Open Matthew 13:51-52.
The final parable of Matthew 13 would be the most relevant and practical of all, if we understood it. It’s the final application, the “so what” of the kingdom parables. Jesus commissions us to do something with the kingdom.
But what is he asking us to do by telling a story about a householder laying out his new and old treasures?
Commentators puzzle over what Jesus said:
- Why was the householder laying out his treasure so conspicuously? Was he showing off for his family? His neighbours? His guests?
- Jesus calls his disciples scribes. Were they really? Scribes were Torah scholars, and very few of them followed Jesus. If scribes wrote things down, and Matthew wrote this down, was he thinking of himself?
- What’s the new and the old Jesus referred to? The old covenant and the new perhaps? Commentators often label these covenants as Law and Grace, and some think of the kingdom as personal salvation. Within that framework, the parable makes no sense: Jesus couldn’t have been instructing his disciples to preach salvation through a combination of Law and Grace.
All these things make sense when we step back into Jesus’ time:
- Scribes were the scholars of Jesus’ world. They studied, copied, and explained Israel’s Scriptures. Under Jesus’ tutelage, his followers have learned the core message of Scripture (the kingdom of God) and how this message was finding its fulfilment in the person of Jesus. Now that they say they have “understood all these things,” Jesus declares them to be “scholars (scribes) trained for the kingdom of heaven.”
- There were no shopping malls in Jesus’ world. A householder typically ran a small business, selling produce he grew or trading in valuables such as pearls. An effective householder laid out his wares well, in a way that communicated their value for buyers. A householder was a small business operator.
- When Jesus spoke of setting out the new and the old, his disciples did not hear his comments as a Law/Grace controversy. They did not think of the Old and New Testaments. The new treasure was Jesus, the ruler anointed by heaven to restore divine reign. The old treasure was Israel’s history, the long-running saga of all that God had already done through Abraham’s descendants to re-establish his reign among the nations.
The arrival of the king is the new development of the old story of Israel as God’s representative kingdom on earth. Jesus instructs his kingdom scholars to lay out these two treasures side by side, the way an astute business operator integrates new stylistic developments with antique treasures so that people see their true value.
Translated into our context, this is what Jesus said:
Matthew 13:51-52 (my paraphrase)
“Do you understand all these stories?”
“Yes, we get it!”
“That’s good, because you’re now scholars, trained kingdom agents. You know how a small business owner sets out his valuables, blending the latest styles and antiques in a compelling presentation? Well, that’s you. That’s what I’ve trained you to do.”
That’s precisely what Jesus himself has been doing with all these parables — combining the new and the old together as the integrated story of God’s reign.
Here’s another example, from the Emmaus Road:
Luke 24:25–27 (NIV)
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
So what’s the application for us 2000 years later? We still need to integrate the New Testament story of Jesus as the resolution of the Old Testament story of Israel. But we also have new challenges to address in our culture.
This is where I need your help. I love studying the Scriptures, travelling back into the world of the New Testament and hearing Jesus in his culture. There is no better way of understanding what Jesus was saying. But the old alone isn’t enough.
Jesus’s stories train us to be kingdom agents. Then he instructs us to read our own culture, to understand how isolated and disconnected people feel in our world. Longing to be known and understood. Wanting to belong. Yearning to be valued in community.
Kingdom is community. God’s kingdom is safe community. Can we call people beyond the isolated self-focused individualism of our culture into integrated life under Jesus as king? Can we bring together the needs of our own time and the message of how Jesus restores not only individuals but communal life? Can we set out the new and the old so people see the value of the kingdom?
C’mon kingdom scholars: help us find the stories that communicate the value of Jesus’ kingship for our culture. His dream in our time.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 393:
If Jesus’ disciples have truly understood his teaching (13:51), they are prepared to teach others the value of the kingdom (13:52).
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 402:
At its heart the gospel consists of “new things.” But for Matthew these “new things” presuppose and are fundamentally loyal to the “old things” (cf. 5:17–19). The Christian Torah scholar or “scribe” is one trained in the mysteries of the kingdom who is able to maintain a balance between the continuity and discontinuity existing between the era inaugurated by Jesus and that of the past.
Hilary (Bishop of Poitiers, c. A.D. 354) in Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, edited by Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 517–518:
Speaking to His disciples, He calls them Scribes on account of their knowledge, because they understood the things that He brought forward, both new and old, that is from the Law and from the Gospels; both being of the same householder, and both treasures of the same owner. He compares them to Himself under the figure of a householder, because they had received doctrine of things both new and old out of His treasury of the Holy Spirit.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Parables Of The Kingdom, (Fleming H. Revell, 1907):
At the end of the parables of the Kingdom, with stately and kingly dignity the King sweeps aside all the thrones of earth, and all the governments of men, and He says for purposes of God’s great and only Kingdom throughout this age, the ruling authority is to be vested in the disciples who are instructed to the Kingdom of Heaven.
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