Sunday, July 23, 2023

Five and a Half Parables

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding the five-and-a-half parables in Matthew 13:31-35; 44-52, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for Sunday, July 30, 2023. I have colleagues who wonder, regarding this text, if Matthew has a collection of notes about things that Jesus said and is piecing them together without much evident connective meaning. Some even question whether Matthew himself understood the parables that he has collected. The text does seem to leap from metaphor to metaphor, from simile to simile, with on occasional reflection, not on the reign of God, but on the nature of parabolic speech itself. My own approach is to assume that Matthew means what he says and knows what he means. Yet, it is a challenge to read this chapter as a whole, particularly if one wants to see metaphors mean the same thing from one parable to another.

The parables here – which read more like similes about the reign of the heavens than fully fledged stories – are 1) the mustard seed-to-tree; 2) the leaven in the loaf; 3) the treasure in the field; 4) the pearl of great value; and 5) the dragnet of good and bad. The final verse is another simile, but it is a simile about the scribes of the reign of God, drawing new and old out of the treasure – which may be the parables themselves. That’s why I am naming it a half-of-a-parable.

The other two parables of this chapter – each with explanations – are the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and weeds. I continue to wonder why Jesus is using parabolic speech and what followers of Jesus are supposed to do with them 2,000 years later. There are two dynamics at play that I can see. One is that Jesus is in a very contentious moment. In c.12 the Pharisees have begun to conspire on his death and have accused him of performing deeds by the power of Beelzebul. Likewise, his mother and brothers have come to fetch him, although Matthew does not really say why. At the end of c.13, Jesus speaks in his hometown where his kinfolk are both astounded and offended at him and he is the prophet without honor. In this sense, parabolic speech seems to be obfuscating speech, bewildering to those without ears to hear and meant for those with them. 

The second dynamic is a little friendlier. The idea that the scribes of the reign of the heavens draw from its treasure new and old give me hope that, in my role as a teaching elder, I can rely on observations that have been made many times over about this text and hope to find new insights as I dig through it, aided by the same Holy Spirit that inspired these biblical communities so many years ago. That's my hope for you this week as well. 

31  Ἄλλην παραβολὴν παρέθηκεν αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ὁμοία ἐστὶν  βασιλεία τῶν 
οὐρανῶν κόκκῳ σινάπεως, ὃν λαβὼν ἄνθρωπος ἔσπειρεν ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ αὐτοῦ: 
He put before them another parable saying, “The reign of the heavens is like a kernel of mustard, which having taken a man sowed in his field; 
παρέθηκεν: AAI 3s, παρατίθημι, 1) to place beside or near or set before 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
λαβὼν: AAPart nsm, λαμβάνω, 1) to take
ἔσπειρεν: AAI 3s, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed

32  μικρότερον μέν ἐστιν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων, ὅταν δὲ αὐξηθῇ μεῖζον 
τῶν λαχάνων ἐστὶν καὶ γίνεται δένδρον, ὥστε ἐλθεῖν τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ κατασκηνοῦν ἐν τοῖς κλάδοις αὐτοῦ. 
Which though it is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when it has grown it is the largest of the herbs and becomes a tree, causing the birds of the heaven to come and to nest in its branches.
ἐστιν: (2x) PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
αὐξηθῇ : APS 3s, αὐξάνω, 1) to cause to grow, augment  2) to increase, become greater  3) to grow, increase  3a) of plants  3b) of infants  3c) of a multitude of people  3d) of inward Christian growth 
γίνεται: PMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
ἐλθεῖν: AAInf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
κατασκηνοῦν: PAInf, κατασκηνόω, 1) to pitch one's tent, to fix one's abode, to dwell 
1. This is a bit of a complicated verse to translate. The μέν δὲ of the first phrase seem to indicate a contrast, which I have represented with “though … yet.” The two verbs of the second phrase are infinitives. So, I have translated ὥστε – which describes as ‘a consecutive conjunction, i.e. expressing consequence or result’ – as “causing.” That is at least one way to keep the infinitives in the form of ‘to come’ and ‘to nest.’  
2. I’ve read that the mustard plant is a bush, not a tree, but it seems that the point of the parable is the size, relative both to other plants and to the initial kernel from which the plant grows.

