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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 13

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Introduction

New Conflicts and New Miracles (13:53-16:12)

This series of accounts, the progress of which Matthew borrows from Mark (compare Mark 6:1-6; 6:14 8:21), unfolds without any great visible unity. It illustrates the preceding discourses an ever-deepening chasm develops between the unbelief of some and the faith of others. We are apprised that the destiny reserved for prophets is rejection and martyrdom. We are thus slowly prepared for the confession of the disciples and the announcement of the Passion.

Verses 1-23

The Parable of the Sower and Its Explanation

(13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20)

Goethe mentions with some irony this sower who cast his seed indiscriminately on the edge of the road, on stony ground, and in the brambles. What intelligent farmer would act thus? But is not this paradox intentional? The point of the parable lies precisely in the contrast between the quantity of grain lost and the final abundance of the harvest.

The sower is none other than Jesus. And how numerous are those who reject his word! But no amount of opposition can prevent the coming of the Kingdom of God or his word from bearing incalculable fruit! The parable is a judgment on those who listen without understanding (Matthew 13:19), but a marvellous promise to those who hear the word and understand it (Matthew 13:23). It concludes with a solemn warning: "He who has ears, let him hear" (Matthew 13:9; compare the same injunction in 13:43). When Jesus uses this formula it always indicates an important revelation, a decisive choice.

The parable itself (vss, 3-9) is followed by two explanations, one bearing on the mystery of the Kingdom, (vss. 10-17), the other on the parable itself (vss. 18-23).

Jesus’ reply to the question of the disciples (vss. 10-11) seems at first glance to be enigmatic. Does Jesus deliberately speak in a way not to be understood? Exactly the contrary is said further on (vss. 34-35). We have seen earlier, however, that a parable is at the same time a simple way of speaking to those who understand but a stone of stumbling for those who do not.

What are these secrets of the Kingdom which are revealed to the disciples only? First and essentially, they involve the fact that the Kingdom of God is secretly but effectively present in the Person of Jesus, The epoch of the Messianic Age has begun! This is thrown into relief by all the sayings and all the mighty works which we have been recounting, as well as by certain precise declarations of Jesus himself (see particularly Matthew 11:27-30; Matthew 12:28; Matthew 12:41-42). But the mystery of the Kingdom consists also in the fact that the coming of Jesus produces a distinction between those who receive the good news of the Kingdom and those who reject it His coming becomes a judgment which we pronounce on ourselves. The one "who has" will receive an abundance. The one "who has not" will lose even what he has (vs. 12). This saying, in its paradoxical form, reminds us that the word of God is never without effect It either brings fulfilment or it hardens.

The quotation from Isaiah indicates that the presence of Jesus, as was true of the preaching of the prophet, places Israel before a final decision. Now, as then, Israel shuts her ears to the call of God. She is deaf and blind. She will not acknowledge herself to be sick, and thus she refuses her healing. But there are some in Israel who see and hear. Blessed are they! For they live in a unique hour, the time of the coming of the Messiah, that coming which the prophets and all the "righteous men" of the Old Testament had awaited through the centuries.

The unbelief of a large number is, in a way, to be expected in a world separated from God. It is a divine miracle that there are those who have seen and believed! It is a miracle that all the opposition of the world cannot prevent his Kingdom from coming or his harvest from being superabundant! This is both a warning and a promise for preachers and missionaries in every age.

The explanation of the parable of the Sower, as it is given in verses 18-23, makes clear the point on which the similitude turns: the seed is nothing other than the word of God, received by some, rejected by others. But it must be acknowledged that this explanation weakens rather than clarifies the mystery of the Kingdom spoken of above. It has a very practical import and does not throw into relief with equal force the central thought of the parable itself. Perhaps it is necessary to see here a homiletical commentary, an echo of the apostolic preaching. The warning is addressed to hearers in every age. It is already detached from the historic crisis which is the backdrop of this parable and of those which follow (vss. 10-17). In this case the passage merely prolongs the line of Jesus’ thought by generalizing its meaning. In any case, it brings to each one of us an important message on the manner of our hearing.

