The collection of parables in Matthew 13 is the third of the great discourses Matthew collated and put into a particular context, and then attributed to Jesus. The Jesus Seminar scholars have determined that all seven of the parables are found in Thomas, and the writer/evangelist has also fleshed out his particular point of view with sayings from the Q collection. The Five Gospels, p. 190. To compare with Mark, see blog.06.07.09; and blog.06.14.09. These earlier commentaries from Year B include the Revised Common Lectionary readings.
Matthew is most concerned with insiders who know the secrets that will reveal the kingdom of God versus outsiders, who – no matter how obvious Jesus might make the story – are closed minded and hard hearted, and are unable to get it. In 13:11-17, Matthew’s Jesus is clear: “You [followers/disciples] have been given the privilege of knowing the secrets of Heaven’s imperial rule, but that privilege has not been granted to anyone else.” He then transplants the saying about “those who have more will get more, and those who have less will lose what they have” from the economic context of the parable of the money in trust, which is how it appears in Mark and Luke, and later in Matthew’s own gospel (25:29). Here he tells the disciples that they have indeed been given the secret, inside knowledge that no one else has. Further, he says, to those who have this privilege, more knowledge and understanding will be given, while those who do not have the inside track will be deprived of even the little bits of wisdom that they may have been able to acquire.
Matthew is using the collection of parables as a way of describing the nature of God’s imperial rule – or conditions that will or could pertain in the realm/kingdom of God. The first part of the discourse focuses on the metaphor of the sower and the seed.
When the word of God falls on good soil – i.e., is preached to someone who is willing to listen and understand – then that person will produce a good crop and a high yield – presumably a good person who does many good works. Interestingly, Matthew goes on after that to spin a yarn about “the sabotage of weeds,” which has to resonate with any gardener or subsistence farmer, whether pre-modern or post-modern. Perhaps he has to account for the existence of evil, or for the inexplicable refusal of members of his community to accept Jesus as the Anointed One. Matthew’s Jesus spells it out in 13:37-43. An enemy has done this,” says the owner of the invaded field. “But let the weeds grow up with the wheat, and we’ll sort it all out on the threshing floor.” As the Papal Legate to the Crusaders, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, put it in 1209: “Kill them all. God will know his own.”
The evangelist then strings together three more familiar sayings about the nature of the kingdom of God: It is like a mustard seed that grows into a tree; it is like a leaven which a woman hid in the flour until it was all leavened; it is like a treasure hidden in a field; it is a pearl of great price. But again, Matthew has to account for the opposition to the message he found so compelling. So, he says, God’s imperial rule is a net that catches all kinds of fish – but in the end, the good fish are tossed into baskets and the worthless fish are thrown away. “This is how the present age will end,” Matthew’s Jesus warns, “God’s messengers will go out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw the evil into the fiery furnace.”
Matthew ends his series of selected parables with an enigmatic statement from Jesus. Because the disciples have been clued in to understand the parables, they are like a host who treats his guest to both old and new wine from his cellars. Matthew is either referring to the old scriptures fulfilled by his new stories of Jesus, or to Jesus’ method of drawing on a vast repertoire of parables to explain his message. Whatever Matthew meant, Jesus – like most prophets – is not appreciated in his home town.
Matthew’s interpretation of God’s imperial rule is one of coming apocalyptic judgment. In contrast, Mark’s story takes Jesus on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. Along the way, he teaches how to live inclusively, non-violently, counter-culturally. In Mark’s gospel the parables of the sower and the stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000 are related in a way that shows that Jesus was teaching the difference between living a life defined by narrow self-interest and revenge, and living a life that radically abandons self-interest in favor of non-violent covenant with distributive justice-compassion. Mark’s interpretation of the realm/kingdom/imperial rule of God is that anyone can participate in it at any time because it is here, now. People may be blind to it – and certainly Mark finds Jesus’ disciples to be hopelessly stupid. But basically, Mark is saying that once you realize the presence of God’s rule of non-violent, distributive justice-compassion, you can choose to participate in it. Matthew’s take on God’s covenant is nearly a polar opposite: If you reject that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Messiah, despite all the evidence he has presented, you will be separated out from the righteous believers, and thrown into the flames. He deals with the problem of evil by calling it “non-belief” and consigning it to violent destruction at the end of the age.
