Blogging the Parables of Jesus

 

Matt 13:24-43

Blogging about a parable is a lot like explaining a joke: it sort of defeats the purpose.

But here we are, so here we go:

24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

 31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 

33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

 34Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

This week we have moved on in Matthew’s Gospel –no longer in the Sermon on the Mount but Jesus is still in teaching mode. And in this stretch of teaching, he falls back on what may have been his most characteristic form of speech: the parable.

To get oriented to parables, I am going to lean heavily on the work of Douglas R. A. Hare. He reminds us that “parable” comes from a Greek word meaning “to set side by side.” Parables teach by comparing one thing to another. But Hare also reaches back to the Hebrew word mashal, which often designates “enigmatic speech” –“language that both conceals and reveals.”

Why?

Well, things aren’t going so great for Jesus. The previous two chapters of Matthew recount his rejection at the hands of “this generation.” The parables mean to set up a “compare and contrast” between those who are with Jesus and those who are not. All of the parables in this passage take as their subject the nature of the kingdom of heaven and the way it impinges on our here and now. Remember the “kingdom of heaven” does not mean “the afterlife”; rather it designates that state of affairs in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus proclaims the nearness of the kingdom; Jesus teaches his followers to pray for the coming of the kingdom and in these parables Jesus shares some specifics about the nature of the kingdom.

We can outline the passage as follows:

  • Parable of the Weeds in the Field
  • Parable of the Mustard Seed
  • Parable of the Yeast
  • Summary Statement on Parables
  • The Parable of the Weeds in the Field Explained

This is an enormously complex passage. But in the spirit of trying to let the parables speak for themselves, I will try to keep my comments on these subsections brief.

 

Parable of the Weeds in the Field

 

24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

 

Remember the context: Jesus and his movement are experiencing some success, but a lot of rejection as well. When we are working for the kingdom of God, the results are often ambiguous. The parable serves as a reminder to withhold judgement. Or, as a 20th century prophet once put it:  “Don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin.”

Parable of the Mustard Seed

 

 31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 

 

I actually think Bruce Springsteen said all there is to say about this one.

 

 

Parable of the Yeast

 

33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

 

The kingdom of God is sneaky and subversive!

 

Summary Statement on Parables

 

34Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

 

Matthew regards Jesus’ parables as his most characteristic speech and a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

 

Parable of the Weeds in the Field Explained

 

 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

 

And this may be where the passage gets a little more complicated.

 

In seminary (well, in my seminary, anyway) they teach you that a parable means one and only one thing. But in v.36-43, Matthew has Jesus serve up a kind of allegorical interpretation that feels less like Jesus and more like the early church.

 

(Allegory is a story with a hidden meaning in which each element stands for something else. Think Pilgrim’s Progress or Animal Farm by George Orwell). And the focus seems to shift from the nature of the kingdom to thoughts on the final (eschatological) judgement.

 

At this early point in the week, as I wrestle with the question of what to preach, I am stuck on the insiders/outsiders dynamic to which these parables respond but which they also perpetuate. And for me they sit uneasily alongside one of Jim Gilliom’s favorite poems:

 

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”

― Edwin Markham

 

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