Wednesday, December 2, 2015

14. Parables of Contrast

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 14: Parables of Contrast

Matthew presents to us a story about a King who is different than any other King that ever lived. The Servant King, The Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, His Kingdom is radically different from any kingdom ever seen on earth. It goes beyond all expectations and rewrites all the preconceived rules about what is and who was important. Chapter 13 contains parables that contrast the kingdoms of this world with the Kingdom of God .

Parables have been described as ‘concrete familiar illustrations to explain abstract concepts’. Some are readily accessible, others more obscure. Many times when Jesus wanted to say something really important He used a story or a word picture. Parables have many layers. You think you get it and then suddenly you see it in a different way. I compare them to those ‘Magic Eye’ pictures where you are staring and staring and then suddenly it comes into focus!

Rather than our usual practice of reading straight through the chapter it is helpful to link the parables that have an explanation attached to their corresponding verses. But firstly we look at a question that is put to Jesus by His disciples, about parables themselves.

Read 13:10-17 and 34-35.

10 And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" 11 And He answered and said to them, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. 12 "For whoever has, to him shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. 13 "Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

14 "And in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, 'You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; 15 For the heart of this people has become dull, And with their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes Lest they should see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I should heal them.' 16 "But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. 17 "For truly I say to you, that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

34 All these things Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable, 35 so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world."

Jesus speaks to the people in parables as a way of preparing them to receive Kingdom teaching. He was bringing them new insights and unfamiliar understandings about the way God worked in the world. They wouldn’t get it all at once, and some of them would never get it!

He references the prophet Isaiah and words that come from a passage in Isaiah 6 chapter that is all about the prophets call to proclaim God’s Word in the face of indifference and misunderstandings. The fact that many people wouldn’t get it, did not take away the responsibility of the prophet to proclaim it. The Message Bible captures the nuance in this passage well when it transliterates verse 14 as Jesus saying; “I don't want Isaiah's forecast repeated all over again: Your ears are open but you don't hear a thing. Your eyes are awake but you don't see a thing….”

Even the disciples struggled to understand these parable stories, but they were in the priveliged position of having the story-teller with them. They had left all to follow Jesus and part of their reward was an increasing insight into the ways of the Kingdom, insights that remained an incomprehensible mystery to outsiders. Jesus reminds them of just how fortunate they were by telling them: 16 "But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. 17 "For truly I say to you, that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

To understand God’s Word requires the action of God’s Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that inspired the writer needs to be allowed to inspire the reader. The action of the Holy Spirit is that of an interpreter to our hearts the mysteries of the Kingdom. That’s why worship is so important. Through worship we deepen our relationship with God and are seeking to open our lives to the influence of God. We do so in community, because as we gather together in worship we have gifts to share and things to learn from each other.

A complete outsider picks up a bible tries to read it, picking out verses at random, and it is a closed book. They will soon pick up on passages that they don’t understand or even that make them question, “How can this be a Word of a God?” But in the context of a worshipful community and with a heart attitude of humility and seeking everything looks different.

Going back to the ‘Magic Eye’ book idea, it is how you focus that determines whether or not you see the picture. So it is with parables. They are a window offering a new understanding. But not everybody sees them at once. And even when you do, often you keep coming back to them, and you see things you missed. The depth of these simple stories can be mind-boggling. As Jesus explains, again referencing Isaiah, in verse 35; "I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world."

So let us look at some of the parables in Matthew 13, parables I’m describing as ‘Parables of Contrast’ because they reveal unexpected aspects of the Kingdom of God. (hand out sheet). Firstly, one of the best known stories Jesus ever told, the parable of the Sower.

Read verses 13:1-9 & the explanation in verses 18-23.
Matthew 13:1 On that day Jesus went out of the house, and was sitting by the sea. 2 And great multitudes gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole multitude was standing on the beach. 3 And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, "Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 "And others fell upon the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. 6 "But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7 "And others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. 8 "And others fell on the good soil, and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. 9 "He who has ears, let him hear."
18 "Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. 20 "And the one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 "And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 23 "And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit, and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty."

One can picture four groups of people in the crowd. There's the ones who say 'Yes. My gardens a bit like that' and any spiritual message just goes right over their heads. They are left at the roadside. Then there are those who say, 'This guy knows what he's talking about. He knows about farming. I'll have to check it out'. But then someone says 'Have you heard what some of the Pharisees are saying about him? You don't want to get mixed up with a trouble-maker like that!'” So that's the end of that.

