Matthew 11:2-12:50 - Rising Opposition (cont.)
The majority of Matthew 11-12 contains the third major narrative section of this gospel. The themes of these chapters are doubt, indifference, and disagreement. The final two paragraphs of chapter 12 provide a solemn warning by Jesus of the seriousness of rejecting him and his teachings.
Matthew 11:43-45 - Concluding Warnings
Verses 43-45 contain the brief parable like story of an unclean spirit returning to possess the person from whom it had been cast out. Verses 46-50 present Jesus' remarks about his "true family." Following these paragraphs, Matthew 13 contains the third major collection of Jesus' teachings.
Verses 43-45 contain the parable like story of an unclean spirit who has been cast of a person wandering in the desert seeking a "house" - another person to possess. Finding no one the demon returns to the previous "house" (the person from whom it had been cast out) and discovers it to be empty. This unclean spirit then finds seven other spirit more evil than itself and they all possess the original "house" (person). The idea that evil spirits occupied the desert appears to have been an idea present as far back as Isaiah 34:14-15 (see Demons in the Old Testament). The speech of Jesus found in the preceding verses (Matthew 12:25-42) had been motivated by the accusation that he cast out demons by demonic powers. This context, as well as the two concluding statements in verse 45, makes it clear that Jesus had both an individual and "corporate" application of this story in mind.
The first concluding statement is that the final condition of the person is worse than the original condition. The point is that a person who is freed from the evil spirit can not remain "empty." That person must become committed to Christ and maintain an on-going and vital relationship with God. Failure to do so leaves such a person spiritually "empty" and he or she is liable to end up with an even worse spiritual condition.
The context and the second concluding statement about this evil generation point to a corporate application of the story. The Pharisees who accused Jesus of casting out demon by Satanic power represent this evil generation. They are like a person who has been cleansed in the past, but failed to develop the disciplined relationship with God necessary to withstand evil. They have now fallen into a deeper sin than ever before in their corporate history. To become so evil that you call the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God the work of Satan reveals how much worse their last state has become than their first. This story warns us of the danger, both individually and in our religious organizations, of failing to maintain the close, vital linkage with God that we need. Failure to do so may leave us especially vulnerable to spiritual catastrophe even while we continue our outwardly correct religious observances.
The paragraph about Jesus' "true family" also has important individual and corporate implications. When Jesus' mother and brothers arrived at his preaching site to talk with him he was told that his mother and brothers were standing outside wanting to see him. In reply Jesus asks the rhetorical question, "And who is my mother? Who are my brothers?" He answered his own question by gesturing to the disciples and claiming them as his true family. He then remarked, "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
On the individual level this reveals that a person becomes a part of the family of Christ by obeying God. In that sense the disciples (then and now) were more genuinely a part of Jesus' family than his own blood kin folks who did not obey God. Christians throughout history have experienced one result of this spiritual reality. Believers often feel closer to each other than to their own relatives who are not believers.
On the corporate level, the Pharisees and the Essenes would have been the closest theological relatives of Jesus and early Christianity. However, the failure of these groups to obey God broke the family relationship that should have and could have existed between them and Jesus. The accusation by the Pharisees that Jesus had cast out demons by demonic power shows how broken that relationship had become.
Teaching in Parables - Matthew 13:1-52
Matthew 13:1-52 contains the third major collection of teaching materials in the first gospel. The first was the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. The second was the Missions discourse of Matthew 10. This third collection of Jesus' teaching is primarily composed of parables, interpretations of parables, and a discussion of the purpose of Jesus' use of parables.
The history of the interpretation of parables is fascinating. Through the majority of Christian history the main way of interpreting parables has been called the allegorical method. This method attempted to use the parables to illustrate the doctrinal teaching of the Christian faith. It should not be hard to see that this method easily fell into the trap of making doctrinal systems the key to interpreting these words of Jesus. Thus instead of deriving doctrine from the parables, interpreters placed doctrine in them. There was a brief effort to return to a historical meaning of parables by Martin Luther and John Calvin at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. However, their followers quickly succumbed to the temptation to use the parables as theological clubs with which to beat other interpretations. The various denominations developed systems of doctrine supporting their denominational positions. They used the parables in an allegorical way to claim scriptural support for their denominational theology.
The modern interpretation of parables began about one hundred years ago as a reaction against allegorical interpretations. The goal of an allegorical interpretation was to be able to show the points of contact or comparison between the literal parable and the details of the theological interpretation. Modern parable study emphasized a single point of comparison. Parables were said to have just one point.