There is a superficial way of reading the Bible and of participating in worship. The Word is read or heard, but it is not "understood." We do not receive inwardly all of its demand and its promise. It does not become within us a ferment of life (Matthew 7:21-27; Matthew 12:50). Also, the Devil is quick to obliterate the Word. We may have received it with enthusiasm, but it takes only one trial to shake our faith. That which comes upon us " on account of the word" leads us to fall away. Or, again, the daily "cares" of life "choke" the word, drown it in a whirlpool of activity. Thus we fail to bring forth the marvelous harvest promised to him who "hears the word and understands it."

Verses 24-43

The Tares, Mustard Seed, and Leaven (13:24-43)

The parable of the Tares, recorded only by Matthew (vss. 24-30), is separated from its explanation by two other short parables, the Mustard Seed (Vss. 31-32; see Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19) and the Leaven (vs. 33; see Luke 13:20-21). Verses 34-35 serve as a sort of conclusion to this first collection of parables. The explanation of the Tares is given to his disciples in private by Jesus (vss. 36-43).

In the parable of the Tares, again seed is sown in a field. The new element, however, is the role of the "enemy" who also sows, secretly, during the night. The servants are astonished at the appearance of the tares and propose pulling them up. The householder denies their proposal for fear of uprooting the wheat. The separation will be made at the harvest.

Here again we are in the presence of a deliberate paradox. Can we imagine anyone, even an enemy, sowing bad seed in a neighbor’s field? Nevertheless, such is the situation of the world: God is the legitimate owner, who has sowed the seed of his Word in the world. But another is there, the Adversary, Satan, who surreptitiously labors to destroy his work. Wherever the Spirit of God is at work with power, Satan also arrives in force! The Jews expected an immediate judgment at the Messianic Age; they thought that the Messiah would form around him the community of the "pure." (The Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that the Qumran sect tried to build such a community, separated from the world.) Now Jesus is here and the Evil One continues his work. Even among the Twelve there will be a traitor. The question, Why? was posed in the minds of the disciples. The Gospels do not hide from us the disciples’ impatience with this different sort of judgment (see Luke 9:54-55), with this Kingdom which did not come quickly enough for their liking.

The "point" of the parable is precisely this mixture of wheat and tares, of good and evil, of good people and bad people, which will exist "until the harvest," that is, to the end of the age (Matthew 13:40). Men are not permitted to prejudge the Last Judgment. We are here confronted with the mystery of the patience of God.

The explanation of the parable in verses 36-43 states precisely its Messianic meaning, while it transposes its terms. The enemy is the Devil. The seed consists, on the one hand, of "the sons of the kingdom" and, on the other hand, of "the sons of the evil one." When the last hour comes, the Son of Man, through his angels, will cleanse his Kingdom of all impure elements. The description of the fiery furnace where "men will weep and gnash their teeth" is characteristic of Matthew (13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30) and is found only once elsewhere (Luke 13:28). One may question whether this is not a stereotyped formula which is a favorite of the editor. The point of the parable is not so much the prohibition of judging before the time as it is the fear which the Last Judgment should inspire. At the same time, however, the essential warning remains the same: only the Last Judgment will definitively reveal to whom we belong, and it will be either a judgment of death or a marvelous fullness of life "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father 3 ’ (vs. 43). It is impossible to be sure how much of this interpretation is the actual word of Jesus and how much is the commentary or preaching of the Early Church; but this takes away nothing from the importance of the message.

The parable of the Mustard Seed (vss. 31-32) stresses the contrast between the smallness of the seed and the greatness of the tree (compare Mark 4:30-32). The prophets sometimes described the kingdoms of the world under the form of a tree which extended its branches over the whole earth (Ezekiel 31:3-9; Daniel 4:11-12). Jesus applied this image to the Kingdom which he had come to inaugurate. How humble and hidden its beginnings, but how great the promise which it contains!