Then there are the ones who totally get the point. They go home and tell their wife 'Hey, you got to hear this story this guy called Jesus told. He was talking about sowing seeds and how like, spiritual messages can take root in our lives and good things can happen' 'Never mind spiritual messages and mucking about with seeds, have you taken the trash out yet? And what about little Ruebens toothache? Why can't we live in a nice neighborhood like your sister, next door to a dentist? You expect me to take care of everything around here? We've got bills to pay, those Romans won't wait till you have gone and plowed a field before they'll be demanding taxes again.” and so verse 22 '...and the worry of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word'

Yet there remain some who will totally get the message. And when they do it will bring forth more good things than they dare imagine. Thirty-fold was a lot of growth. Sixty-fold was a huge amount of growth. A hundred-fold would be considered miraculous! Jesus is telling them that once they truly took His message on board then the results were gloriously unpredictable.

What was unusual about this parable was that the general belief about the kingdom of God was that when the Messiah came it would be a one-off, instantly recognizable to everybody, event. The Messiah would be a conquering king and establish God's rule in an act of triumph. Now here is Jesus saying that it wasn't going to be like that. That individuals would respond in different ways to the invitation to be in the Kingdom. Some would understand. But many would not.

So how would this work out? How could you tell who was in and who was out? Maybe, our next passage suggests, that was not how the kingdom worked. Read verses 24-30 and verses 36-43.

24 He presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 "But while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares also among the wheat, and went away. 26 "But when the wheat sprang up and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. 27 "And the slaves of the landowner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?' 28 "And he said to them, 'An enemy has done this!' And the slaves said to him, 'Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?' 29 "But he said, 'No; lest while you are gathering up the tares, you may root up the wheat with them. 30 'Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn."'"

36 Then He left the multitudes, and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field." 37 And He answered and said, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, 38 and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. 40 "Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. 41 "The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 "Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

In the parable of the sower faithful disciples are compared to being good soil. In this parable they are compared to being good seeds, whilst those who reject and oppose the Kingdom are described as weeds or tares.

The thinking of the times suggested that when the Messiah came He would set up office and choose other righteous folk to govern the Kingdom along with Him. Everybody would know who was in charge and who the good guys and bad guys would be. This parable suggests that such is not the way the Kingdom is going to be revealed.

The citizens of the Kingdom would be mixed up with the citizens of the world, all growing up together and ultimately only God would know the difference. William Barclay in his commentary speaks of the weed being a plant called ‘bearded darnel’, that closely resembles wheat in it’s early stages of growth. In later stages of growth the plants had to be separated as the grain of the darnel is poisonous and could cause sickness. In it’s earliest stages it was indistinguishable. Only at Harvest-time would the separation be made.

Barclay feels this is one of the most important parables that Jesus told as it functions on a variety of levels.
  1. It reminds us that hostility to the gospel message is always present in our world. We are surrounded by many influences, some for good, some for our ruin and we must be careful to distinguish between the two.
  2. It teaches us that it can be hard to distinguish between the righteouss and unrighteousness. That we should not be too quick to classify people or label them good or bad without knowing all the facts of their situations.
  3. It teaches us that hasty judgments can be terribly destructive. If the reapers in the parable had their way they would have destroyed the bad AND the good.
  4. It teaches us that judgment is inevitable. People may think that actions do not have consequences, but this parable teaches that the consequences of our actions, though sometimes slow in coming, nevertheless will catch up with us somewhere along the line.
  5. It reminds us that only God can be the final judge for only God is truly righteouss. Judgment is God’s prerogative, not ours. Only God sees the whole picture.
Next comes the parable of the Mustard Seed. Verses 31 - 32
31 He presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; 32 and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches."

The expectation of the Kingdom of God was that it would arrive suddenly in a blaze of glory. The unexpected characteristic spoken of here is that the Kingdom begins in insignificance and it’s growth is a surprise!

Mustard seeds are not actually the smallest seeds in the world, but in the literature of the day were considered as representing things that were tiny or insignificant. Today we may say that a little amount of water is a thimble-full though we know that a thimble is not actually a recognized unit of measurement. It’s a word picture and Jesus is telling stories.

