He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
Translation: Another parable he placed before them saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard that someone took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds of the field, the smallest certainly of all the seeds, but when it is grown it is greatest of all vegetables and becomes a tree so that the birds of the heavens come and live in its branches.' Another parable he spoke to them, 'The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and mixed in with three gallons of flour until it was mixed whole.'"
Matthew's source for the parable of the mustard seed was Mark (4:30-32), though Matthew gets "tree" from Q. The parable of the leaven appears to come from Q--see the parallel in Luke 13:20-21. The gospel of Thomas also includes both parables. Similarly, Matthew 13: 44-52 appear to be Special Matthew, included also in Thomas.
The word for "parable" is parabole--literally, "thrown alongside." Parables are stories "thrown alongside" life, you might say, which prompt comparisons and contrasts between the two. Paul Tillich had his "method of correlation" which called for points of contact and comparison between the faith and the world. Parables do something like that.
The parables of Jesus sometimes use hyperbole, as in the parable of the mustard seed. A mustard seed is small, but it is not the smallest of all the seeds. First, it grows into a laxanon, which means either "garden herb" or "vegetable." Laxanon refers to a plant that was planted on purpose.
Matthew adds the "tree" to the original version of the story we have in Mark. Perhaps Matthew didn't think a garden vegetable was a grand enough comparison for the kingdom of heaven. What Matthew is really doing, however, is making a hyperlink to Daniel 4: 10-22, particularly verses 11-12, which use a tree as an image for the great kingdom of God which is visible to all and for all:
11The tree grew great and strong,
its top reached to heaven,
and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.
12Its foliage was beautiful,
its fruit abundant,
and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
the birds of the air nested in its branches,
and from it all living beings were fed.
Likewise, see Ezekial 17: 22-23 where the Lord God takes a sprig "from the lofty top of a cedar" and will plant it on the "mountain height of Israel" where it will produce fruit and become a "noble cedar":
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
Universality and "weakness": Two primary themes abound in only a few verses--universality and "weakness." Both the tree and the field are universal images. The field is the world, and the tree "provided food for all" (Dan 4). This universality has an anti-triumphal twist, however. The seed itself, the agent of this universal mission, is small and hidden in the ground. It does its work mysteriously and out-of-sight.
This is a statement of how God runs the whole universe. It is through suffering, weakness, and vulnerability that God is present with us and saves us. This has been true from the beginning of creation. God runs the universe through the paradoxical nature of the "theology of the cross": reigning through "weakness," becoming empty for the benefit of others, bringing life out of vulnerability and death.
This prepares us for the stunning parable of the leaven. The first surprise is that the God-figure is a woman. The second surprise is the amount of flour--"three gallons," a great amount, enough to make over 100 pounds of bread.
The third surprise is the image of the leaven, which was used primarily as a negative image in first century palestine. Leaven was often compared to corruption. A little bit of corruption, for example, could quickly contaminate everyone, or "one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel"--that sort of thing.
But perhaps this is not so surprising. Jesus was never much interested in being the "purest of the pure." Maybe he liked the image of leaven precisely because it was reminiscent of those down and out, like criminals and prostitutes, who were the special focus of Jesus' attention and the first recipients of his message.
The baker-woman God "hides" the yeast in the loaf--score a point (again) for mystery. Consider how that yeast works: It disappears into the loaf, suffuses it entirely, and puffs up little pockets of carbon dioxide--(not unlike the breath of God to Adam or the carbon dioxide-rich breath of Jesus to the church). The leaven becomes so thoroughly a part of the loaf that it can no longer be detected, yet it completely animates the whole. Score another point (again) for universality.
Think of it as an image of creation. The kingdom of God is integrally part of the creation of the cosmos. It was worked in in the very beginning and has never been separate from it. (So much for Jesus as an alien space-invader who drops in to a foreign planet to set everything right and leave. The Word was never absent from the world, and is still present in, with, and under all that is.)
‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Translation: "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field which someone found and hid, and from his joy he goes and sells all as much as he has and he buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a person on a journey seeking fine pearls, and finding one valuable pearl, he goes and sells all, as much as he has, and buys it."
The owner of the field has hidden a treasure--not uncommon in those days--and someone else has found it. The treasure has been there awhile, but it has been hidden--kekrymmeno. This is to say that the gospel is mysterious. Recognized or not, it has been there in the field--agro--all along.
Unlike the seed scattered all over the place and the leaven which is worked through the whole loaf, this treasure only appears in one place in the field. The one who finds it, however, buys the whole field. The treasure is in the world, and gives the world its value. Score another point for universality.