33  Ἄλλην παραβολὴν ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῖς: Ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν 
ζύμῃ, ἣν λαβοῦσα γυνὴ ἐνέκρυψεν εἰς ἀλεύρου σάτα τρία ἕως οὗ ἐζυμώθη 
He spoke another parable to them: “The reign of the heavens is like leaven, which a woman took and hid into three measures of flour until it was all leavened.
ἐλάλησεν: AAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
λαβοῦσα: AAPart nsf, λαμβάνω, 1) to take
ἐνέκρυψεν: AAI 3s, ἐγκρύπτω, to hide in anything by covering.
ἐζυμώθη: API 3s, ζυμόω, 1) to leaven 
1. This (with the parallel text of Mt. 13:33) is the only instance of the word ἐγκρύπτω. The NIV and NRSV translate it as “mixed,” which I think is troubling. It transliterates into English as ‘encrypt’ and the root (κρύπτω) appears throughout this chapter to indicate things hidden. “Hid” suggests that this leavening was being done stealthily and raises all manner of questions that “mixed” does not. And, “hiding” would provide the contrast to the various discoveries that happen throughout these parables.
2. Was this supposed to be unleavened bread? Is the reign of heaven a place where someone can easily slip some leaven (the amount is unidentified) into a large amount (sixty pounds, says the NIV) of flour? Is the reign of the heavens always an admixture of both flour and leaven? Perhaps the reality that one can expect of the reign of the heavens is like the wheat and weeds growing together, more than the separated wheat in the barn.

34 Ταῦτα πάντα ἐλάλησεν  Ἰησοῦς ἐν παραβολαῖς τοῖς ὄχλοις, καὶ χωρὶς 
παραβολῆς οὐδὲν ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς:
Jesus said all these things in parables to the crowd, and apart from a parable he was saying nothing to them;
ἐλάλησεν: AAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound
ἐλάλει: IAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound

35 ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, Ἀνοίξω ἐν 
παραβολαῖς τὸ στόμα μου, ἐρεύξομαι κεκρυμμένα ἀπὸ καταβολῆς 
so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled saying, “I will open my mouth in parables, I will pour out what has been hidden from the foundation [of the world].”
ῥηθὲν: APPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
πληρωθῇ: APSubj 3s, πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full  1a) to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally 
λέγοντος: PAPart gsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἀνοίξω: FAI 1s, ἀνοίγω, 1) to open 
ἐρεύξομαι: FMI 1s, ἐρεύγομαι, 1) to spit or spew out 
κεκρυμμένα: PerfPPart apn, κρύπτω, 1) to hide, conceal, to be hid 
1. Now it seems that the reign of the heavens itself may have been hidden from the beginning. But, it would be a little hazardous to go back and assume that every instance of hiding or stealth in this chapter refers to how the reign of the heavens has been concealed until the right time. The weeds, for example, were planted under the cover of night by an enemy and are gathered for the fire at the right time. That does not sound like a metaphor of revelation.

[The Revised Common Lectionary skips vv.36-43]

