Teaching in Parables - Matthew 13:1-52 (cont.)
Matthew 13 contains seven or eight parables, depending on whether or not one considers verse 52 a parable. There have been several attempts to explain Matthew’s principle of organization in chapter 13, but most have not been successful. As a result, some scholars believe that he simply wrote the parables of this chapter without an outline in mind. The most convincing explanation of the structure of chapter 13 claims that there are three sections to Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ parables. The first section deals with the parable of the sower and is contained in verses 1-23. The second section is marked by the parable of the weeds in verses 24-30 and its interpretation in verses 36-43. Enclosed between the parable of the weeds and its interpretation are the parables of the mustard seed and of the leaven. The third section consists of verses 44-52 with the parables of the treasure, the pearl, and the net.
Parables of the Kingdom: Matthew 13:44-52
All the parables of Matthew 13 deal with the kingdom of God and these final three parables are no exception. Like the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, those of the treasure and pearl form a pair. Both sets of the parable pairs share the themes of hiddenness and smallness. The new element of teaching for the parables of the treasure and the pearl is the immense value of kingdom.
Burying a treasure in the ground was common in the biblical world (as it has been until the last century or two) because there were no safe places for deposit as we now have in bank and other vaults. Sometimes the person(s) burying the treasure died and its location became unknown. Occasionally modern Christians have been distressed because they felt the person finding the treasure should have notified the owner. The point of the parable is not to tell us what to do when we find treasures hidden in a field (a fairly rare occurrence for most of us). Rather, the parable uses what any person in the ancient world would have done to illustrate how we should respond to the discovery of the kingdom of God. In the ancient world, if a treasure was found in a field the finder would re-bury it and immediately take whatever steps would be necessary to buy the field. Any price would be worth paying in order to own the field and thus obtain the treasure.
In a similar fashion, it is worth any price to become a part of the kingdom of God. Further, verse 44 comments that this price is paid with joy. This parable represents an interesting contrast to the way some forms of evangelism have presented the way of God. Paying the price for the kingdom is not seen as a sacrifice but as the joyful embracing of the most wonderful thing that could happen to a person. We would do well to help our children understand the Christian faith in such a fashion.
The parable of the pearl makes a similar point in verses 45-46 as the initial word "again" in verse 45 shows. Pearls were highly valued in the ancient world. In fact, there is some evidence that pearls were even valued more highly than gold. Whether an ancient pearl merchant would have actually sold everything he owned in order to buy one pearl may be questioned. Some scholars regard this detail as exaggeration in order to show how valuable the kingdom is.
Another point of comparison is the fact that both the hidden treasure and the pearl (because of its small size) could easily be missed. People other than the finder of the treasure had passed by the field. People with less trained eyes than the pearl merchant had failed to discern its great worth. It is possible that some people will not comprehend the coming of the kingdom when it stares them in the face. However, other people’s disregard of the kingdom is no reason to refuse to pay the price of entry. Once one knows that it is the kingdom of God that they have encountered no price is too great to pay.
The parable of the net, found in verses 47-50, moves in another direction. Here the point is the same as found in the parable of the weeds. The Greek word for the net describes a seine-net that would have had floats on one edge (the top) and weights on the other. It was designed to sweep through a section of water and collect all the fish bigger than the net grid. Obviously, it would take in every kind of fish without regard to their value. Fishermen would then sort through the catch, keeping the edible fish and throwing the rest away. Once again, the point is that the kingdom (and the church) will collect less than desirable characters along with the good. However, the separation must await the final judgment. This parable highlights the fact that the kingdom and the church belong to God. We humans would like to make our own judgments of who is good and evil and through the evil out. In this parable, the irony is that we might be one of the "bad" fish attempting to make the judgment that belongs only God the ultimate fisher of men.
Verses 51-53 conclude this teaching section on parables that constituted most of Matthew 13. The question, "Have you understood all these things?" is directed both the disciples as Jesus’ original audience and to the readers who are Matthew’s audience. "All these things" refers through the parables to the mysteries of the kingdom that have been presented in chapter 13. It is natural that the disciples would answer positively because "understanding" is a significant element of discipleship according to Matthew. "It involves more than intellectual comprehension, however; it requires submitting to the word in one’s heart and producing fruit." (Garland, p. 152).
Several scholars have suggested that verse 52 describes the "ideal Christian" for Matthew or was an autobiographical testimony. The Greek text makes this clearer than the English translations. One might literally translate, "Every scribe discipled in the kingdom . . ." The life of discipleship should equip us to recognize the complex relationship between new and old in the kingdom. In a very real sense the kingdom ushers in a radically new perspective and relationship with God. On the other hand, most of Jesus’ kingdom teaching is the fulfillment of Old Testament teaching, as Matthew 5:17 has already indicated. It is a truly wise Christian who: 1) recognizes the continuity of the fresh inbreaking of the Holy Spirit with the previous work of God in salvation history, and 2) is free from (and in) both the strengths and weaknesses of the past.
