Matthew 13:36-53, Attaining the Kingdom


[July 29, 2012] When Jesus began His sermon of parables, it was at a time when the opposition to His ministry from a contingent of Pharisees and His own frustration with the crowds was most acute. With His disciples gathered around Him in a house, He declared that they were His mother and siblings, because they were doing the will of His Father, and that the connection of blood was not enough. (Election was a promise, not an entitlement, as Paul explains in Romans 9—11; the fulfillment of the promises requires—and awaits—their fidelity.)

Leaving the house, Jesus sat in a boat and told the Parable of the Sower to the crowd, which He then interpreted to His disciples. The parable described how He had sowed the word of the kingdom in the crowd and why it had proved so unfruitful among them. Then He told the Parable of the Tares, which He also explained to His disciples. He has sown the word in the crowd but an enemy was also sowing seed, one that also resembled “the word of the kingdom” but became toxic upon maturity. This other seed was the message of the Pharisees, the school of Pharisees that opposed Him. It confused and poisoned His listeners. Yet the time of judgment was not yet. Jesus would not nor should His disciples attempt to uproot these “sons of the evil one.” God would take care of the problem in His own time. At the harvest (the Day of Judgment), the tares will be separated from the wheat, bundled and burnt, but the wheat will be gathered into the barn.

Jesus told two more parables to the crowd, parables that explained (if they could understand them) that the Kingdom of the Heavens was small and hidden in their midst—like a mustard seed sown in a field, or leaven mixed in flour—but one day, in the day of His coming (when the revelation of who He is becomes manifest) the small mustard seed would become a tree in which the birds of heaven (the gentiles) would come to roost, just as the prophecy of Isaiah foretold, and the leaven would raise the loaf of meal (the meal symbolizing humanity).

He Withdraws (Matthew 13:36a)

After Jesus told these four parables to the crowd—the number four signifies the world (as in the four directions)—He withdrew from them, as if He were giving up on them. “Leaving the crowds, He went into the house.” The transition is symbolic. He was not giving up on the crowds, but He was no longer going to be so open with them. He would speak to them in parables from now on (13:34). Those who have ears to hear will still hear Him. But they would have to struggle to understand; the time of the free giveaways was over. “For whoever has, it shall be given to him, and he will abound; but whoever does not have, even that which he has shall be taken away from him” (13:12). From now on Jesus was withdrawing with His disciples and would only explain things to them, to those who would give Him their allegiance. Understanding would only be given to those who committed themselves to Him in bonds of loyalty and fealty.

It was always this way, in fact, but Jesus was now done attempting to explain things to the “crowd.” He would no longer waste His time on critics and spectators. If we too want to understand the Scriptures, we have to believe, that is, yield to Him our subservience. In the Gospel according to John Jesus says, “If anyone resolves to do [the Father’s] will, he will know concerning the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.” It is along this line: God will not reveal His will to someone who is not willing to do it. He does not satisfy the merely curious. The existential resolve must be there first. Otherwise the mind alone is attempting to know what the mind cannot know by itself. Such knowledge must originate in the awareness of the spirit, which requires the turning of the heart: the veil is removed from the mind when the heart turns to the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:16). It is like trying to imagine what something looks like without having seen it, on the basis of a verbal description alone. Words alone cannot capture the reality of it. To know Jesus requires that we enter into a personal relationship to Him, a relationship of trust and surrender, for we cannot know Him unless He—in His Triune divinity—opens Himself to us. We are not in control of our knowledge of Him; we cannot squeeze it out of Him by effort or manipulation. He is the Lord of His self-revelation. He will not withhold Himself from us if we give Him what He asks.

The Explanation of the Parable of the Tares (13:36b-43)

The disciples came up to Him, the way one would approach a lord, and asked, “Make the Parable of the Tares of the Field clear to us.” Jesus explains it to them. The word is what is sown but the seeds when they land in the soil of the field are identified with the sons of the kingdom, and the seed sown by the enemy are the sons of the evil one.

The enemy and the evil one are identified as the devil (Satan), who tempted Jesus in the wilderness and who will tempt Him again through Peter in chapter 16. The devil tempts Jesus to gain the world, to save His soul, and to not take the way of the cross. This is the way of the nascent Zealots who would seize the kingdom and force it on the world by their own efforts, though they would imagine that they are doing it for God and that God is assisting them. This is the way that the church has often taken; it is the way of militant Islam, and it is the way of modern ideologies.