Western societies have been struggling with these two opposing paradigms: violent, retributive judgment versus non-violent, inclusive compassion. For the past 2,000 years, the paradigms have usually been defined in terms of belief or non-belief in the divine identity of one particular human being instead of considering what that person actually may have been concerned with during his lifetime. Jesus was teaching that it is possible to create a non-violent society based on distributive justice-compassion instead of a violent society based on retributive pay-back and power-over others. Choosing to step outside the boundaries of normal human socialization is not only possible, it is essential for sustainable human life.
Whether these parables about the nature of God’s rule are relevant to 21st century social conditions may be debatable, but the attitude of final judgment reflected in Matthew’s interpretations has been woven into the fabric of Western cultural identity and is fundamental to the prevailing United States social and political mythos. On September 13, 2001, then-President George W. Bush declared, “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of Evil.” Ten years later, the capture and execution of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces is an illustration of that mythos. In her column of May 8, 2011, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times writes that “Killing evil does not make us evil . . . I don’t want closure. There is no closure after tragedy. I want memory, and justice, and revenge. . . . I leave it to subtler minds to parse the distinction between what is just and what is justified. . . . Only fools or knaves would argue that we could fight Al Qaeda’s violence non-violently.”
Ms. Dowd falls into the trap that many fall into who assume that “non-violence” means passivity when confronted with a clear and present danger to life. Al Qaeda’s violence could have been fought non-violently in many different ways, not the least of which includes declining as a matter of political integrity to align ourselves with violent regimes, which may well have precluded bin Laden’s choice of jihad. What is required of “subtler minds” is a profound change in paradigm. The word falls like the broad-cast seed – on rocky, infertile soil; on soil that is infested with brambles; and on good, rich, fecund earth. But it’s not some “enemy”who comes in the night and scatters bad seed in the field; it’s our own thought processes that seduce us with the satisfaction of memory and revenge.
For those exiles from traditional Christianity who still choose to follow the Way, the Apostle Paul has something to offer. In the Scholars Version of 2 Corinthians 5, Paul suggests that “we all must come up to the podium of God’s Anointed so that each of us may be given our award according to what we have done through the body, whether it was good or not so good.” Paul is suggesting a future awards ceremony, not a court judgment. “It is not about punishment,” says a footnote, “but a differentiation of prizes determined by the quality of the contribution one makes. This is a far cry from Matthew’s threat to throw non-believers into the fiery furnace. Paul then goes on:
The Anointed’s love is what motivates us – because we are convinced that since one died for all, therefore all have died. What this means is that he died for all so that those now alive might no longer live for themselves but for the one who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we don’t look at anyone from a worldly point of view . . . . Consequently, for anyone in solidarity with God’s Anointed, it is as if there is a new world order. The old order is gone, look – the new order has arrived! All of this comes from God who changes our relationship with the divine through the Anointed and has made us agents of this change. God is, as it were, changing the world’s relation with the divine through the Anointed, not charging their deficits to their accounts, and entrusting us with this message of change. We act as agents of God’s Anointed, as if God were making an appeal through us. On behalf of God’s Anointed we implore you: Accept the new terms of our relationship with God: It’s as if God took him, a coin in mint condition, and treated him as if he were a coin that had lost its value for our benefit so that through him we might be recast into the coinage of God’s integrity. 2 Cor. 5:14-21.
The scholars suggest that Paul’s “root metaphor may well be that of reminting new coins from old. This would nicely tie in the notion of a new cosmic order. Not restoration but a revolution” (p. 129). Such a change in paradigm would mean abandoning belief in a story (Matthew) and embracing the same confidence Jesus had in the efficacy and power of a way of life (Mark).