Matthew 13 concludes with the story of Jesus’ return to Nazareth and his rejection there (see commentary on Luke 4:14-21). From a literary perspective this story links with Matthew 12:46-50 where Jesus distanced himself from his birth family. By placing the collection of kingdom parables between these two stories Matthew had made one more significant point about the kingdom. The kingdom - that pearl of great price - is more important than family, home, hometown, and popularity. By this literary means, Matthew has echoed the words of God calling Abraham in Genesis 12:1, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you."
Growing Division - Matthew 14:1-36
The kingdom parables of Matthew 13 revealed the tension between those who respond to Jesus’ message of the kingdom and those who do not. Verse 53 serves as a transition verse, both concluding the parables of chapter 13 and introducing a new block of material and new topic in the following section.
Chapter 14 illustrates the growing polarization between faith and unbelief in three narratives: the review of John the Baptist’s death in verses 1-12, the feeding of the five thousand in verses 13-21, and the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water in verses 22-33.
The Death of John the Baptist - Matthew 14:1-12
The opening verses of Matthew 14 show the rising influence of the rumors about Jesus. Herod, tetrarch of Galilee, heard enough to conclude in terror that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Matthew then reviews the death of John. Many Christian readers wonder about the purpose of this recital for anything other than historical interest. And, if the purpose was simply history why was John’s death not described earlier when it happened? It appears that Matthew saw John’s death as anticipatory of Jesus’ death. Thus, as the conflict about Jesus grows, a review of what happened to John provides a horrible reminder for his readers of what opposition could ultimately lead to.
Herod had divorced his first wife and married Herodias, the wife of his brother. From a Jewish perspective, the divorce was legal but remarriage to a sister-in-law while his brother was still alive violated Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21. Both Matthew and Mark (6:17-29) record that John the Baptist had spoken out against the remarriage as a violation of God’s law.
From a historical perspective, we are fortunate to have an independent paragraph about the death of John the Baptist in the historical work of Josephus. Josephus was a Galilean Jew who fought against the Romans in the First Jewish War of AD 66-70 but was captured early in the war. Through contacts he had made before the war with the Romans, he became a confidant of the Roman general Titus. Following the war Josephus received a Roman pension and lived in Rome writing Jewish history. His account of the death of John the Baptist takes a much more political view than that of the gospels. However, it is clear from Josephus that John the Baptist had become a spokesman for the Jewish community that was angry at Herod’s disregard for biblical law and morality. Herod imprisoned John in the fortress of Machaerus that his father, Herod the Great, had built east of the Dead Sea.
Josephus’ account does not mention the details of the dance of Herodias’ daughter and how that led to the execution of John the Baptist. However, these details make the story more horrible from the Jewish perspective. Beheading a person and executing a person without a trial were both violations of Old Testament law. Further, that the whim of an angry woman and her silly daughter could still the voice of a prophet as great as John the Baptist compounds the tragedy. Verses 5 and 9 imply mixed feelings on the part of Herod but the pressure of the foolish promise he made in front of the party shaped his murderous conclusion. France insightfully observes that Herod demonstrated "the ambivalent attitude of a man threatened by one whose integrity he must respect," (France, p. 234). If he had concluded that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead then Jesus was in grave danger himself.
Feeding the Multitude - Matthew 14:13-21
Verse 13 states that when Jesus heard he withdrew from the center of public attention. It is not clear whether Matthew intends us to think of Jesus hearing about the death of John the Baptist or of his hearing about Herod’s opinion that he was John the Baptist raised from the dead. The statement that he withdrew by means of boat and the parallel account in Luke 9:10 that places the withdrawal in Bethsaida suggests that Jesus was temporarily fleeing from the territory of Herod. Bethsaida was located east of where the Jordan River flowed into the Sea of Galilee and thus was part of Philip’s tetrarchy rather than that of Herod (see Palestine Under the Herods). This withdrawal fits with the picture of Jesus as the prophetic successor of John the Baptist. Elijah had been forced to flee into isolated areas several times during his ministry to preserve his life. However, escaping Herod proved to be easier than getting away from the crowds. The popularity of Jesus was such that the word of his movements spread so rapidly that before he arrived at his place of retreat people were already waiting for him there.
The following verses narrate the feeding of the five thousand. This story is the only miracle mentioned in all four gospels. Matthew and Mark also contain a story of feeding four thousand. Thus, the theme of the multiplication of the loaves for the multitude was a very important memory of Jesus’ ministry for the early church.
