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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Matthew 13

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-58

Chapter 11

The Parables of the Kingdom - Matthew 13:1-58

"THE same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side." We can well imagine that, after such a series of discouragements and mortifications, the weary and heavy-laden Saviour would long to be alone, to get away from the abodes of men, to some lonely place where silent nature around Him would calm His spirit and furnish a temple in which He might lift up His soul to God. How long He was allowed to be alone we cannot tell; but possibly He may have contrived for a time to remain unobserved. How burdened His spirit must have been! What strength of faith it must have needed to look forward with any hope to the future of His work at such a ‘time of crushing disappointment! We must remember that He was true man, and therefore His heart must have been very sore as He dwelt on the painful experiences through which He had just been passing. The obstacles which lay right in His path must have seemed well-nigh insuperable; and it would have been no wonder if at such a time He had despaired of the prospects of the kingdom of righteousness and peace and joy He had come to set up on the earth. He did not despair; but He did most deeply ponder; and the result of His thinking appears in the series of parables recorded in this chapter, which set forth, on the one hand, the nature of the obstacles the kingdom must meet, and the reason why it must meet them, and on the other, its certain prospect, notwithstanding these, of growth and development onward to its final consummation.

If He was permitted to enjoy His seclusion, it was only for a short time. "He could not be hid," His quiet retreat was discovered; and presently there came to Him great multitudes, so many that the only convenient way to address them all was to get into a boat, and speak to the people gathered on the shore. It is a lovely picture: the multitudes on the shore with the green fields around and the hills behind, and the Master speaking from the little boat. Viewed apart from the sorrowful experience of the past, it would have been full of cheer and hope. What more encouraging sight than such a throng gathered to hear the words of light and hope He had for them? But how can He view it apart from the sorrowful experience of the past? Have not these crowds been around Him day after day, week after week; and what has come of it all?

It is one thing to sow the seed of the kingdom; it is quite another to gather the harvest. The result depends on the soil. Some of it may be hard, so that the seed cannot enter; some of it, though receptive on the surface, yet so rocky underneath, that the fairest shoots will wither in a day; some of it so filled with seeds of thorns and weeds that plants of grace are choked as they attempt to grow; while only a portion, and it may be a small proportion of the whole, can yield a fair or full return. Such were His thoughts as He looked on the field of men before Him, and glanced from it to the fields of the plain of Gennesaret around, in the foreground of which as in a picture the multitudes were set. As He thought, so He spoke, using the one field as a parable of the other, thus veiling, and at the same time beautifully revealing, His. thought in a figure, which, simple as it was, demanded some degree of spiritual understanding for its appreciation; and accordingly after speaking the parable He adds the suggestive word, "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear."

There is something very touching in that word. It thrills with the pathos of these precepting chapters of disappointment. He had such a message for them-good tidings of great joy, rest for the weary and heavy laden, words of life and light and hope eternal-if only there were ears to hear. But that sad passage of Isaiah is running in His mind: "By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: for this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them." That is the great obstacle, the one hindrance. Oh! if only men would hear; if only they would not close the ears of their souls! "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear."

I THE PRINCIPLE OF PARABOLIC INSTRUCTION.

The parable is a new style of teaching as compared with that of which the "Sermon on the Mount" was so notable an example. That discourse was not by any means lacking in illustration; still its main lines of thought were of the nature of direct spiritual instruction. But here there is no direct spiritual teaching. It is all indirect, it is parabolic through and through. No wonder the disciples noticed the difference, and came to the Master with the question, "Why speakest Thou unto them in parables?" The answer He gives is a revelation of the thoughts which have been passing in His mind. Of this disclosure we have already availed ourselves in our attempt to picture the scene; but it remains to look at this weighty passage as answering the disciples’ question, and so explaining the rise of that form of instruction in which, as in all that He did, He showed himself a perfect Master.

The whole thing turns on the distinction between earnest inquirers and careless hearers. There must have been many of the latter in His audience, for this was no selected company, like that which listened to the Sermon on the Mount. The earnest inquirer has ears to hear; the other has not. The difference this makes is most strikingly set forth in the strong declaration: "Whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath,"-that is, instead of being the better for what he has heard, he is the worse; not apprehending the truth, he is only perplexed and confused by it, and instead of going away enriched, he is poorer than ever.

What, then, is to be done? If, instead of doing the people good, it only does them harm, why try to teach them at all? Why not let them alone, till they come with ears to hear, ready to receive? Happily this sad alternative is not the only resource. The truth may be put in such a way that it has both a shell and kernel of meaning: and the kernel may be so inclosed in the shell that it can be kept safely there, ready for the time when the inner fruit, which is the true food of the soul, can be used. For this purpose the parable is pre-eminently serviceable. The shell of meaning is so simple and familiar, that even a child can understand it; being of the nature of a story, it is very easily remembered; and connected as it is with that which is frequently observed, it will come up again and again to the minds of those in whom the thought has been lodged; so that, even if, on first hearing it, there is no possibility of understanding its deep spiritual significance, the time may come when it will flash upon the spirit the light which has been concealed within and so preserved from waste.

