The parables that Matthew collects in this chapter are all parables of the kingdom (13:19, 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52). And we have already seen that Jesus' kingdom grows by enrolling, teaching, and sending out disciples (4:17-18; 5:1-3; 10:1, 7).
The meaning of these parables will depend on the way we interpret the Parable of the Weeds. The usual interpretation is based on the idea that "the end of the age" (13:40) refers to the last judgment when some are sent to hell and others are gathered into heaven. As Matthew proceeds we will see how the whole Gospel is structured to move towards the imminent fall of Jerusalem in that generation. That is the end of the age (23:36; 24:14, 21, 34). This suggests that the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" of 13:42 occurs in the process of time here on earth as in 24:51.
We will therefore interpret the parables in this chapter as parables of what happens as the Messianic kingdom grows. The Messiah keeps sowing his seed, and the people who do not respond, or dry up, or get choked, are not immediately sent to burn in hell. Many of them will come to faith in subsequent years.
Wherever the kingdom is planted, it begins in the small way and then grows, and this will happen again and again in many countries. And in both the Parable of the Weeds and the Net, it is the Lord of the harvest who keeps purging his churches.
In the previous chapter we saw that the Messianic family or household consists of sons and daughters of God (12:50). Later Matthew will use the word "church" to describe the world-wide growth of disciples (16:18). He will also use the same word for a local gathering of disciples in one place (18:17). Both uses of the word appear in the Book of Acts, where the words for the baptized, Christian disciples, church members, and believers are all used interchangeably.
It therefore seems that in Matthew's mind these parables of the kingdom picture what happens as the number of disciples increases and they are gathered into local churches that become the Messiah's world-wide church.
13:1-2 "That same day" connects the teaching about the Messianic family (12:47-50) with the growth illustrated in the Parable of the Sower. We might call this The Sermon from the Boat, as opposed to The Sermon on the Mount which we viewed as a manifesto to explain Jesus' "But I say unto you" in contrast to Jewish interpretations of their laws and norms.
13:3-9 In verse 26 Matthew will explain that parables were stories told without an explanation. The disciples were only given the explanation if they wanted to know. So we imagine Jesus pointing from the boat on the Sea of Galilee to a sower sowing grain in his field. "Look, as that farmer is sowing, not all seeds will mature to fruition. The birds will eat some, others will grow for a bit and dry up, those that sprout among thorn bushes will get choked, but in spite of the losses the farmer expects to get a harvest."
Presumably some listeners said "that's an interesting fact " and went their way. Disciples of the Messianic kingdom are those who want to probe the meaning of parables.
13:10-12 But Jesus' disciples first wanted to know why their Rabbi told stories without explaining what they meant. Jesus' answer is that the way the kingdom of heaven works will always be a secret or mystery for outsiders. Spiritual dullness, deafness, and blindness (13:15) result in understanding less and less, but a questing and questioning heart learns more and more of the heart of God.
13:13-15 The text Jesus uses is from the call of a great prophet (Isaiah 6:8-10). Preachers need to know that at any one time only a proportion of their hearers will be ready to "perceive ... listen ... understand" (13:13, 15). This is not an argument against parabolic preaching, but against ministerial impatience. As Jesus will explain, all that is needed is to plant one grain of mustard seed, or introduce a small quantity of leaven into a lump of dough, and the kingdom will grow in due course. And some hearers who did not grasp the implications of the kingdom at first will see the meaning later.
13:16-17 But Jesus' own disciples now have the privilege of grasping truths which Old Testament prophets and other good people would have loved to understand.
13:18-19 In the introduction to this section we noted the fact that disciples will in due course group themselves into local churches. In John's Gospel we are told that Jesus' disciples were enrolled by baptism, as were John's disciples (John 4:1). And Matthew will end his Gospel with the command to enroll disciples by baptism and teach them all that Jesus had taught them. The Parable of the Sower therefore seems to be about what ensues when new learners are baptized. One can observe a similar process when people are enrolled for evening classes.
Some of the disciples never grasp what the kingdom is about. Their hearts are touched, but Satan is quickly able to make them lose interest. Satanic opposition to the growth of the kingdom was first mentioned in Jesus' temptations. The Lord's prayer includes "rescue us from the evil one" (6:13). And false prophets will be mingle with true prophets (7:15-16) to introduce doubt and offer alternatives to genuine faith.
13:20-21 There are others who become enthusiastic disciples, but they fall away when the going gets rough. In the explanation of the parable in Luke's Gospel we are told that such people were believers "only for a while" (Luke 8:13). John's Gospel chronicles the fact that many of Jesus' own baptized disciples dropped out from involvement in the kingdom (John 4:1; 6:66). And Jesus warned that this kind of attrition would occur when the first persecutions began in the period before the fall of Jerusalem (24:9).
