The Parable Puzzle – Matthew 13

In Matthew 13, Jesus gave a discourse to the crowds with seven parables to illustrate the coming of the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, the process of its coming had already begun with Jesus’ arrival on earth – the future king over all the earth was being introduced to His people.

Jesus explained to His disciples that He made use of parables when teaching the crowds because they were not ready or able to accept a direct teaching of these principles.  This was in fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah:

13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:

‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
And seeing you will see and not perceive;’ Matthew 13:13-14 NKJV

Alone later with His disciples, away from the crowds, Jesus explained the meaning of the first two of the parables.  And by doing this, their meaning is also shared with us.  But the next five parables He told are given without any follow-up explanation.  We are left, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to solve for their intended meaning in our own hearts.

There have been different interpretations given to these five parables over the years.  Some are seemingly contradictory.  Which is the correct interpretation that Jesus intended?  Could there be more than one “right” answer?  Possibly.

Here are the five parables that Jesus gave right after explaining the first two, the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares:

31 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, 32 which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”  Matthew 13:31-32 NKJV

33 Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”  Matthew 13:33 NKJV

44 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  Matthew 13:44 NKJV

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, 46 who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.  Matthew 13:45-46 NKJV

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, 48 which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, 50 and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:47-50 NKJV

The first four parables are interesting if a bit mysterious, but then we are jarred and unsettled by the fifth one.  Who wants to be plucked up and thrown into a fire?  Perhaps one aspect of the “fire” is an ever burning regret for a wasted and hurtful life lived apart from God.

The last parable seems relatively straightforward, but what about the first four?  Why are they given and what do they mean?

One way we could try this is to prayerfully consider the first two “explained” parables, and to use them as a sort of key to help interpret the latter five.

In the Parable of the Sower, only a small fraction of the people who hear of the kingdom become fruitful believers.  Only one of the four types given grasp onto the seed, the word of God, and allow it to take root in their hearts, growing into a spiritual harvest.  The other three types either never quite get it or lose it along the way due to other distractions and temptations.

In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, believers face a further obstacle – tares are secretly planted among them that appear to be other believers but are later revealed to be harmful “weeds” that could choke the life from their spiritual soil.  Jesus explained these as people around us who choose to follow the evil one rather than God.  He leaves them in place in hopes that they, too, may receive the word of God in their hearts and come to repentance.  My experience in prison ministry tells me that many do, in fact, turn to God in their most desperate hour, and receive a complete forgiveness and spiritual healing from Him.

With these two introductory parable explanations given as a guide, how do you interpret the next four? 

The mustard seed starts small and experiences great growth. But then it becomes a tree for the birds – is this a good thing or a bad thing?  Remember, the birds are the ones who ate up the seed (the word of God) from the path in the Parable of the Sower.  

And how about the hidden leaven that worked through the meal – is this the product of a healthy harvest, like the Holy Spirit gradually purifying our sinful natures?  Leaven is sometimes used as a symbol of sin in the Old Testament.  Is this actually a warning for the church? Jesus would later warn His disciples about the leaven, or teaching, of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

And who is the one who buys the land with the valuable treasure or the pearl, us or God?  We come to God in complete spiritual poverty, in no condition to purchase anything. Yet, we can only grasp the kingdom of God if we surrender our worship of all other idols, giving every other false god away.

So many questions on this kingdom puzzle!  Why did Jesus leave it for us to solve?

One day it will all become very clear.

Reflection

What is your interpretation of the meaning of these remaining parables of the kingdom?

Lord, thank you for leaving us Your word to grow within our hearts.  Whether we fully understand it or not, continue to use it and prosper it within us that we may produce a great spiritual harvest for You and for Your kingdom.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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