44 Ὁμοία ἐστὶν  βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν θησαυρῷ κεκρυμμένῳ ἐντῷ ἀγρῷ, ὃν 
εὑρὼν ἄνθρωπος ἔκρυψεν, καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς χαρᾶς αὐτοῦ ὑπάγει καὶ πωλεῖ 
πάντα ὅσα ἔχει καὶ ἀγοράζει τὸν ἀγρὸν ἐκεῖνον. 
“The reign of the heavens is like to a treasure which has been hidden in a field, which a man found [and] hid, and in his joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
κεκρυμμένῳ: PerfPPart dsm, κρύπτω, 1) to hide, conceal, to be hid 
εὑρὼν: AAPart nsm, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  
ἔκρυψεν: AAI 3s, κρύπτω, 1) to hide, conceal, to be hid  
ὑπάγει: PAI 3s, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under  2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
πωλεῖ: PAI 3s, πωλέω, 1) to barter, to sell  2) sellers 
ἔχει: PAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἀγοράζει: PAI 3s, ἀγοράζω, 1) to be in the market place, to attend it
1. The primary difference between this metaphor and the next is that this discovery is completely random and surprising, while the next discovery of the pearl is after one searches for good pearls. I imagine that the person discovering the treasure in the field would be a tenant farmer who rents a patch of land to farm. It is hard work to turn the soil of land that has not been farmed in a long time, so the sudden discovery of hidden treasure would be a welcomed surprise.
2. For ages the ground has been an efficient savings bank for people whose lives were always in danger of thieves or marauding enemies. One would bury the treasure and remember the paces from a large stone or tree to retrieve it later. If one died, the location would die with her/him.
3. Notice that the man finds, then re-hides the treasure until he has secured the land and can claim it rightfully. The point seems to be his joy in selling all that he has to buy the field. But, even in that joy there is a bit of stealth at work.

45 Πάλιν ὁμοία ἐστὶν  βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ ἐμπόρῳ ζητοῦντι καλοὺς μαργαρίτας: 
Again the reign of the heavens is like to a man a merchant who is seeking good pearls;
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ζητοῦντι: PAPart dsm, ζητέω, 1) to seek in order to find

46 εὑρὼν δὲ ἕνα πολύτιμον μαργαρίτην ἀπελθὼν πέπρακεν πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν 
καὶ ἠγόρασεν αὐτόν. 
Yet having found one pearl of great value having gone he has sold all that he was holding and bought it.
εὑρὼν: AAPart nsm, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  
ἀπελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἀπέρχομαι,1) to go away, depart 
πέπρακεν: PerfAI 3s, πιπράσκω, 1) to sell 
εἶχεν: IAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἠγόρασεν: AAI 3s, ἀγοράζω, 1) to be in the market place, to attend it
1. I sense a little difference in the merchant’s actions and the tenant farmer, perhaps reflecting differing levels of wealth. The tenant farmer sells all that he has (ἔχει, the present tense of ἔχω, to have or to hold). The merchant sells all that he had (εἶχεν, the imperfect tense of ἔχω). I suspect, for the merchant, this might mean his inventory or his holdings, rather than everything in his possession. That might be a leap, but Matthew does use different tenses.

47 Πάλιν ὁμοία ἐστὶν  βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν σαγήνῃ βληθείσῃ εἰς τὴν 
θάλασσαν καὶ ἐκ παντὸς γένους συναγαγούσῃ: 
Again the reign of the heavens is like a dragnet having been thrown into the sea and having gathered together out of every kind;
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
βληθείσῃ: APPart dsf, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls
συναγαγούσῃ: AAPart dsf, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather 

48 ἣν ὅτε ἐπληρώθη ἀναβιβάσαντες ἐπὶ τὸν αἰγιαλὸν καὶ καθίσαντες συνέλεξαν τὰ καλὰ εἰς ἄγγη, τὰ δὲ σαπρὰ ἔξω ἔβαλον. 
which, when it was filled having drawn it on the shore and having sat down they gathered the good into containers, but threw out the bad. 
ἐπληρώθη: API 3s, πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full 
ἀναβιβάσαντες: APPart npm, ἀναβιβάζω, 1) to cause to go up or ascend, to draw
καθίσαντες: AAPart npm, καθίζω, 1) to make to sit down
συνέλεξαν: AAI 3p, συλλέγω, 1) to gather up  2) to collect in order to carry off 
ἔβαλον: AAI 3p, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls

