Matthew 13:18-35, The Kingdom in the World

[July 22, 2012] We continue where we left off a week ago with the seed that fell on the thorns. While Jesus was speaking of the “failure” of His own sowing of the word of the kingdom among the crowd, His words are applicable in every age. “The anxiety of the age and the deceitfulness of riches utterly choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). Wealth is the major impediment to hearing the word and understanding it: both the anxiety it produces and its deceitfulness. In the United States today our anxiety about wealth and the delusion of what having it promises has made our heart dull, our eyes blind and our ears deaf. Wealth does not only refer to money but to our obsession with materialism, possessions, consumption, economic security, social status, technology, efficiency, degrees, and so on. We may grow up Christian or convert to Christianity, but we nevertheless try to serve two masters. As hard as we try, mammon takes possession of our heart, and while we still profess Christianity, our spirit is practically dead. The kingdom of God cannot even win a place in our ethics; personal and social guilt take over. The solution is to liberate ourselves from mammon, which often requires a major change in our life style and ambitions; and for some it may even require a divestment of wealth. It may mean becoming voluntarily “poor” (real poverty is not voluntary), and living closer to nature. For everyone it requires living a simpler life than what Americans considered “normal.”

Those who want to be good ground in which the seed can germinate need to love the Lord with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their might. Hardened soil needs to be broken up; rocks need to be removed and the soil deepened; and briars need to be cleared. Persistence in discipleship, the disciplines of discipleship, and the right reaction to one’s situation in life and the events in one’s life eventually develop the honesty and clarity and freedom from one’s soul’s attachments to false identities and false pursuits: this makes for good soil.

The word, however, is spiritual. It may come clothed in the garments of the soul, but it is not soulical, and if received only on that level, it is neither heard nor perceived.

Why Jesus Uses Parables (Matthew 13:10-17)

The disciples ask, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answers that God has given to them “to know the mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens, but to [the crowds] it has not been given.” A mystery is something that cannot be known on our own; it cannot be figured out. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in the heavens” (Matthew 16:17). “No one knows the Son except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father except the Son and him to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27). “We speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the wisdom which has been hidden … ‘Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard and which have not come up in man’s heart’ … to us God has revealed through the Spirit … for … the things of God no one has known except the Spirit of God. But we have received … the Spirit which is from God, that we may know the things which have been graciously given to us by God … which God predestined for our glory … things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-12). “But the soulical man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he is not able to know them because they are discerned spiritually” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The crowd only sees and hears with their soul. It has not been “given to them” by God to perceive with their spirit. “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.”

Jesus apparently spoke in parables to draw out this distinction. In fact, the discursive mind only knows in parables. The body and spirit—as faculties of knowing—deal with realities. They have a direct link to it. The soul, however, deals with symbols. It only deals with reality indirectly. This is the value of text. It speaks directly to the soul in the language of its symbols. (All language is symbolic.) The problem that we have as human beings is that we create symbols and then attribute reality to them. We do not realize that they are symbols only pointing to realities (if they do) and we attach to them as if they were real. Part of the work of psychoanalysis is for us to learn to make this distinction so that we can learn to deal with reality instead of with our symbols, and begin to recognize symbols as symbols. When Jesus tells a parable, it is obvious that He is referring to something other than what His words literally represent. That is the point. A parable may create an opportunity to see through the words, or not.

Why do some people only see and hear with their soul when a few can see and hear with their spirit? What makes the difference between them? Why when it comes to the things of God does a veil lie over the eyes? Paul says that “the god of this age has blinded the thoughts [noēma] of the unbelievers that the illumination of the gospel of the glory of Christ might not shine on them” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Their thoughts are unfruitful as to reality. The “age” refers to the collective soul of society, functioning as a gestalt, and the “god” of the age refers to the emergent power of that gestalt, the power that dominates and enslaves the individual soul. The thoughts of the unbelievers are thus hardened when they hear—because a veil lies on their heart. “When their heart turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Corinthians 4:14-16). The spirit awakens from its dormancy when the heart turns to the Lord.

“Many prophets and righteous men have desired to perceive the things that you see, and have not perceived them; and to hear the things that you hear, and have not heard them.” Such prophets and righteous ones—Jesus is thinking of those within the pale of Judaism but He might include sages among the pagans—were spiritual, but they “sought and searched diligently, searching into what time or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ in them was making clear, testifying beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and the glories after these,” but they did not comprehend the meaning of things that were yet unfulfilled (1 Peter 1:10-11—here Peter is speaking of the gift of prophecy within Judaism). Once the revelation of Jesus comes, the soul can make sense of that which the spirit perceives. Until then, the spirit may perceive but it can barely grasp except in the form of promise. This is no less true among the pagans, though the truth that escapes them is usually perceived ontologically rather than prophetically (as it is among the Jews—Jewish “ontology” has more to do with the nature of time and eternity; pagan ontology has more to do with space and its relations). Let us move on.

The Parable of the Tares (13:24-30)

The Parable of the Sower poses less problems to the interpreter than some of Jesus’ other parables. Stanley Hauerwas is right to rail against Reinhold Niebuhr’s interpretation of the Parable of the Tares (see Matthew [Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing, 2006], pages 131-133). Niebuhr uses the parable to rationalize a compromised church and to condemn all attempts to live without sinning. The only lesson he draws from the parable is humility. Niebuhr “understands the gospel to be an account of the human condition that can be known whether a church exists or not.”