Many have noted that the words used to describe Jesus taking the loaves, blessing them, breaking them, and distributing them are identical to the verbs used in the accounts of the Last Supper. As a result, some believe that the feeding of the multitude was so important to the early church because it understood the feeding in terms of the Lord’s Supper. Others believe the feedings of the multitudes were messianic signs.
This view has been argued from several angles. There was an expectation in some circles of Judaism that when the Messiah came he would repeat the miracle of the manna that Israel had experienced in their wilderness wanderings. The setting of the feeding of the five thousand in a "deserted place" fits in with this view. Another approach to a similar conclusion is the view that Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Ezekiel 34:23 in the feeding of the multitude. Ezekiel 34 had described the rulers of old Israel as wicked shepherds preying on their own flock, feeding themselves instead of the sheep. In response, God promised to become a shepherd himself and to shepherd his people. Ezekiel 34:23 states, "I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed: he shall feed them and be their shepherd." (NRSV) This view is also messianic, but defines that messiahship in terms of compassion which fits in well with the introduction to the feeding in Matthew 14:14. A variation on the "messianic" interpretation of the feeding of the five thousand is that the feeding should be understood as anticipatory of the final messianic banquet at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
This brief overview of interpretations shows that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is rich in theological imagery. It may well be that the only purpose of Jesus in feeding the multitude was compassion, but that suggestion is based more on the sentimental picture of Jesus that modern piety has developed. The crowds were not in danger of starving to death. They had pursued Jesus to this isolated place even when he was attempting to withdraw in private. The disciples suggested a reasonable alternative in verse 15. The crowds could go to the nearby villages and get food. The wording of Jesus’ rejection of the disciples’ suggestion suggests that his motivation was theological. Thus, we should avoid interpretations of this miracle that conclude that God always supplies our physical needs and does so in abundance. Sometimes he does not.
Rather, the point here is Christology and the nature of the kingdom. This miracle is designed to instruct in who Jesus is as the promised Messiah-shepherd of his people. In the desert, he spread a table before his people, imagery that anticipates the bounty of the marriage supper of the Lamb. Further, as the New Testament writers understood, we are to remember whose we are, his miraculous supply in the place of withdrawal and the banquet to which he invites us every time we participate in the communion meal. John 6:29-59 demonstrates the kind of Christian reflection on the feeding of the five thousand that focuses our attention on Christ rather than on ourselves.
The feeding of the five thousand also instructs us about the kingdom. It is composed of the new people of God who form the flock of the Christ-shepherd. The manna and Exodus echoes remind that we are a community of the redeemed. We are a pilgrim people making our journey to the great marriage supper to which we have been invited. Matthew’s comment about the women and children reminds us that this new people of God consists not just of the powerful religious elite. Rather it extends to the margins of human society to encompass all who will come seeking Jesus. The miracle does not mention it, but the context tells us that conflict will exist between those who embrace such a vision of the kingdom and those whose vision is narrower.
Walking on Water - Matthew 14:22-33
Matthew, Mark, and John all follow the feeding of the five thousand with a story of Jesus walking on the water. Matthew’s version is most developed and includes the account of Peter also walking on the sea. The connection with the feeding of the five thousand suggests that Christological and kingdom truths are the purpose of Matthew’s recording of this miracle.
Of all the miracles of Jesus’ ministry, this is the least susceptible to psychological or naturalistic explanation. Attempts in that direction have reduced the story to the status of stand-up comedy. Nineteenth century rationalists suggested that Jesus knew the location of a just barely submerged pier that he walked upon, creating the impression that he was walking on water. Such attempts reveal more about the assumptions of those attempting naturalistic explanations than they do about the biblical story.
The conclusion of verse 33 suggests the main line of understanding we should follow. The confession of the disciples, "Truly you are the Son of God," and the echoes of Old Testament scriptures in this passage suggest that the point is to be found in the relationship of Jesus and God the Father. Matthew’s point is not simply that we are to respond in awestruck wonder, "Wow! This Jesus can walk on water. He is awesome." Rather, we should respond as the disciples do in verse 33. In worship, we echo the words of Jacob in Genesis 28:16, "Surely God was here and we did not realize it."
Structurally, Matthew 14:22-33 contains two basic scenes or acts to a single a drama. The first appears in verses 22-27 and the focus is on Jesus coming to his frightened disciples and speaking a word of peace and encouragement. The second scene occurs in verses 28-33 and focuses on the dialog between Jesus and Peter. The "hinge" that connects the two scenes is the statement of Jesus in verse 27, "Have courage! It is I. Do not be afraid!" Though scholars commonly regard Jesus as the central character of the first scene and Peter as central in the second scene, Jesus is the central character of both scenes and of the story as a whole.
