The Parables in their Setting - Part 4
Denis Clapham, Birmingham
The analysis of Matthew 13 given in the last paper showed that the eight parables were divided into two groups of four. The first four (1 followed by 3 grouped) were spoken to the multitudes; and the second four (3 grouped followed by 1) were spoken to the disciples. It is to be observed that the first and eighth parables stand apart from the intervening six as an introduction and a conclusion to them, and that these both have to do with the Word. The six, which are strictly the similitudes of the kingdom of heaven, are in two contrasted groups of three. The first and the sixth form a pair anticipating the completion of the age, and revealing the activity of fallen and unfallen angels, w. 41, 49. The second and third form a pair relating to the King, w. 31-33. And the fourth and fifth form another pair relating to His subjects, vv. 44-46. Verse 53 leads us to conclude that all these parables were spoken on one day, formed the substance of the King's second major recorded discourse given in two parts, and were initially intended to fortify the faint hearts of His faithful little band so soon to follow Him into temporary exile. But, as the time of His return to reign draws near, we believe the Holy Spirit will again make special use of these things to strengthen the faith of His still hated and persecuted followers.
The Sower- 13. 3-9; 18-23. With respect to those who insist that the definite article before "sower" (r.v.) makes it conclusive that it is the Son of man who is referred to, we would observe that since the interpretation given by the King to His followers omits all reference to the sower, it is not really the important point to notice. Rather, as has often been remarked on, this parable is a parable of the Seed, and what happens to it when sown. We are told that the Seed is "the word of the kingdom". This is the Word, or Message, or Gospel of the kingdom which, when broadcast, exposes the condition of the hearts of as many as hear it, and becomes fruitful in the lives of those who understand it.
"The word of the kingdom" refers to an aspect of God's good news for man which is to be distinguished from such terms as: "The gospel of the grace of God", Acts 20. 24; "My (i.e. Paul's) gospel", Rom. 2. 16; 16. 25; "The gospel of the glory of Christ", 2 Cor. 4. 4 (Newberry). Such closely related expressions, and others, are used solely by the apostle Paul in relation to this present dispensation. They tell of Him who died for our sins and was buried; and who was raised again for our justification and glorified. They tell also of the richness of that divine grace which, reaching believing sinners now, brings them into present partnership with God's Son and holds out to them the hope of heavenly glory. But the "gospel of the kingdom" (see Matt. 4. 23; 9. 35; 24.14), which was preached at the beginning of the age by Jesus, who was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, will yet be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations as the end of the age draws near. The aim of preaching this message, as indicated by Matthew, is not simply to establish the Ring's rule in men's hearts, but also to prepare loyal subjects on earth who will acclaim Him when He returns with His authority to exercise worldwide dominion; cf. Matt. 28.18-20.
Now the first mystery of the kingdom of heaven is this: The Seed, from which comes all that will be finally harvested, is specifically the Word of the kingdom. Every effect it can produce in the hearts of those who hear it was clearly indicated by the King in the interpretation that He gave, and may be summarized thus:
1. In those whose hearts are like the wayside over which the birds circle, ready to swoop and pick up all that falls on it, the Word is immediately rendered inoperative. And this is because the evil one is ever quick to rob people of what is for their lasting good.
2. In those whose hearts are like the stony ground, the Word again proves unproductive. The Seed cannot strike deep in but a thin layer of soil, and therefore wilting and withering in the heat is as rapid as is the initial growth. How unchange ably true it is that "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God", I Cor. 2. 14. Some people have a natural liking for the Word, but the testing that inevitably comes to all who profess to have received it proves that it was never rooted in their hearts, and so their shallowness is exposed.
3. In those whose hearts are like ground overgrown with thorns into which the Seed falls, but where its growth is choked, the Word yet again fails to produce fruit. The baneful influence of an unjust world system on poor and rich alike is such, that either the corroding care it produces, or the deceitful wealth it oflfers, stifles all sense of need for that which God alone freely gives.
4. And finally, in those whose hearts are like good ground where the Seed takes root and bears fruit in varying degrees, we perceive those in whom the Holy Spirit has worked, producing repentance and that meek reception of the Word, which ensures an understanding equal to the revelation it brings. Thus lives of corresponding fruitfulness result, but only in proportion to the degree of repentance and faith found in the hearer.
The Tares - 13.24-30; 36-43; The Draw Net - 13.47-50. Attention has already been drawn to the fact that each of these parables anticipates the completion of the age which was inaugurated by the coming of the King. Each of them, in a greater measure the former, is interpreted by the King. This is a good guide to our understanding all the parables, for it is often said today that a parable has but one point to make. In the case of the tares the King's explanation unfolds the meaning of seven points, and so leads us to expect that while a general truth may be the chief reason for a parable, the details of the parables are often significant too. Nevertheless, we do well not to allow our enthusiasm to allegorize, to run away with us. It is always safe to be guided by the Holy Spirit and to recognize humbly the limits of our understanding.