For the first half of the twentieth century that one point was generally considered to be some teaching about the Kingdom of God. Starting in the 1960's scholars working on the parables began to focus on the literary, artistic, and rhetorical aspects of the parables. The way the details of the parable functioned to produce a desired effect or response in the listeners or readers became the focal point. This has been combined with renewed attention to the kinds of literature that are often called parables.
Jesus and the gospel writers seemed to operate with a Hebrew concept of parables. The Hebrew word for parable is mishal and it was used of many kinds of sayings, from proverbs to illustrations to word plays to allegories. Similitudes, illustrations, examples, proper parables, and allegories are all structured differently and have slightly different functions in the Scriptures. This recent development in the study of parables has not always agreed that there is only one point per parable. If the parable structure suggests an allegory, we should not by definition simply eliminate the possibility of multiple points of comparison and meaning. Recent studies have been open to the possibility that some parables are designed to evoke different meanings in different audiences.
The problem of doubt and rejection of Jesus had emerged in Matthew 11-12. One of the questions that occupied the minds of serious followers of Jesus (and readers of Matthew) is how people could reject Jesus and his teachings after seeing his authority and his miracles. The parables of Matthew 13 are designed, at least in part, to answer that question. The structure and organization of these parables is a matter of debate among scholars, but it seems clear that these parables explain the receptivity of some and the rejection of others. That question appears in the first parable in chapter 13, the parable of the sower, and it reappears in some form or another in the subsequent parables.
The Parable of the Sower - Matthew 13:1-9
This parable of the Sower is also found in Mark 4:1-9 and Luke 8:4-8. Though the popular title has been the parable of the sower, it is often called the parable of the soils, and occasionally it has been called the parable of the seed. The debate over the title reflects disagreement about the best way to interpret it. The modern literary study of parables has pointed out the way in which most parables reflect typical life in Palestine throughout most of the parable. As the story unfolds, reflecting the typical experiences of the audience, they assent to the story line. Each time the listener nods in recognition he or she is more deeply drawn into the experience and the message of the parable.
However, at some point - usually near the end - the parable abandons the pattern of reflecting typical or normal life and presents something totally uncharacteristic of that time and culture. This "unrealistic" segment of the parable is usually the key teaching point. The familiar material has won an audience from the listeners and hearers are deeply involved in the story. Then, when the "unrealistic" part comes the listener wants to "back out" of the parable, but is unable to do so because of the heavy emotional investment created by all the agreements already.
The parable of the sower seems to work on this principle. The four kinds of soil were all very typical to the Palestinian farmer. There were no "farm houses" on the farms of Jesus' time. Everyone lived in the village (where the water supply was) and walked out to their plot of ground to farm it. The paths along the edges of the fields would become beaten down almost as hard as a rock. Seed landing on the paths would stay on top the hard surface and could easily be picked up by the birds. Much of the farm land of Palestine was plagued by a layer of rock just below the surface of the soil. Seeds would quickly germinate, but just as quickly wither and die from lack of moisture which the rock layer cut off. The picture of the thorns was also bound to elicit knowing nods from Jesus' audience.
The good soil was also typical. Most fields had some soil that either naturally or through hard work had become productive and it was that soil that led the farmers to expect the possibility of a good crop. The "unrealistic" point of this parable comes at the size of the crop. A good crop in Palestine was considered to be ten fold. Jesus' description of the harvest as one hundred, sixty, and thirty fold was bound to shock the listeners. "No way!" they might want to respond, but they had already bought into the parable. If the point is the kingdom of God, Jesus was proclaiming that though not everybody would accept the gospel message, for those who did the results would be spectacular in their lives. Thus the doubt of John the Baptist in Matthew 11 and the rejection of Jesus by Pharisees in chapter 12 are like seed falling on the path and on rocky soil. But followers of Christ are not to fear the rejection of his message. For those who accept it the results will be beyond human imagination.
The Purpose of Parables - Matthew 13:10-17
In all three Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the parable of the sower is followed by verses dealing with the purpose of Jesus' use of the parables. These have been extremely difficult verses for the modern Western mind to understand. Most New Testament scholars believe that Mark wrote his gospel first and that Matthew and Luke used his gospel as one of their sources while writing their gospels (see The Synoptic Problem). The passage on the reason for Jesus' use of parables in Mark 4:10-12 has been the most difficult to understand. There Jesus appears to state that he spoke in parables in order that people not understand the mysteries of the Kingdom of God so they will not repent and be forgiven. These words seem so out of character with Jesus' other teachings that only the most skeptical scholars believe that Mark accurately translated the Aramaic words of Jesus into his Greek gospel. If Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source for their gospels, they both modified this section so that Jesus does not sound so harsh.