13:22 Among the baptized there would also be those who would remain in attendance but fail to yield the fruit that is expected (see John 15:8, 16). Matthew records two of the reasons for this. Some are constantly worried by financial problems (6:31). Others are occupied with spending their wealth (19:24; 1 Timothy 6:17).
As explained in the introduction to this section, we should not assume that those who fail to bring forth fruit in the first three categories are immediately sent to burn in hell. In actual fact the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit will keep working with each person throughout a lifetime.
13:23 The effective disciples of the kingdom hear with heart understanding (see 13:13, 15). And we know from other parts of the New Testament that the wisdom to understand (James 3:17) is given to us by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4-10).
13:24 In the Parable of the Weeds the hearers are told that it is a story about the Messianic kingdom, but the explanation is only given to the disciples who want to know what the parable means (13:36). Presumably other hearers scratched their heads and went away puzzled.
13:25-28 The hearers should have guessed that the unlikely story of an enemy sowing weed seeds in a farmer's field must point to some deeper meaning. And Jesus had already given the clue that it was about the Messianic kingdom (13:24).
13:28-30 The hired hands (a better translation than "slaves") wonder about going through the field to pull up the weeds. But the owner prefers to wait till the harvest when the reapers will separate out the weeds before threshing the grain for the barn. Jesus immediately goes on to tell other parables, and the explanation of the weeds is given privately in Jesus' own home to the disciples who remember the story and ask for its meaning.
13:31-32 The parable of a tiny seed becoming a shrub and then a tree is also about the Messianic kingdom (as in 13:19, 24) but in this case we are not given an explanation. Perhaps the disciples had guessed that their tiny gathering of disciples would one day become a world-wide church. It is more likely that in view of the great commission (28:19), which had already been obeyed by Paul and other apostles by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, the meaning had already become obvious. Wherever the seed of the Messianic kingdom was introduced a tiny church grows into a big tree.
The meaning of the birds nesting in the branches has been given many fanciful interpretations. Normally a mustard bush is not big enough for birds to nest in. Perhaps the two stages of growth from shrub to tree refers to the growth that Jesus prophesied before the fall of Jerusalem (24:14) and the much bigger in-gathering after his coming to terminate the religious establishment of that city (24:31).
If we connect these birds with the birds that eat up the seed on the path (13:4) Matthew could be referring to the false prophets and teachers that quickly appeared in the early churches (see note on 7:21-23; 24:11; and as Paul explained to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29-30). Whether or not Jesus intended us to make this connection, it is quite clear that Matthew pictured local churches as including a mixture of true believers and those who have another agenda (as in 13:38).
13:33 This parable of the kingdom is again not given an interpretation. Some maintain that yeast always has a bad connotation as in the leaven of the Pharisees (16:6, 11; see also 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 5:9). But even in those cases leaven pictures a huge effect from the insertion of a small quantity of yeast in the dough. That suggests that the Parable of the Yeast parallels the previous Parable of the Mustard Seed, and both refer to the growth of the Messianic kingdom in each area from very small beginnings.
Here the dough is from three seahs of flour which might be as much as 23 liters. That is also the amount Abraham told Sarah to knead for his three visitors (Genesis 18:6).
13:34-35 Matthew points out that whenever Jesus preached to crowds he used a parabolic method. This is in contrast to the Sermon on the Mount which was teaching for disciples (5:1). The Old Testament text (Psalm 78:2), which Matthew connects with Jesus' use of parables, is taken from a long psalm that ends with king David's tending of his people like a shepherd. The psalm opens with "Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth" (Psalm 78:1).
13:36 The explanation of the Parable of the Weeds is given in the house Jesus had moved to in Capernaum (4:13).
13:37 By the use of parables for the crowds and explanation for his disciples the Son of Man (also the Son of God, as in 3:17) is sowing "the children of the kingdom" (see the comment on the church as a family in 12:46-50) throughout the world.
13:38 Among them are sown "the children of the evil one." As in the story (13:29) we are not to root out the unbelievers because in doing that we will inevitably expel many of the true believers.
13:39-43 As we have seen in the introduction to this section, the harvest is not the last judgment but a continual process of the Messiah intervening from time to time to "collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers" (13:41; see 15:13; 16:27; 21:41; 23:35-36; 24:21, 37-41, 51; as in Revelation 2:16, 22; 3:3, 9). These advents, or comings, or interventions, or days of the Lord are not to send unbelievers to burn in hell but a purging of his church when it has been taken over by evil forces (for the furnace of fire see the notes on 5:29, 30; 11:22-23).
This means that the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (13:42, 50) is not that of lost souls in some eternal punishment but the same as in the fall of Jerusalem (24:51).
The result of these judgments is that the church can continue its growth and "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (13:43).
13:44-45 In a worldly sense there are those who sell up everything, and travel far to get an education or make a great discovery. Similarly the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl both include the idea of selling everything else to buy what is infinitely more valuable. Jesus has already warned of the cost of discipleship (5:10-11; 7:14; 10:17, 23, 38; 13:21). In the work of the kingdom self-denial and asceticism have no value in themselves, but those who know the value of the Messianic kingdom and the rewards of service will be glad to suffer in its pursuit.