While Christians are attracted to this interpretation of the parable, it misses the point. “The field is the world,” not the church. The parable, moreover, is not about the church but about the kingdom of the heavens. While originally the view of the field may have been Israel, in Matthew Jesus already envisioned the church’s Gentile mission. The good seed are the sons of the kingdom. They live in the world among the sons of the evil one.

Who are the sons of the evil one? Perhaps these were the Shammaite Pharisees and nascent Zealots that Jesus contended with, who thought they could establish God’s kingdom by the force of their zeal and intolerance. In the succeeding centuries, the sons of the evil one took on many forms, both within institutional Christianity when it identified itself with the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires and later with the State and with civil religion, but also outside Christianity, in militant Islam and in secular utopian ideologies and millenarianisms, almost all of them historically being the bastard children of Christianity.

The parable is a call to patience. They are not to use force to “weed out” the false pretenders to the kingdom in the world. They are to leave that up to God; they are to put their nose to their own tasks. The disciple is to be patient in the world until the manifestation of the revelation of Jesus Christ, taking the way of the cross, not the way of the sword, or the way of “bigness.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (13:31-32)

In the past I have interpreted this parable to be referring to the false inflation of the kingdom of the heavens. The kingdom of the heavens is “like” the mustard seed which grew into a tree in the sense that it appeared to grow into a tree. The tree was the growth of what claimed to be the kingdom of the heavens, but was not in fact; it was in fact the institution of organized Christianity that was growing, not the kingdom of the heavens. Others have interpreted this historical growth in a triumphalistic way, as if it were a good thing, a view I could not and cannot share. My focus on the appearance of growth had to do with the fact that this and the following parable are told to the crowd (totaling four parables that He told to them, four being the number of the world), before Jesus goes indoors and explains all these things to His disciples with an addition of three parables. The parable of the mustard seed and of the leaven are about the illegitimate inflation of institutional Christianity as the appearance of the kingdom of the heavens in the world. This follows nicely after the Parable of the Tares.

I question this, however. Jesus does not usually speak of the deceptive appearance of the kingdom of the heavens, which is what this interpretation describes.

The field is the world. The man who took the seed and sowed it in the field is Christ. And the birds of heaven that roost in the branches of the tree probably refer to Gentiles, the tree indeed being an “empire” (this image is used in the Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4).

Ulrich Luz (Matthew 8-20 [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001], page 263) points out that “Hilary sees Christ himself as the mustard seed that was sown in the field and killed and buried[,] and in precisely this way surpassed all the glory of others … Only on this basis is it understandable why the mustard seed (and not the tree) determines the form of the church until the coming of the kingdom of God.” Hilary of Poitiers died in 368.

The mustard seed may indeed be “smaller than all the seeds” (it wasn’t, but it was spoken proverbially as such), but it remains such until it is sown in the field—where it is buried and hidden and dies. If the Parable of the Tares is related to the seed that fell beside the way, then this parable and the next relates to the seed that fell on the rocky places, the individual that refuses to lose the soul. In the case of the mustard seed, the offering of the soul is made; the sacrifice is burnt; the blood is spilt.

The form of Christ in the world, and of the disciple and the church, is “smaller than all the seeds,” but it is when the death of the soul takes place in the world that the seed becomes enormously fruitful. Whether we are speaking of the individual soul or of the kingdom of the heavens (the parable is speaking of the later), the seed does not become a tree until the eschaton, until, that is, the manifestation of the revelation of Jesus Christ. This is when the soul is saved and this is also when the kingdom of the heavens is realized and established on earth.

The Parable of the Leaven (13:33)

It used to be easy for me to interpret the leaven in a negative way. In the Book of the Revelation there are two women who are prominent, the whore of Babylon and the Bride of Christ. The three measures of meal I interpreted as institutional Christianity which the whore leavened with corruption in order to inflate its size. I question this interpretation too for the same reason.

Leaven usually has a negative connotation in the Bible. It does tend to represent corruption. But the rabbis also used it in a positive way. Many types have a double meaning often opposed to each other. The woman is baking bread; the association is not with the rites of Passover. The emphasis of the parable is on the hiddenness of the leaven (one would naturally have expected a description of kneading instead).

The woman is perhaps the Holy Spirit (usually represented by the feminine) and the three measures of meal (enough to feed more than 150 people) represent humanity, perhaps the humanity of the church. The number three symbolizes enclosure and thus marriage and the household, holiness, the Temple, the church and the Trinity. The parable emphasizes the spontaneous growth that takes place as a result of that which has been hidden in the meal. The kingdom of the heavens is the leaven that has been hidden in the meal, first in Jesus Himself and then in the midst of the church, which—again, probably eschatologically—causes the bread to rise when the kingdom is at last established at the manifestation of the revelation of Jesus Christ. For now, the leaven, like the kingdom of the heavens in Jesus on account of His humility, is hidden in the world, unseen, unnoticed, apparently without significance. This is also the way of the church, the way of the cross.

The Purpose of the Parables (13:34-35)

Before Matthew shows us Jesus leaving the crowds, he tells us that Jesus now only spoke to the crowds in parables, as a way of withdrawing from them. He was changing direction, or at least, the narrative in the Gospel according to Matthew was changing direction. In doing so, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Psalm 78. “I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world” in the medium of parables. What was hidden, of course, is Himself. Who He is, the revelation of His reality (as divine and created) has always been hidden until His appearance in time, but it is still hidden even as it appears, indeed it is hidden by its appearance—for it is still a mystery that must still be revealed. The mustard seed was implicitly hidden in the field and the leaven was explicitly hidden in the meal. Though Jesus—as the presence of the kingdom of the heavens—remains hidden in the world, through parables (now) He utters that which is otherwise hidden.

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