mark 5:1-20, Mark 5:21-43) takes us straight to Nazareth, our Lord’s home-town; cf. 2:1:11, Mark 1:9. It is Jesus’ second visit; cf. 4:13 and Luke 4:16-30. His teaching in their synagogue astounds them, 7:29 note. They know he has not been trained in the rabbinic schools at Jerusalem. Moreover, they have heard of miracles worked, though hot at Nazareth (another source of complaint; cf.Luke 4:23-29). 55-56. With the public our Lord passed for the son of Joseph the carpenter (te+´?t??—joiner and housebuilder; cf. Höpfl, Bi 4 [ 1923] 41-5). His ’brethren’ are known to the people of Nazareth: James, ’Joseph (or Jose; Mark 6:3), Simon, Jude. James is called ’brother of the Lord’ in Galatians 1:19; nevertheless he is certainly not a son of our Lady but of another Mary (’of Cleophas’, cf. Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25) who is also the mother of Joseph (Jose); cf. §§ 672-3. If the first two named are only cousins (the Greek term ’brethren’ represents the more general Aramaic ’a?) it is scarcely likely that Simon and Jude, named last, are closer relations ( Lagrange, L’Evangile, 193-4. On the question of the ’brethren’ of the Lord; cf. §§ 672-3). 57-58. Contemptuous familiarity was a psychological obstacle. Our Lord sadly notes this irrational but common attitude. He works only a few unspectacular cures (Mk), evidently upon some of the few who accepted him. He could give nothing (cf. note to Mark 6:5) to those who refused his gifts.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on Matthew 13". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/matthew-13.html. 1951.
 
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