We also know that technically mustard seeds grew into bushes not trees. But they could grow into mighty big bushes, sometimes 12 feet tall. Not a lot compared to a mighty Redwood or Scots Pine, but impressive for a mustard bush. The significance of Jesus using the term ‘tree’ was that the tree in the Old Testament was a representation of an empire or even the coming Kingdom of God.

For example in fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel (verses10-12) 10 'Now these were the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed: I was looking, and behold, there was a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11 'The tree grew large and became strong, And its height reached to the sky, And it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 'Its foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, And in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, And the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, And all living creatures fed themselves from it. (NAS)

This imagery of tiny seeds and empire trees would not be as unfamiliar to the first hearers as they are to us. The presence of Jesus in their midst, was the very presence of that hoped for Kingdom. At times His works and His disciples seemed insignificant yet they were ushering in a new age. This King may well operate in meekness and ride a donkey instead of a war-horse, but this Kingdom wasn’t anything like any that had ever been seen before.

This passage is one of great comfort if ever we feel overwhelmed at the size of the task before us. We may feel that the only way the world can be won to Christ is by huge campaigns or great crusades. On the contrary it is the little things that we do that reveal the greatness of the Kingdom (and of its King). In God’s Kingdom, the little things are the big things. Elsewhere Jesus speaks of faith, not as a sledgehammer, but uses the imagery of a mustard seed. Such ‘mustard seed’ faith is described as mountain moving.

But onto another parable: ‘The Yeast’ or ‘The Leaven’ Verse 33.

33 He spoke another parable to them, "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three pecks of meal, until it was all leavened."

Bread was baked at home. Flour from a hand-mill was mixed with water and then placed upon heated flat stones. If the bread was to be leavened, a piece of dough from the previous day (leaven) was put into the new dough and the whole lump left by the fire until the yeast in the old dough had permeated the whole.

Unleavened bread is like a wafer. Passover is celebrated with unleavened bread because the Israelite s did not have time to allow the dough to do its work before fleeing from Egypt. Bread baked with leaven is soft and porous and spongy, more like what we are familiar with as bread! The introduction of the leaven (or yeast) causes a transformation in the dough; so the coming of the Kingdom is meant to cause a transformation in a persons life.

This transformation is an inward process of renewal through God’s Spirit. Kingdom growth is not seen as pulling ourselves up by own boot straps. It is allowing God’s righteousness to transform us. The Kingdom is not something that we grow in ourselves from our own raw material. The Kingdom is rather implanted in a different raw material and grows to fill the whole personality. It is not about external conformity but inward renewal.

Once the leaven is added to the dough it changes it from a passive lump into a seething, bubbling, heaving mass. So as the Holy Spirit changes our hearts we are transformed into those who agitate for the Kingdom. We become concerned at things that once never bothered us. We are alive to situations that had before passed us by. Previously Jesus has spoken of the heart, the inner being, as being the place where all the action takes place that makes a person what they are.

The Kingdom was thought of as being a ‘from the top, ruled and controlled’ affair. Now it appears to be ‘from the inside out’ experience. The idea of the woman ‘hiding’ the three pecks of meal is maybe indicative of the mystery of transformation. God works in the secret places of our lives to change us. We don’t always realize what is going on and may think nothing is actually changing. This parable is an encouragement to stick with God and allow God’s Spirit to do the transforming.

Next we have Hidden Treasure. Verse 44.

44 "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.

The rather startling image in this parable was the challenge to the understanding that when the Kingdom came it would be a very public thing and easily seen by all. Rather in this parable it is hidden from view and only stumbled upon accidentally whilst a man is going about his daily business. It comes as an amazing personal discovery, not as a corporate revelation.

This parable needs interpreting in tandem with the next one, that of the pearl. In the parable of the pearl, the seeker is a person is quite deliberate about their task. Read verse 45

45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, 46 and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

So we have the contrast between those who are caught up in the Kingdom almost by accident and those who follow the ‘Seek and ye shall find’ road into discipleship. It’s not an either/or situation, but rather a both/and.

In Church life when you speak about personal spiritual journeys you often find there are those who were brought up in the faith, who cannot remember a time when their faith wasn’t part of their lives, and those who ‘stumbled’ into the Kingdom along their own Damascuas Road. Both find great joy in their religion, both can be equally committed. And both realize that they have discovered something that demands their ultimate investment.

