Are you frustrated with your ministry, your calling, witnessing to others, or even just with living the Christian life? Are you concerned about your effectiveness in those roles?
If you answered, “yes”, Matthew Chapter 13 has a special meaning for you.
It is important to understand Jesus’ teaching in Chapter 13 in the context of what we saw happening in Chapter 12. Despite the chapter break, this all happened on the same day, and the teaching is directly related to the events earlier in the day. So is the change in Jesus’ teaching style.
The change in what Jesus’ teaches and how he teaches it is different enough to cause the disciples to come to Jesus and ask him why he’s made the change. To this point, Jesus has been openly teaching that the kingdom is at hand and what that kingdom looks like. The heart that he expects, the behavior that’s expected. He’s used examples to clarify the teaching, but that’s much different from the parables that become part of his teaching now.
We usually think of parables as clarifying Jesus’ teaching, and certainly some of them do. That perspective is largely due to our being on this side of Jesus’ ministry, though, and 2000+ years of people talking about their meaning. To the disciples and the crowds on that day, Jesus’ meaning on those parables was anything but clear, prompting them to ask him repeatedly to explain the meaning.
There was a reason for that. Jesus had taught pretty clearly to this point. If you look back to the events earlier in that day, you see where that has gotten him. He has huge crowds following him, and obviously many are very interested in what he has to say. I wonder, though, if more of them aren’t primarily interested in what he can do for them – the healing, for example – and the spectacle that they get to see. There’s another response as well, and it’s a much more negative response: the opposition to and rejection of what he is teaching and doing, primarily from the religious leaders. It has reached the point that he’s accused of being in league with the devil and the leaders are plotting to destroy him. They truly do not understand at all.
That’s the reason for the abrupt change in teaching style. Jesus recalls the book of Isaiah, as the prophet began his ministry. Willing to carry God’s message to the people, no doubt Isaiah’s hope was that all would hear his words and respond. God tells him (to paraphrase): don’t get your hopes up. God’s message to Isaiah, which Jesus quotes part of, was that many of the people would hear, but not understand. They’re unwilling to understand. Their hearts have become so corrupt they’re unable to understand. That’s what Jesus is experiencing now too. Count how many times in this chapter Jesus talks about hearing and understanding – it’s truly what he’s struggling with.
Problem is, he still has a lot of teaching to do, especially with the disciples. It’s likely to get him into more and more trouble. He has secrets of the kingdom that he needs to tell the disciples, and he tells them so; things that they need to know and understand even if nobody else does. That’s where the parables come in. They’re being given a gift – an opportunity to learn secrets about the kingdom that nobody else has known or will understand, at least for now. They have the blessing of being able to hear, and understand… though sometimes they need a little help. The parables allow Jesus to share these secrets with them, while obscuring the teaching from those that won’t understand anyway.
The secrets he teaches them on this day through the parables he presents are ones directly related to the opposition he’s encountering. Let’s take a look at some of them.
The first secret is that not everybody is going to accept Jesus’ teaching and use it to bear fruit. I’ve often wondered what the disciples really expected from Jesus and his ministry. It’s clear that there is a lot they didn’t understand about the nature of the kingdom and what would happen to its King. From what they did understand, what did they expect? Given the words of the Old Testament prophesies they knew, I think at least part of what they expected was a universal acceptance of the Messiah and his inescapable reign – and destruction for those that refused to accept it. Jesus teaches them that it isn’t going to be that way. In the parable of the sower, Jesus describes four kinds of reactions to his teaching. Those that hear, but don’t understand (there’s that theme again) and Satan comes and snatches away the word that was planted in them. Those that hear and respond positively to the word at first, but are so shallow in that they immediately fall away when the first trial occurs. Those that allow the cares of the world and the desire for material things to take priority over the word, until it is choked down to the point of not being useful. Finally, the fourth reaction is to hear, understand, and be fruitful – though, interestingly, in different measures from one person to the next. While I don’t think that Jesus was teaching that exactly one-fourth of the people who hear the word are the only ones that will receive it, one thing is clear: the last group of people are the ones on the “narrow way”, and a lot of people will end up on the path that leads to destruction instead.
The second secret, revealed to them in the parable of the weeds (or tares), is that Satan is actively working to “pollute” the kingdom, and it’s going to be hard to tell who is in and who is out. Just as Jesus and his disciples are working to produce children of the King, Satan is actively planting weeds in the midst of the field – sons of Satan – purposely put there to mess things up. They’ll be hard to identify, and even harder to root up – in the parable, the master of the house says that to do so would uproot some of his good crop, and to leave them to the end. Jesus says that at the end of the age, at the time of the harvest, he’ll send forth his angels to destroy them. One of the things I ponder as I read this, is that patience with the weeds’ growth in the midst of the good crop. In his explanation of the parable, he describes the field as the “world”; as he began the parable he’s specifically teaching about the nature of this kingdom. Sure, there are “sons of the evil one in the world”… how many of them are mixed in among us in the church? I don’t think this passage is telling us to completely ignore the possibility of weeds being mixed in among us – he warned in Chapter 7 for the disciples to be on the lookout for false prophets and we have similar warnings elsewhere in scripture – but it also seems clear that God isn’t trying to remove every “weed” from among us right now . This teaching lends an interesting perspective on the oft-pondered question of why the wicked aren’t punished and even seem to prosper around us.
There are five other kingdom parables in the chapter, each shorter than these two. It’s amazing how many opinions there are about the details of these short parables among people today (remember the discussion about parables not necessarily being for making things clear?). Without trying to parse every nuance, taking into account the context of the day, and sticking with the high-level meaning that can be taken from them, I think we can take away these additional insights into the kingdom – more “secrets” he was sharing with the disciples.
- Like a mustard seed that starts small but grows into something big, the kingdom is going to show the same results. This is a message of hope to the disciples – despite the opposition and rejection, despite the three kinds of soil that will be unproductive, the kingdom is going to grow far beyond what they can imagine.
- Similarly, like a pinch of leaven put into a bunch of dough, which then works into the entire batch and makes it grow, the kingdom is going to have an impact on the entire world.
- The kingdom is worth giving everything else up for. They will face rejection, opposition, persecution – he’s already told them all that in Chapter 10 – and they’ll also not be successful with everyone, as he tells them in this chapter. But like the pearl of great price or the treasure in the field, the kingdom is of such value it is worth joyfully giving everything else up – as Jesus did.
- There will still be a huge harvest, despite the weeds that have been planted and the evil that will prosper. They will truly be fishers of men, bringing in an incredible catch like the men in the parable of the fishing net.
Seven parables with secrets of the kingdom. Parables that Jesus used to teach the disciples some realistic expectations for his ministry, and for theirs. They won’t reach everyone. Not everyone will respond. There will be people actively working to mess up their efforts. Their efforts will be worth it, though. Some will respond, and will bear fruit, and the kingdom will grow large enough to influence the entire world. The kingdom is worth more than anything, and worth giving everything else up for. In the end, there will be a tremendous harvest, and the Lord and his angels will sort out the good from the bad – they don’t have to take care of that.
Those things are worth considering as we live the kingdom life and work to produce a harvest too. In our ministry, as we serve as ambassadors for Christ, the same “secrets” apply to us. Do we know them, remember them, and rely on them? If you’re frustrated in your labor for the kingdom, this is these are the secrets that bring peace.