Take this parable of "The Sower" as an illustration. The disciples, having ears to hear, were ready to get the good of it at once, so to them He expounds it [Matthew 13:18-23] on the spot. The rest were not ready to receive and apply it. Having ears (but not ears to hear), they heard not; but did it follow from this that it was useless, even worse than useless, to give it them? Had the teaching been direct, it would have been so; for they would have heard and rejected, and that would have been the last of it. But put as it was in parabolic form, while they were not prepared to understand and apply it then. they could not but carry it away with them; and, as they walked the fields, and observed the birds picking the seeds from the trodden field-paths, or the tiny plants withering on the rocky ledges, or the springing wheat strangled with rank growths of thorns, or the healthy growing wheat plant, or later in the season the rich golden grain on the good soil, they would have opportunity after opportunity of getting a glimpse of the truth, and finding that which at the first they were so unprepared to receive.

In this we can see the harmony of the passage before us, with its parallels in the second and third Gospels, where the object of speaking in parables is represented as being "that seeing, they might not see. and hearing they might not understand." {see Mark 4:12, and Luke 8:10}

It is true that the object of the parable was to veil as well as to reveal; and the effect, which was also an intended effect, was to veil it from the unprepared heart and reveal it to the heart prepared; but inasmuch as the heart which is unprepared to-day may be prepared to-morrow, or next month, or next year, the parable may serve, and was intended to serve, the double purpose of veiling it and revealing it to the same person-veiling it from him as long as his heart was gross, but revealing it to him as soon as he should turn to the Lord and be willing to use his spiritual powers of apprehension for the purpose for which they had been given him. Thus, while this method of instruction was of the nature of judgment on the hardhearted for the moment, it was really in the deepest sense a device of love, to prolong the time of their opportunity, to give them repeated chances instead of only one. It was judgment for the moment, with a view to mercy in the time to come. So we find, as always, that even when our Saviour seems to deal harshly with men, His deepest thoughts are thoughts of love; and in His recourse to the parabolic veil, He is once more illustrating the truth of the prophet’s description of Him cited in the foregoing chapter: "A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench, till He send forth judgment unto victory."

How many difficulties might have been avoided if expositors had used less of the mere "dry light" of the understanding, and tried more to lay their hearts alongside the beating heart of Christ! "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord." Had this been remembered, and the fire of love in such a passage as this brought to bear upon the heart, before it was used "like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces," how different in many cases would have been the result! It is sad to think that this very passage as to the object of the parables has been used as if it simply taught predestination in its hardest sense, dooming the poor misguided soul to hopelessness for ever; whereas, if we enter at all into sympathy with the Saviour’s heart in the sad and trying circumstances in which the words were spoken, we find in it no harshness at all, but the yearning of a patient love, seeking if by any means He may reach and gain the lost.

We have, indeed, the evidence on every side that the Saviour’s heart was greatly moved at this time. We have already recognised the pathos of the cry, "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear." We have seen the sorrow of His heart in the sad quotation from the prophet Isaiah. On the ether hand, what joy He has in those who do see and hear!-"But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to bear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them." The same satisfaction appears later, [Matthew 13:51] when, after finishing the series, He asks His disciples, "Have ye understood all these things?" and they say unto Him, "Yea, Lord." He adds, "Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old." The Saviour evidently rejoices in the thought that these disciples, having ears to hear, are making real progress, -so much so that in due time they will be ready to be teachers of others, each having a treasury of his own; and not only will they be in possession of the old, but will have power to strike out new views of sacred truth, and so be prepared with freshness and variety to set forth the glad tidings of the kingdom of heaven. How fully these hopes were realised we have only to look forward to the epistles to see. There we have things old, the very truths the Master taught in the days of His flesh; and not the old alone, for there are things new as well, fresh settings of the old, new aspects, varied applications of the truth-a treasury indeed for the ages to come. The Saviour, then, had good reason to take comfort that some of the seed He was sowing in tears was falling on good soil, and promising a rich and blessed harvest.

But the dark and discouraging side is never long out of sight. Returning to His own country, and teaching in their synagogue, He so impressed the people that they could not but ask certain questions, which, if they had only pondered them, would have led them to the truth: "Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works?" But the mere outside things that met their eyes so engrossed their attention, that their heads and hearts remained as empty as ever. Instead of pressing the question Whence? which would have led them up to heaven and to God, they dwelt upon "this man," this common man, this carpenter’s son, with a mother called Mary, and brothers with the common names, James and Joseph, Simon and Judas; so, proving themselves to be of the earth earthy, they closed their ears and were "offended in Him." It was very evident that the only hope of reaching people of that kind was to speak in parables, which they could remember without understanding in the meantime, with the hope that by-and-by as they thought of the subject without such prejudices as these which now cause them to stumble, they may at last understand, and receive the truth and inherit eternal life.