The devil is the principle behind the world. When the human soul becomes collective, this collectivity becomes a gestalt, and something added emerges, principalities and powers, archons, that dominate and enslave the parts of the collective, social groups and individual souls. The overarching principle of this gestalt is the devil, Satan, who in the world sets himself up—if I may be allowed to personify this power—as the mirror-image and counterfeit of the Son of Man (the One described in Daniel 7:13-14), as His very opposite. If Jesus is characterized by the way of the cross, the devil is characterized by the opposite.

The sons of the evil one are not everyone else in the world besides the sons of the kingdom. They are “the stumbling blocks and those who practice lawlessness” (13:41). In other words, they are the ones who confuse the word of the kingdom with an alternative word, a word that rejects the way of the cross, which is what Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees were doing.

In Jesus’ explanation, His focus is not on leaving the tares alone, “lest while collecting the tares, you uproot the wheat along with them” (13:29), but on the harvest itself. The tares would be removed from the field of His kingdom (which at the time of the harvest extends to the whole world) and cast into the furnace of fire. Even now the kingdom of the heavens is at work in the whole world. The church is one place where it is supposed to be visible, for it is the church that proclaims Him. But we see the influence of the Gospel in movements outside of Christianity across the globe. (For example, see how much Jesus influenced Mohandas Gandhi.) We can expect this to grow too, especially if the world is to survive much longer. Likewise, the tares and illegitimate offspring of the Gospel (its shadow) are also everywhere in the world.

I am drawn to wonder, in reading about the harvest, if the judgment that Jesus describes takes place only at His coming, if there are not historical judgments in which the sons of the evil one are weeded out, not by us certainly but by the forces of history. For example, the crises of the three Jewish wars in 66-73, 115-117 and 132-135 put an end to the Sadducean establishment and gave birth to Rabbinical Judaism, which was a much gentler religion, as if the “generation” of those who opposed Jesus in the faces of the Shammaite Pharisees and nascent Zealots were weeded out by those tragic events.

The righteous shining forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father, however, is certainly eschatological. If this were to take place historically, it would be describing a hidden spiritual reality. Probably, though, the “shining forth” is in contrast to the hiddenness of spirituality in the present age. The saints do indeed shine forth in the present to those who have the eyes to see; and they shine forth in the kingdom of the Father; but this shining forth is not manifested. The world does not and cannot see it.

The Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Value (13:44-46)

Jesus reveals Himself to those who give Him their fidelity, loyalty, fealty, commitment, love, or in other words, “faith.” The paradox, of course, is that we can only do such a thing if He reveals Himself to us. When He reveals Himself to us we cannot but surrender to Him as His disciples, for His love for us devastates all our other loves; His beauty is irresistible; His clarity shatters our mental constructs. Granted, this light only dawns on some people gradually. For everyone who sees, however, there is a struggle that continues as the old attempts to reassert itself over and over again. On the other hand, when He does reveal Himself to us, we can only continue to access that revelation when we give Him that which He calls forth—our commitment, etc. The two, His revelation and our faith/fidelity, are mutually dependent on each other, but in a hierarchical relationship in which God takes the initiative and control, i.e., the lordship.

In the first of these parables that Jesus gives only to His disciples, a man—probably a day laborer—finds a treasure in the field. He hides it and in his joy goes and sells all that he has and buys the field. Who is the man and what is the treasure?

A common interpretation is that the man is the Son of God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient even unto death, and that the death of a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8), in order to obtain His bride, the church, “that He might sanctify her, cleansing her by the washing of the water in the word, that He might present the church to Himself glorious, not having spot or wrinkle or any such things, but that she would be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

But the treasure is the kingdom of the heavens, of which Jesus was already in possession. I would not rule out the above interpretation, but it seems to me that the man in this parable and the merchant in the second one is the disciple, who on discovering Jesus, “sells all that he has” to obtain the prize—the prize of the kingdom. Jesus, as has been apparent from the beginning, is the kingdom of the heavens. The kingdom of the heavens is where He is; it had drawn near to Israel by His own coming. When we discover the treasure in the field, or the one pearl of great value, that is, when we discover who Jesus is, by the revelation of the Father (Matthew 16:17; 11:27), in joy we sell all that we have that we may obtain the kingdom that is in Him. The one who refuses to lose the world and their soul (Matthew 16:24-26; 10:37-39) cannot “enter” or “inherit” the kingdom.