The traditional view of the Kingdom was that it’s arrival would take care of everything. The values that people held dear would not have to change. Prosperity, Peace and everlasting joy would be on hand at no extra charge. The contrast in the parable of the pearl is that living for the Kingdom required a change in value systems. That the Kingdom was such a pricelss thing that you were prepared to give up everything else to be a part of it. In that sense, the parable of the pearl is a restatement of Matthew 6:33 "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.

William Barclay concludes ‘Once again we are left with the same truth – that, however a person discovers the will of God for themselves, whether it be in the lightning flash of a moments illumination or at the end of a long and conscious search, it is worth anything unhesitatingly to accept it”

Our final parable reiterates some of the themes we have already heard. The Kingdom is not an event fixed in time that suddenly bursts in and changes everything. It is rather a long process and the final outcome is entirely in God’s hands. The parable of the net. Verse 47 - 52

47 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; 48 and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. 49 "So it will be at the end of the age; the angels shall come forth, and take out the wicked from among the righteous, 50 and will cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 "Have you understood all these things?" They said to Him, "Yes." 52 And He said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old."

Some of this teaching was startlingly new. Some of it the disciples had heard before. Whether old or new, it was all of great value, and the disciple who understood the things of the Kingdom would make the connection. As The Message Bible transliterates so well [52] He said, "Then you see how every student well-trained in God's kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it."

These parables were not only to describe to the crowds how the Kingdom of King Jesus differed from all their expectations, it was also to instruct the disciples as to how to conduct their mission. The last parable in the series is related to the fisherman's task. Such was a trade familiar to at least a third of the twelve disciples. It was way back in Matthew 4:19 we read And He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."

The nature of their mission, and ours, has here been pictured in parable. We are to sow, realizing that only a portion of the seed will be fruitful. We are to realize that the fruit of our seeds grows up alongside the fruit of the world and not seek to prematurely separate the two. God’s Kingdom will be glimpsed in unexpected places. And ultimately God alone will judge.

We are to do the little things, the mustard seed actions, the unnoticed acts, the seemingly insignificant, and allow God to work on the growing. We are to recognize that the process is one that works from the inside out, not from the top-downward. Transformation comes as people open up to God, not through the external imposition of laws and rules. We are to recognize that people discover the Kingdom in their own unique ways. Some may be stumblers, others may be seekers. We will know they have come upon something as we witness their desire to be invested in the tasks of the Kingdom. Whilst we are to cast the net, it is God alone who sorts out the fish!

Having finished with the parables, our chapter concludes with a less than happy homecoming.
Verses 53-58.

53 And it came about that when Jesus had finished these parables, He departed from there. 54 And coming to His home town He began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they became astonished, and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom, and these miraculous powers? 55 "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 "And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?" 57 And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his home town, and in his own household." 58 And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.

There is a saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. When He heads back to Nazareth Jesus does not find a welcome. Folk who had known him so well before His baptism by John find it impossible to see beyond the person He once was. His work is frustrated by the peoples unbelief.

We eventually experience this in every congregation that is settled. Our expectations of what God can do in our church, in our town, in our time, becomes blunted by our familiarity. We know each other so well that we become incredulous at the idea of miracles happening in our midst. Matthew soberingly describes this state of affairs as being ‘unbelief’.

Notice also that it is not the preaching of Jesus that is the problem. His message is the same as He preached elsewhere. Going back to our parables, a great message means nothing if it falls on unprepared soil. William Barclay comments; 

“In any church service the congregation preaches more than half the sermon. The congregation brings an atmosphere with it. That atmosphere is either a barrier through which the preachers word cannot penetrate; or else it is such an expectancy that even the poorest sermon becomes a living flame… When we meet together to listen to the Word of God, we must come with eager expectancy, and must focus, not on the person who speaks, but on the Spirit who speaks through them

Chapter 13… all about parables, that are told against the background of increasing misunderstanding and growing opposition. We will see in the next chapter how the hostility of Herod results in John’s murder, how Jesus continues to demonstrate His authority (‘exousia’) and how His heartfelt mission continues to meet the peoples needs. But that’s all for now folks!

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