Matthew begins by placing the question of the reason for Jesus' use of parables on the lips of the disciples. Jesus' reply begins by indicating that parables allowed insiders (disciples) to understand, but prevented outsiders from discovering the secrets of the kingdom. Thus verse 11 is consistent with one of the interpretations of Matthew 7:6 about not casting pearls before the swine.
All three Synoptic gospels also make some reference to Isaiah 6:9-10. Matthew is the only one who quotes the passage in full. In the original context of Isaiah 6 these verses describe the hard-hearted attitude of the people of Judah as they rejected Isaiah's call to repentance. Matthew alludes to the Isaiah passage in verse 13 as Jesus states that the reason for the parables is that his listeners see but do not perceive; they hear but they do not listen. His point seems to be that the parables call for careful attention and openness. To those who open their hearts and apply their minds the parable are like a shell that opens to reveal amazingly beautiful truths. But those who make no effort to understand or to be open find only a shell locked tightly shut. Matthew then presents the full text of Isaiah 6:9-10 as being fulfilled in the people who make no effort to respond to his teaching. Thus the rejection of the Pharisees in chapter 12 is explained by Isaiah 6:9-10. This section on the purpose of the parables explains why some have rejected Jesus and by means of it Matthew warns us as readers of the effort and openness that is required if we are to enter the Kingdom.
The Interpretation of the Parable of the Sower - Matthew 13:18-23
The interpretation of the parable of the sower found in Matthew 13:18-23 has some allegorical elements. The seed is compared to the message about the Kingdom of God and each soil is compared to a human circumstance reflecting rejection or receptivity to the gospel. Because of these allegorical details many scholars in the first part of the twentieth century argued that this interpretation did not come from Jesus. They saw it as an allegorical interpretation of the early church or of Matthew personally that was inserted into the text. The basis for their argument was that Jesus would only have told a parable with a single point and thus for him the interpretation must have been something like that suggested above in this lesson.
More recent scholarship has taken a more moderate position. We may ask why Jesus was not allowed to 1) tell an allegory or 2) give an allegorical interpretation when the early church was allowed to do so. There are evidences of the influence of Matthew's wording in these verses and the picture of persecution in verse 21 and of wealth in verse 22 suggest a context in the time of the early church. However, there is no reason Jesus could not have given this kind of interpretation to the parable of the sower. In fact, there is no reason Jesus could not have told the parable of the sower at different times with different purposes or interpretations intended for the audience to perceive.
The Parable of the Weeds - Matthew 13:24-30
The parable of the weeds appears only in Matthew's gospel. It occurs following the interpretation of the parable of the sower. In Mark's gospel there is also a parable immediately following the interpretation of the parable of the sower. That parable is about seed growing automatically. Matthew does not use that parable, but substitutes the parable of the weeds for it. It seems most likely that Matthew found the parable of the seed growing automatically (literally - "of itself") too optimistic. The parable of the weeds seems to fit Matthew's more realistic tastes and it also allows Jesus to address a real problem in Matthew's church.
There are elements of allegory inserted from the beginning of this parable. The portion of the story that describes an enemy coming by night to plant weeds in among the wheat does not fit the pattern of typical circumstances at the beginning of a parable. Certainly such unethical attacks must have happened from time to time, but there is no way we could describe it as normal or typical. The parable is thus governed early on by the allegorical idea of Satan as the spiritual enemy of the church. The "weeds" appear to have been a variety of what some farmers today call "cheat grass." At many stages in development this plant closely resembled wheat, but the final result was a harmful weed. When the slaves of the landowner discovered the "weeds" they were prepared to go into the field and pull them out at the time the wheat and the weeds were distinguishable. The landowner instead instructed them to wait until harvest and then separate the two at that time.
The allegorical interpretation of this parable is given in verses 36-43 and reveals the skillful construction of the allegory by Jesus. The main point is that the Kingdom (and for Matthew - the church) will have both good (wheat) and evil (weeds) people in it. Though God would only "plant wheat" Satan causes the church to be infiltrated with sinful folks. Interestingly, like the wheat and the weeds there are many times when a person cannot tell the difference between the good and the wicked folk in the church. This is a warning against the overzealous and sweeping condemnation that some people like to issue about sin in the church.