In the pearl parable, the one seeking is an emporo, which could mean merchant, but also could mean a person on a journey, or both. He seeks "fine pearls"--in the ancient world, pearls were of great value, sometimes considered to be worth more than gold. (The word for "pearl," incidentally, is margaritas.)
These two parables accent joy and committment. At finding the treasure, or the pearl, the person sells everything--literally, "all as much as he has"--and buys it, "costing not less than everything," as T.S. Eliot put it. Each one goes all in.
We will all die, of course. We will all, some day, give everything we have. Christ demands our whole life, and, in every single case, that is exactly what Christ will get. Put another way, we will all, some day, "buy the farm," which is why it's good to know that the treasure of the death and resurrection of Jesus is right there with us and has been all along.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Translation: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a large fishing net that was thrown into the sea and out of all nations gathered together, which, when it was full, was drawn up upon the beach, and sitting down, they gathered together the excellent into a container, but the rotten, they threw out. The gathering up into forever will happen in this way. The angels will go out and separate the evil out of the midst of the just and will throw them into the furnace of fire. There, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
The word sagane occurs only once in the New Testament, right here. Usually, a "net" is either amphiblestron or diktyon, but Matthew goes with sagane, where, incidentally, we get our word "seine."
This type of net is pulled through the water and takes in everything it can. Just like Christ himself, the "seine" gathers up everything in its path, including not only fish, but turtles, seaweed, old bottles, and trash. It gathers "out of all nations"--ek pantos genous.
Christ died and rose not just for white married heterosexual SUV-driving suburbanites, in other words, but for blacks, gays, urbanites, farmers, grumpy old Uncle Edgar, and those who no habla Ingles. Even more, the mysterious kingdom of heaven is drawing all creation--not just people, but cats, dogs, turtles, and old bottles.
When the net was hauled onto the shore, they sat down and "gathered up" the "good" into a container. The word translated as "good" is kala, which is not strictly a word relating to morality. It also means "beautiful," "excellent," "magnificent." Sapros, on the other hand, refers not only to "bad," but also means "rotten," "putrid," "corrupt."
You might wonder if the passage is less about morality--good and bad--and more about usefulness. We are not given a criterion by which the fishermen decide to throw some items out and keep others. Presumably, they threw out dead fish and old bottles, unless, of course, they had a use for the old bottle, in which case they would keep it.
The fishermen didn't haul in the net until "it was full," which is both a universal and an eschatological image. Note, too, that the fishermen don't make the absolute final judgment. The angels make a sudden appearance and arrange for the final disposition of the evil--ponerou--and the just--dikaiown.
It is not for the fishermen, or for us, to determine ultimately what is useful or not, or even "evil" and "righteous." That distinction is made only at the end of time--sunteleia aionow--by those creatures, angels, who are directly in the service of the kingdom.
Telos is a major word in the New Testament. It means "end" or "goal." Sun is a prefix meaning "together." Therefore, sunteleia means "end together." Coupled with aionos--"forever," or "eternal"--the phrase means "the consummation of the universe," the bringing together of everything in the whole history of the world.
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ 53When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
Translation: "'Have you brought all this together?' They answered, 'Yes." And he said to them, "Through this, every scribe who has been trained in the kingdom of heaven is like a human householder who threw out of his treasure new and old.' And it happened that when Jesus brought to a close these parables, he departed that place."
Unlike in Mark, where the disciples never get anything right, Matthew says that the disciples answered "yes" when Jesus asked if they had "brought all this together"--sunekate tauta panta. For Matthew, the way of the kingdom can be taught and apprehended.
Jesus describes the disciples as "scribes," which is not normally a compliment in Matthew's gospel, except that these scribes have been "trained--matheteutheis--in the kingdom of heaven." Mathete is also the word for "disciple." They have been "disciplined" in the way.
The final parable is of the householder who threw out--ekballei--out of his treasure--ek tou thesaurou--both new and old. The householder did not bring out. He threw out. He threw out both the new and the old.
Some commentators opt for a more pious interpretation. The householder brought out the new, which was the gospel, but kept the old too--the law and prophets, for example.
Maybe so, but the text itself does not say that. In fact, quite the contrary. It appears not that the householder "brought out," as if to use, the "new and old." Rather, the householder threw out both new and old in order to get rid of both.
Kaina--"new"--refers to something newly made that is different from what had gone before and not yet used. Palaia--"old"--means having existed a long time and is now worn-out and obsolete.
Could one say that Jesus encourages his disciples, the ones taught and trained by him in the way of the kingdom, to get rid of the old and the obsolete as well as ideas which Matthew might have considered "new-fangled"? Disciplined and trained, the disciples can be trusted to make this determination.
Image: Parable of the leaven, Jan Knegt