What does “selling all that he has” mean? Jesus told the rich man, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in the heavens; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus described the renunciation of mammon as the way of discipleship for all His followers (6:19-34), and in the Parable of the Sower we saw that wealth and the anxiety it creates prevents the word from bearing any fruit—it chokes the word. Jesus does not speak only of the renunciation of wealth—for to “sell everything” speaks of far more than merely our material possessions; it speaks of the denial of self and the loss of the soul, even of martyrdom—but it would be blind and deaf to say that He is not speaking here of the renunciation of wealth as a condition for obtaining the treasure of the kingdom of the heavens.

Paul says, “What things were gain to me, these I have counted as loss on account of Christ. But moreover I also count all things to be loss on account of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8). Historically Christians want to only see “spiritual” forms of renouncing the world and to ignore any real renunciation of possessions. Luther and Calvin were guilty of this. Some evangelicals, because they are afraid of “works righteousness,” fear that this kind of language introduces work as a condition for salvation.  They do not distinguish between the whole sphere of grace and forgiveness, redemption and the church, on the one hand, and the kingdom and the salvation of the soul on the other. They seem to think that once a person is “saved” by faith, there is nothing else to do but to be thankful. However, that is not the teaching of the New Testament in which the salvation of the soul awaits the coming of our Lord Jesus and is not certain, even in the case of the believer. Redemption by the blood of Christ, and the present gift of the holy Spirit and eternal life are obtained in the present; but the kingdom must be worked out with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Even Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained or am already perfected, but I pursue, if even I may lay hold of that for which I also have been laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not account of myself to have laid hold; but one thing I do: Forgetting the things which are behind and stretching forward to the things which are before, I pursue toward the goal for the prize to which God in Christ Jesus has called me upward” (Philippians 3:12-14). Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians Paul says, “Do you not know that those who run on a racecourse all run, but one receives the prize? Run in this way, that you may lay hold,” etc. (9:24—10:12).

That Jesus is also referring to the renunciation of wealth is so obvious that Jesus does not interpret it for His disciples. Yet it is interesting that this meaning has disappeared from the history of interpretation and practically every other consideration has been moved to the foreground. It is not that these other considerations are unimportant, but, as Ulrich Luz (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001; pages 275-280) points out, “it is worth noting that ‘the warning against riches’ that is ‘the only direct ethical exhortation’ of our entire chapter once again was not heard in the history of interpretation. What shall we say to this? Matthew himself has said it already: ‘The care of the world and the deceit of riches choke the word’ (13:22).”

The Parable of the Dragnet (13:47-50)

In the following parable a great net is cast into the sea. It lays unseen under the surface and gathers from every species of fish. When it is filled, the fishermen bring it onto the shore and sort the fish out. The good fish will be collected into vessels; the foul fish will be cast out. In the interpretation, Jesus speaks of the consummation of the age when the angels will separate the evil from the midst of the righteous and cast them into the furnace of fire. This is similar to what happens in the Parable of the Tares: the tares are collected out of His kingdom and cast into the furnace. “In that place there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42; 49-50). Notice that in both parables the righteous are not transferred to heaven but the wicked are removed from the earth.

The question here is what the dragnet is. The dragnet is not the church. (This creates the same false understand of the church that the misinterpretation of the Parable of the Tares created.) The church is among the fish. When the chapter began, Jesus was sitting in a boat, and the crowds and the disciples were on the shore. A dragnet is cast from a boat and pulled to shore, and there on the shore Jesus separated the crowd from His disciples. Jesus Himself—the Gospel, or in the context of this chapter, “the word of the kingdom”—is the dragnet. The good fish are those who have ears to hear (13:9, 43); the bad fish are those who do not hear. Moreover, the good fish are those who “do the will of my Father” (12:50; 7:21). Do we recognize who He is? And if we do, do we for joy sell all that we have that we may have Him—that we may enter and live in the sphere of His Person? Do we live under His lordship, under the governance of the Father? And do we, living there, run to obtain the prize? The parable is about the Day of Judgment, but it is also about the kingdom. Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” shall “enter” the kingdom, though all will find themselves under its jurisdiction.

Scribes Discipled to the Kingdom of the Heavens (13:51-52)

The disciple is to be as a scribe of the kingdom who records (remembers) and treasures (meditates on) the words of the kingdom along with the words of the Scriptures and, like a steward of a house, can bring them out in due season to supply the Messiah’s household.

Jesus’ departure marks a transition within the gospel itself. A new section begins.


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