The allegory also acknowledges that human efforts to uproot the sinners and throw them out of the church will cause more harm than good. The church will have to live with the ambiguity of a mixture of good and sinful people in her midst. This does not mean that we can never determine that a church member is sinning. It does mean that we need to be extremely careful about judgment and our own efforts to create a pure church. It could be that our judgmentalism and harsh attitudes would mark us as the sinners in need of being thrown out. Humility in the face of the mixed church is always appropriate.
The Parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven - Matthew 13:31-33
The two brief parables of the mustard seed and leaven are technically described as similitudes. Rather than telling a story about a particular person or event a similitude offers a comparison between the kingdom and a general truth or reality. In verse 31 the kingdom of heaven is not like a certain mustard seed. It is like every mustard seed. The similitude "works" by inviting the listener to accept the comparison in order to see the application. Jesus says, "The Kingdom is like a mustard seed." The listener responds, "Okay, how?" Jesus then makes the point. Assuming the comparison is skillfully drawn the listener cannot back out. After all he or she has already accepted the invitation of the similitude. Jesus' application of the mustard seed similitude is a comparison between the small seed and the large bush that always results when a mustard seed germinates and the bush grows to maturity. The similitude "works" because a mustard seed is never large - it is always small. And the final product is always a large bush, never a small one.
The application is clear. The Kingdom may begin in a small way, but its final result will be large. The disciples were tempted to see doubt and rejection as somehow invalidating Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom. "Not so," is Jesus' reply. The seeming weakness and smallness of the Kingdom is preliminary. Wait until the final results are in. Then you will see the greatness of the Kingdom. In a similar fashion the similitude of the leaven points out that the Kingdom does not appear to be doing anything. However, that leaven is working a growth that only later will be visible.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 12:43-13:43. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer committing yourself to be "good soil" for the gospel message and asking God to grant a harvest in your life of one hundred fold. Ask him to show you what that might mean for you.
Second Day: Read Matthew 13:24-53. Now focus on Matthew 13:44-53.
1. What is the point of the similitude of the treasure hidden in the field? Is the similitude about the treasure or about the response of the one who finds it? What response to the kingdom does this parable teach?
2. What are the similarities and the differences between the teaching of the similitude of the treasure hidden in the field and the similitude of the pearl of great price? Which is most meaningful to you? Why?
3. What are the similarities and the differences between the teaching of the parable of the drag net in verses 47-50 and the parable of the weeds found in verses 24-30?
Third Day: Read Matthew 13:44-58. Focus in on Matthew 13:51-58.
1. Some interpreters see verse 52 as the description of the ideal disciple. In what ways does disciple pull new and old truths from his treasures? In what ways does this verse describe Jesus?
2. What was the response of Jesus' hometown to his ministry? Do you find this response surprising? Why? Or why not? Did Jesus find their response surprising? Why not?
3. In what way do verses 54-58 provide an appropriate summary to Matthew 11-12 and to the parable collection of Matthew 13?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 14:1-36. Focus your attention on Matthew 14:1-12.
1. As you read the focus verses carefully what do you think was the real reason for John the Baptist's death?
2. What kind of person does Herod appear to be in these verses? What would you regard as his worst characteristic? Is there anything about him that is admirable?
3. In what ways does the death of John the Baptist anticipate or prefigure the death of Jesus? In what ways does the death of John the Baptist "fit" with the flow of thought from Matthew 11-13?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 14:1-36. Now focus in on Matthew 14:13-21.
1. What are the evidences of Jesus' compassion in the focus verses? What are the evidences of the compassion of Jesus in your life? What are the evidences of the compassion of Jesus being lived out for others in your life?
2. What elements of the Feeding of the Five Thousand remind you of the Lord's Supper? What elements remind you of Matthew 5: 6?
3. How do you think Jesus must have felt when he heard the news of John the Baptist's death? How difficult would it have been for him to respond to the crowd with compassion when he wanted to be alone? Write a brief prayer asking God to help you move beyond yourself to extend compassion to those in need.
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 14:1-36. Now focus on Matthew 14:22-36.
1. In what way does Jesus accomplish his goal from verse 13 in verses 22-24? What draws Jesus from his "retreat" in this paragraph?
2. What was the need of the disciples? Or did they have a need in these verses? What does it feel like in the storms of your life to experience Jesus coming and speaking words of comfort and peace?
3. Why do you think Peter began to sink (verse 30). Do you regard Peter as a good example or as a bad example in these verses? Why? What elements of both can you find? In what ways would you like to emulate Peter? In what ways would you like to be different than he was?