The parable of the Leaven likewise stresses the contrast between the end and the means (vs. 31; compare Luke 13:20-21). Three measures of meal correspond to about forty pounds of bread. Only a very little leaven is sufficient to make all this dough rise!

Verses 44-52

The Treasure, the Pearl, and the Net (13:44-52)

The themes of the parables of the Treasure and of the Pearl are the same: in both cases we are confronted with a man who discovers something so precious that he is ready to sell all he has to acquire it. The only difference between the two stories rests In the fact that in the first case the man finds the treasure without having to look for it and hides it carefully until he is able to acquire it, while in the second case the merchant is searching for pearls and his search is rewarded.

The first thing which these parables tell us is that the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is good news. This note of joy remains dominant in the message of Jesus through all opposition and all defeat. In this his preaching is in strong contrast to that of John the Baptist. His coming evokes the joy of a wedding (Matthew 9:14-15), the joy of a feast (Matthew 11:16-19). Jesus both radiates and communicates this joy. To know him is to know joy, the peace of pardon, the freedom of the children of God. And this is the joy that nothing can take away (see John 15:9-11; John 16:22). Whoever catches a glimpse of such a gift is ready to leave all to receive it The word ’’renounce" has little meaning for him inasmuch as he has only one desire! (Matthew 6:19-21). To preach the gospel is to reveal a treasure.

The parable of the Net allies itself with that of the Tares. The fishermen draw out of the sea fish of all kinds; later they will seat themselves on the shore and throw away what is bad. In this Jesus evokes a familiar scene. The disciples have been compared by him to "fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). The community which they gather is a mixture of good and bad. The separation will take place only at the Last Judgment. Here again it is the angels who have charge of doing the sorting (compare Matthew 13:41-42).

"Have you understood all this?" This question addressed to the disciples is addressed to us also. Have we understood? Have we found the pearl which is worth more than all the treasures of the world? Have we made our choice?

The meaning of the saying concerning the scribes (vs. 52) and its link with what goes before is not absolutely clear. The reference is to scribes "trained for the kingdom of heaven." The saying is therefore addressed to the disciples, to all those who have received the instruction of Jesus. They accumulate a treasure where the old is mixed with the new. What are these old and new things? They are presumably the revelations of the Old Testament, from which Jesus draws inspiration and whose authority he upholds, and the extraordinary newness which lies in the coming of the Kingdom in his Person.

Verses 53-58

The Destiny of Prophets (13:53-58; see Mark 6:1-6)

It is not without reason that Matthew, following Mark, relates consecutively the rejection of Jesus by his home town and the beheading of John the Baptist. A common lesson is bound up in these two stories: the world does not tolerate prophets, for the mission of the prophet is to labor for the truth, to unmask falsehood (Matthew 5:11-12; Matthew 23:29-31).

All three Synoptic Gospels note that the villagers of Nazareth were astonished. The reputation of Jesus had reached them, and his preaching had made an impression on them. They admitted that he had done great miracles in Capernaum (Luke 4:23). How was he able to do all this? We know his family! They are insignificant people! Certainly, everybody in the village is in expectation; but it is the expectation of curiosity, not That of faith. And Jesus never satisfies this sort of expectation. According to the Gospel by Luke, he abruptly unmasks the unbelief of his hearers, and this is sufficient to turn them against him (Luke 4:25-28). Mark and Matthew simply declare without explanation that the people "took offense" at Jesus. Because they believed that they knew him, with a completely human knowledge, they did not recognize in him the messenger of God, the bringer of salvation. "And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief." The Kingdom of God does not open up its mystery to the curious but to the poor, to those who thirst after righteousness (Matthew 5:3-8). Nazareth is not ready to receive it And Jesus declares that a prophet is of no account in his own country. Jesus knew, among other sufferings, the pain of being a stranger among his own people.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 13". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-13.html.
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