Both of these parables declare that in the completion of the age those who are fit for the kingdom will be separated from those who are not. The angels of the Son of man will come from heaven and gather out of His kingdom all who are unfit for it, and cast them into the place of destruction to suffer unmitigated grief and anguish, w. 41,42, 49, 50. But the sons of the kingdom, the righteous of verse 43, and the good of verse 48, will then be seen to be worthy to take their place with the King in the kingdom of their Father; cf. Dan. 12. 3.
The chief difference between these two parables is that the parable of the tares reveals that from the beginning a sinister enemy is at work to counterfeit the true sons of the kingdom, (he it is who now transforms himself into an angel of light, and makes his servants appear as ministers of righteousness, 2 Cor. 11.14-15), whereas the net discloses the fact that at the end of the age such as will then be "fishers of men", Matt. 4. 19, will have a great haul (see Jer. 16.16; John 21.11; Rom. 11.26).
The Mustard Seed-13. 31-32; The Leaven-13. 33.
Some expound this related pair of parables by saying that they illustrate the abnormal growth of the kingdom, and its complete permeation by what is corrupt. Others expound them by relating them to Christendom, which they regard as the sphere of Christian profession in which the growth and development of evil advances until all is ultimately judged by God. But we would ask those who are following this series to consider an understanding which commends itself to us on account of its being, we believe, more in keeping with the setting in which the parables were spoken.
The mustard seed is well known for its minuteness and rapid growth. It becomes greater than all the herbs, while not being one of them, has large branches and attracts birds. All these facts are true, nothing unusual is remarked on. Therefore, we conclude that the King is either unfolding the secret of the insignificance of His kingdom, and predicting its final enlargement; or, more probably, He is alluding to His own littleness in the eyes of the people who despised Him, while revealing His destined supremacy in the day when His wisdom and sufficiency will meet the needs of all who come under His protection. It is helpful to remember that Nebuchadnezzar was identified with his kingdom, see Dan. 2. 37-38, and that both he and the Messianic Branch of David's royal house were in the same way figuratively depicted as exercising regal power over all nations; see Dan. 4. io-22; Ezek. 17.22-24.
In the second of this pair of parables three things are involved. First, the three measures of meal; second, the leaven; and third, the action of the woman with its result.
A woman introduces leaven into three measures of meal, which was an average quantity for baking, Gen. 18. 6. It was also an acceptable quantity for a meal offering, Jud. 6. 19; 1 Sam. 1. 24; as well as being the amount of the final and perfect meal offerings yet to be brought to the Lord, Ezek. 45. 24, all of which typify the One Life which in all things pleased the Father.
Leaven was usually sour dough which had begun to corrupt, and was commonly used to leaven batches of bread. It is used metaphorically in Matthew 13. 33 of corrupt doctrine, and in Mark 8. 15 and 1 Corinthians 5. 7-8 of corrupt practices. On account of its corruptness it was prohibited by the Lord in connection with the meal offering, Lev. 2. n, for it symbolized evil, which was totally absent from the perfect manhood and pure life of the holy Saviour.
Thus the King revealed the terrible result of mixing error with the truth as to His own Person. Foreseeing that this would be done, can it be wondered at that on another occasion He should have asked the question, "when the Son of man cometh, shall he find the faith on the earth?", Luke 18. 8 R.v. marg.
The Treasure - 13. 44; The Pearl - 13. 46. Leaving the crowds by the seaside the King re-entered the house, to continue His teaching with only the disciples present. After explaining to them the meaning of the tares, He told two more parables which form the third pair. These vividly described first, the joy of a man labouring in the field, on discovering hidden treasure; and then, a merchant's, or wholesale dealer's search in busy marketplaces for pearls, coming to an end when he had found one of superlative worth. In each case the man involved sold all that he possessed to acquire a precious thing. Could anyone but the King be thus portrayed? He is not the treasure or the pearl, so that there can be no thought of others securing Him for themselves in exchange for all they are worth. Rather is it the King who is pictured, parting with all He possessed, "becoming poor", in order to procure what He could obtain in no other way.
What, then, is represented by the treasure and the pearl? What is it that could give so much joy to the King as to make Him prepared to part with His all, even His life, to possess it? We cannot think that it could be merely a territorial kingdom, nor even the right to rule; nothing, it seems to us, short of the loyal response of hearts made captive to Him by an appreciation of His unquenchable love. And so in the treasure, hidden and hidden again, is perhaps to be seen the precious remnant of the twelve tribes of Israel, cf. Mai. 3. 17; and in the pearl a composite picture of the redeemed of all other nations.