II. THE GROUP OF SEVEN.

So far we have dealt with the parabolic method of teaching, and in doing so have glanced at only one of the seven parables the chapter contains, every one of which invites special study; but inasmuch as our plan will not admit of this, we shall attempt nothing more than a general view of the entire group; and to this we restrict ourselves the more willingly that there is a unity in the cluster which is apt to escape notice when they are considered apart, and because by letting go the details we get the prominent features more vividly before our minds.

The arrangement seems to be in three pairs, with a single concluding parable. The first pair-"The Sower" and "The Tares"-set forth the manner of the establishment of the kingdom of heaven, and the obstacles it must encounter. The sphere from which both parables are taken is admirably suited to bring out the radical distinction in regard to the manner of its establishment between the new kingdom and those with which the people were already familiar. They were founded by the sword; this kingdom by the Word. Not force, but persuasion, is to be the weapon; and accordingly there is placed before the mind, not a warrior hasting to battle, but a sower sowing seed. "The field is the world," we are told-the world of men, of human hearts; and the seed is "the word of the kingdom." It is "good seed," and therefore it ought to be welcome; but there are serious obstacles in the way.

The first parable sets forth the obstacles encountered in the soil itself. Sometimes the seed falls on hard soil, where it cannot penetrate the surface, and presently birds come and carry it away-representing those hearers of the word who, though they remember it for a short time, have their hearts hardened against it, so that it does not enter, but is presently snatched away by trifling worldly thoughts which come fluttering into the mind. Then there is the shallow soil, a little loose earth on the surface, and close under it the hard rock, harder even than the trodden wayside-a kind of soil in which the seed will rapidly take root and spring up, and as rapidly wither away in the noonday heat, and which therefore fitly represents those who are easily impressed, but whose impressions do not last; who make many resolutions indeed, but in so half-hearted and impulsive a way that they are destined to be blighted by the first blast of temptation. Finally, there is the preoccupied soil, where thorns and thistles hold the ground and choke the springing plants of grace, representing those who "are choked with cares, and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity."

The good soil is marked by characteristics which are simply the negatives of these: it is not hard, so the seed enters; not shallow, so it takes root; not preoccupied, so it holds the ground, and springs up and brings forth fruit, "in some thirty, in some sixty, in some a hundred-fold."

There are, however, other obstacles than those found in the nature of the soil. There is the diligence of the enemy, and the impossibility of getting rid of those who have come under his influence, as set forth in the second parable, that of "The Tares of the Field." In this parable the good seed is no longer the word, but "the children of the kingdom"; as if to suggest that Christians themselves are to be to the world what the word has been to them; while the bad seed-sown when men sleep, sown when Christians are asleep-does not remain as mere seed, but embodies itself in "children of the wicked one," who take their places side by side with the true children of the kingdom, and whom it is so difficult to distinguish from them, that the separation may not be attempted till the time of the harvest, when it shall be complete and final, and "the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father."

The second pair-"The Mustard Seed" and "The Leaven"-set forth the growth of the kingdom notwithstanding the many obstacles it must encounter, the one indicating its growth as recognisable to the observant eye, the other its pervasive power as permeating society. This twofold view of the development of the kingdom is in the same line of thought as the illustrations of the light and the salt in the Sermon on the Mount. The prophecy these parables infold is most marvellous, spoken as it was in a time of so deep discouragement. There is true pathos in the thought of the grain of mustard seed, "the least of all seeds," and in the little word "hid," which comes in so significantly in the parable of the Leaven; and there is great strength of faith in the readiness of mind to recognise the hopeful thought of the inherent life and energy hidden in the tiny germ, and working all unseen in the little leaven which literally disappeared in the at first unaltered mass.

The parables of "The Hid Treasure" and "The Pearl" form a third pair, shadowing forth the unsearchable riches of Christ. The reduplication of the thought adds greatly to its impressiveness, and moreover affords the opportunity of suggested variation in the experience of those who find the treasure. The merchantman we naturally think of as representing the rich, and the man finding the treasure in the field as one of the poor in this world’s goods. Both alike, however, "buy" their prize at the price of all that they possess, on the principle which underlies all our Lord’s teaching as to the way of life: "Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath cannot be My disciple." The one comes upon his treasure unexpectedly; the other finds it in the course of diligent search. Both alike, however, recognise its exceeding value as soon as it is seen; and it is under no constraint, but willingly and gladly-"for joy thereof," as it is put in the case of the man who from his not seeking it might have been thought indifferent to it-that each one sells all that he has and buys it.

The last parable, according to the arrangement we have suggested, stands alone. It is the parable of "The Net," and its subject is the consummation of the Kingdom. Its teaching is indeed, to a great extent anticipated in the parable of the tares of the field; but in that parable, though "the end of the world" is pictured in the most impressive imagery, it is not the main thought, as it is here, where the one lesson is, that the present mixed state of things cannot continue for ever, that there must come a time of separation, when those in whose hearts God reigns shall be gathered to a place by themselves, where they shall be satisfied for ever, with their treasure no longer hid, but open in all its immeasurable fulness; while those who refused to allow God to reign in their hearts, and preferred their own selfishness and sin, shall be cast away and consumed, with "wailing and gnashing of teeth."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Matthew 13:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/matthew-13.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, September 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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