The difference in the two parables is significant. The treasure is found by one who wasn't looking for it. It is as if a family stops for a picnic off the road, and they notice that a rock has cracked open and a vein of pure gold is exposed. Similarly some discover the Messianic kingdom when they weren't looking for it. Paul was certainly not looking for what he found, but later he wrote "I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:8).
The connoisseur of fine pearls travels deliberately in the hope of finding the priceless pearl. And one also hears of people who only find the peace and joy of the kingdom after a long search (7:7; Acts 8:27-28; 17:27).
13:47-48 Whichever way people are added to a church (Acts 2:47; 5:14), Matthew wants to remind us again that it is no more possible to have a pure church than a net full of only good fish. The Parable of the Net would make sense to the first four disciples who were called from lake fishing with a net to casting the net for the kingdom (4:18-19). When they do this the catch will inevitably be mixed (as in the case of the weeds in the field, and the different responses of the Parable of the Sower).
13:49-50 In the Parable of the Sower some without a genuine faith will drop out sooner or later (as in John 6:66). In the Parable of the Weeds and the Net the purification of mixed churches is effected by the Messiah's angels, or messengers (13:41, 49). And in both cases this takes place "at the end of the age" (13:40, 49), when there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth (13:42, 50) for some but the opportunity to shine like the sun for others (13:43, 48).
This means we should not take "the furnace of fire" as a literal eternal hell fire, but as metaphorical of a time of testing and purging for a church. As Paul said, "The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire" (1 Corinthians 3:13). Similarly the Hebrew churches will be shaken "so that what cannot be shaken may remain." And in their case what will remain after the fall of Jerusalem is "a kingdom that cannot be shaken . . . for indeed our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:27-28). Similarly Peter writes to the churches of what is now present-day Turkey that they will soon face "various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith - being much more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire" (1 Peter 1:6-7; see the imagery of Jude 23).
13:51-53 The disciples, who are already engaged in the work of the kingdom (10:5-16) need to understand the principles of growth which have been given to the crowd in parables (13:2). As opposed to religious leaders who can only discuss details of Old Testament laws, teachers are needed for the kingdom who can relate the "But I say unto you" teachings and the parables of the Messiah to the Old Testament.
It was very hard for the people of Nazareth to believe that Jesus could be more than the local carpenter's son. They admitted that his teaching in the synagogue was full of astonishing wisdom, and the power of the Spirit was evident in his life, but they were offended.
13:54-56 Capernaum had become Jesus' home town, where he moved with his mother Mary after John the Baptist had been arrested (4:13). He had already become well known as described in the call and sending out of the first disciples, the crowds that followed him (5:1; 13:2), and the healings in Capernaum and areas along the Sea of Galilee. Matthew now records for us (as does the parallel passage in Mark 6:3) what was apparently his first visit back to Nazareth where he was raised. People still remembered Joseph the Carpenter, and they knew Mary the mother of Jesus and the four brothers. Jesus' sisters, who were probably married by this time, were still in the Nazareth area (13:56).
As usual Jesus was asked to teach in the Sabbath day synagogue service (Mark 6:2). His hearers had already heard about his "deeds of power" (the same words are used by Peter in Acts 2:22) thirty miles away in the Capernaum area. Now they found themselves astonished by hearing in their own synagogue the wisdom of his preaching (13:54, 56), but "they took offense at him".
Luke's Gospel has a special focus on the power of the Spirit, and this visit to Nazareth is given as an example of Jesus' teaching by the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14-18).
Matthew records that the religious people in the Nazareth synagogue recognized this (13:54, 56), but "they took offense" (13:57) at their home town boy speaking such words.
Writing many years later after the resurrection and when the church had grown in many areas, Matthew omits the full story of what happened as recorded in Luke's Gospel. There we are told that the members of the synagogue became so angry that they tried to lynch their own preacher by throwing him down from a cliff (Luke 4:28-30). Could it be that Matthew wanted to avoid embarrassing the good people of Nazareth who by then had a church among them?
Apparently what made them so angry was that Jesus must have outlined his Messianic mission based on the text from Isaiah 61 and he reminded them of God's concern for people of other nations (Luke 4:18-19-28).
13:57-58 Jesus comments that prophets are seldom appreciated near home. And Matthew adds the fact that such unbelief made it impossible for the Messianic kingdom to get a foothold in Jesus' home town. As a result there is no record in the Gospels of another visit to Nazareth (see the instructions in 10:14).
The nearest village that Jesus visited was Nain, about six miles away from Nazareth, where a widow's son was restored to life. And Mary was called to cater for a wedding in Cana about ten miles from the family home town (John 2:1-11). These distances seem trivial to us but they really separate villages where people have to walk up and down in hill country.