Parables of the king (Matthew 13)

What’s a parable, and why did Jesus use them?

Open Matthew 13.

Like an otter, but with a bill like a duck. If you don’t know what a platypus is, comparisons can help.

Even if you do know what something is, comparisons change how you think of it. “Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy; do you really want junk like that in your belly?” (Proverbs 18:8 Msg).

Jesus was famous for his parables, similitudes that describe one thing as like another. Sometimes the comparison was a single sentence; other times he spun a yarn with intrigue.

Matthew pulls seven or eight of his parables together in chapter 13. They’re drawn from everyday life: farming, baking, gardening, buying, selling, fishing, entertaining. But they’re all about the same thing. Can you guess?

Yes, they’re all on Jesus’ favourite topic: the kingdom of heaven (13:11, 19, 24, 31, 33, 38, 41, 43, 44, 45, 47, 52).

But these parables don’t tell you what the kingdom of heaven is. Jesus’ hearers already knew that. They knew they’d had it when David and Solomon were the anointed rulers of heaven’s reign on earth. They knew they’d lost it when Assyria and Babylon invaded so they were subjects of the empires instead of God’s reign. And they knew the prophets had promised the restoration of heaven’s reign.

What they didn’t know was how heaven’s reign would be restored on earth:

  • Zealots wanted to restore God’s reign by killing their oppressors as the Old Testament heroes had done.
  • Essenes waited for God to send a leader to their Qumran camp, a leader who would restore heaven’s reign by defeating the sons of darkness.
  • Pharisees expected God to act. They hoped the God of the Sinai covenant would restore his kingship over Israel when his people were obedient enough.

So, Jesus did not need to explain what the kingdom of God was. The parables of Matthew 13 assume you know. They’re about how heaven’s reign is to be restored on earth.

And the how according to Jesus is different to what others expected. Zealots, Essenes, and Pharisees all expected cataclysmic divine intervention to sort out the present injustice and restore God’s reign. Apocalyptic stories were popular in Jesus’ day, and Jesus even used some of those later.

But the parables of Matthew 13 paint a different picture. They’re all about the kingdom growing gradually:

  • The sower plants seeds. Not all are productive, but some finally do grow into the expected harvest (13:1-23).
  • The weeds and seeds grow together. The kingdom is like that, until the final harvest (13:24-30, 36-43).
  • Initially, the kingdom is just a seed. But don’t underestimate it: it grows into a shrub, and ultimately a tree (13:31-32).
  • Just as you wait for the yeast to permeate the dough, you must wait for the kingdom to rise (13:33).
  • The treasure is already there in the field, but it’s not accessible immediately. There’s a process before it’s acquired (13:44).
  • A merchant finds the prize he longs for, but there are things to deal before it’s acquired (13:45-46).
  • When a fishing net is dragged through the water, it pulls in all sorts of things. It isn’t until the end that the fish get sorted out. (13:47-50).

All seven parables tell us how the kingdom comes: gradual development, not instant cataclysm. Jesus established the kingdom, and he expected it to grow as a result of his work. He planted the seed, and eventually heaven would have a harvest on earth.

Crucially, Jesus’ stories about the kingdom are actually stories about the king. It is Jesus, the anointed ruler, who re-establishes heaven’s kingdom on earth. Who did you think was the sower? (Hint: 13:37).

Jesus has to be subtle. The reason he constantly talks about the kingdom is that he cannot constantly talk about himself as king.

The kingdom of heaven is re-established on earth through heaven’s appointed ruler, the Christ. The parables of the kingdom are revelations of its king.


What others are saying

Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 155:

Chapter 13 is the hinge on which the whole Gospel turns. …There is something powerful and evocative at the end of the first half of the book, something that summarizes both the self-disclosure and the opposition we have met hitherto, and that echoes the great themes of who Jesus is, what he can do, and the need to respond to him. The parables are Christocentric. They point in all their hiddenness and revelation to the Jesus who both reveals and conceals. As people hear them, they are made to see where they stand in relation to the kingdom that he brings in.

Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 498:

The power that Jesus brought with his announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven did not have the perception of power that many people expected. …The complete regeneration of the world that many associated with the messianic age of blessing had not arrived. Rome still dominated the land, and ruthless leaders still induced fear of imprisonment and execution. People still died. Hunger and disease were still daily experiences.

So Jesus clarifies with his parables that the kingdom of heaven has secrets associated with it. It is hidden but powerful in its spiritual transformational working. It is small in its beginning, but it will bring the reality of salvation.

[previous: The naughty child story]

[next: Who was the sower?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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