Matthew states that Jesus "compelled" the disciples to embark in the boat. The word suggests reluctance on their part, but no explanation is given. The disciples are simply to go before Jesus to the other side. In this way, Matthew lets us know there is no danger to the disciples in what lies ahead. Jesus stayed to dismiss the crowd, a task that was traditionally assigned to the disciples of a rabbi. The sending of the disciples across the sea and the dismissal of the crowd left Jesus alone. Matthew emphasizes that fact by stating in verse 23 that Jesus went up into the mountain to pray "by himself." The emphasis on Jesus praying alone shows Jesus modeling the prayer life that he had commanded his disciples to have. This life of prayer is an important part of discipleship. The aloneness of Jesus also contributes to a sense of mystery or awe that is important if we are to realize who Jesus really is according to this passage. The prayer emphasis also suggests that the miracle was enabled by the intimate union of the Jesus with the Father.
Verses 25 and 26 describe Jesus as walking on the sea. Matthew’s first readers would have recognized that in the Old Testament it was God and God alone who could stride across the sea. Job 9:8; 38:16; Psalm 77:19; Isaiah 43:16; and Habakkuk 3:15 make this clear. The point is clear. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water the correct conclusion to draw is that Jesus was God himself. If this was not clear in verses 25-26, verse 27 will make it clear. Jesus responds to the disciples’ cry of fear by saying, "Take courage, it is I AM. Fear not." His words echo the divine name I AM WHO I AM given to God in Exodus 3:14. The story of the walking on the water is designed to teach us the deity of Christ. However, it is also designed to teach us the practical application of that theological truth. If Christ is, in fact, God, then his command, "Fear not," both makes sense and is the only appropriate way for Christians to live our daily lives.
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 13:44-14:36. 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 telling God how of the your desire to live every moment in full confidence in Christ’s ability and desire to care for you.
Second Day: Read Matthew 15:1-20. Now focus on Matthew 15:1-9.
1. Jesus contrasts the commandments of God with human traditions in these verses. In verse 4 he quotes from Exodus 20:12 and 21:17. Study these Old Testament verses in context and explain why they are so important.
2. Can you identify some ways in which we set aside basic principles of God’s word to preserve traditions that have become important in the church? How do you think Jesus would respond?
3. Verses 8-9 quote from Isaiah 29:13. Read the context following Isaiah 29:13 and jot down some of the consequences of this sin.
Third Day: Read Matthew 15:1-20. Focus in on Matthew 15:10-20.
1. Put the meaning of verse 11 in your own words and illustrate that meaning with an example from modern life as we experience it.
2. What do you think Jesus meant by his comment in verse 13? If it is true how should it affect the way in which we live our Christian lives? What are the dangers of glibly assuming its truth?
3. Based on verses 18-20 what kind of influences do we need to build into our lives and the lives of our children? What kind of influences need to be removed? How can we accomplish these kinds of spiritual influence goals?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 15:10-31. Focus your attention on Matthew 15:21-28.
1. What expectation do you have of Jesus as finish reading verse 22? Why? What has led you to expect that of Jesus? How do you feel by the time you have read verse 24? Why? How do you explain this picture of Jesus?
2. What seems to be the picture of "faith" taught by this passage? Are there other understandings of faith that are taught or assumed in the gospels? How (and why) do they differ from the view taught here?.
3. Why does Jesus seem to answer some people’s prayers, but not others? Does this passage suggest that the right kind of faith can force God to answer prayer? Why do you or why do you not think so?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 15:21-16:12. Now focus in on Matthew 15:29-36.
1. What does the last sentence of verse 31 suggest about the appropriate response to miracles? Write a brief word of praise to God for miracles that you have experienced or heard about.
2. Carefully compare and contrast Matthew 15:32-39 with Matthew 14:13-21. What do the similarities and difference tell you about the meaning of this passage in chapter 15?
3. What do you think is the significance of Jesus feeding the multitudes as described in Matthew 14:13-21 and Matthew 15:32-39? What application do these miracles have to your own life?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 15:29-16:12. Now focus on Matthew 16:1-12.
1. Based on verses 1-4 what is Jesus’ attitude toward the idea of asking for a sign? What do you think the sign of Jonah is? How would you modify your answers after (re)reading Matthew 12:38-42?
2. In verse12 the "yeast" or "leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" is compared to their teaching. In what way or ways would the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees be comparable to leaven or yeast?
3. What religious teachings function as leaven or yeast for you? What can you do to "beware" of those teachings? In what ways can other believers help you? Write a plan of accountability for yourself in this area.