49 οὕτως ἔσται ἐν τῇ συντελείᾳ τοῦ αἰῶνος: ἐξελεύσονται οἱ ἄγγελοι καὶ ἀφοριοῦσιν τοὺς πονηροὺς ἐκ μέσου τῶν δικαίων 
So it will be in the consummation of the age; the angels will come and separate the bad out of the midst of the righteous
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἐξελεύσονται: FMI 3p, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of
ἀφοριοῦσιν: FAI 3p, ἀφορίζω, 1) to mark off from others by boundaries, to limit, to separate
1. This activity of separating the good from the bad, much like the reference to the wheat and the weeds earlier in this chapter, is not the role of those who participate in the reign of the heavens or the scribes who draw new and old from it. It is the role of the angels or messengers at the end of the age. More on that below.

50 καὶ βαλοῦσιν αὐτοὺς εἰς τὴν κάμινον τοῦ πυρός: ἐκεῖ ἔσται κλαυθμὸς καὶ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων. 
and will throw them into the furnace of the fire; there will be the weeping and the gnashing of the teeth.
βαλοῦσιν: FAI 3p, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 

51 Συνήκατε ταῦτα πάντα;λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Ναί. 
Did you comprehend all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.”
Συνήκατε: AAI 2p, συνίημι, 1) to set or bring together
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
1. It is not entirely clear to whom Jesus is asking this question, although it makes more sense to me that it would be the disciples. In v.10 the disciples came to Jesus asking about the parable of the sower. Jesus answers two things: 1) He speaks to the crowd in parables because it fulfills the prophetic word that hearing they do not hear and seeing they do not perceive. The disciples, however, have ears to hear. 2) Jesus explains the parable to them. Perhaps having Jesus to explain the parables is what it means that the disciples have hearing and sight. This whole dynamic seems very odd to me. If they have hearing, why would they need explanations? If they don’t have hearing, how are they different from the rest of the crowd?
2. In v.24 the narrator says that Jesus put another parable before them. But, who is the ‘them’? If the parables are for the crowd, are we back to addressing the crowd and is the question of v.51 directed to the crowd? That would seem to contradict that crowd’s deafness and blindness to the parables. If it is directed to the disciples, then Jesus is now speaking to the disciples in parables, and not just to the crowds. There is either an extreme lack of consistency here or I am extremely lost in the shifting sands of whether parables conceal or reveal, whether they can be comprehended or must be explained, whether having ears to hear them means having Jesus to explain them or not.

52 δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Διὰ τοῦτο πᾶς γραμματεὺς μαθητευθεὶς τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν ὅμοιός ἐστιν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ ὅστις ἐκβάλλει ἐκ τοῦ θησαυροῦ 
αὐτοῦ καινὰ καὶ παλαιά.
Then he said to them, “Through this every scribe having been discipled into the reign of the heavens is like a householder who casts out of his treasure new and old.
μαθητευθεὶς: APPart nsm, μαθητεύω, 1) to be a disciple of one  1a) to follow his precepts and instructions  2) to make a disciple  2a) to teach, instruct
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐκβάλλει: PAI 3s, ἐκβάλλω, 1) to cast out, drive out, to send out
1. Matthew is the only gospel that uses the verb μαθητεύω. It appears three times (here, 27:57, and 28:19) and then only one other time in the NT (Acts 14:21).
2. We are so accustomed to hearing “scribe” as part of the axis of evil in the gospels (Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, etc.). It seems to be a good term here, perhaps a reference to the disciples or perhaps a self-reference to Matthew, explaining why his gospel is different than other gospels that have been written. Since this is what NT scholars call “M material,” perhaps this is a way of defending Matthew’s differences from Mark.

3. The verb ἐκβάλλω is almost always used – at least in this chapter – as an expulsion such as ‘throw out,’ rather than a gathering like ‘bring out’ (NIV, NRSV, and almost everyone). Peter Phillips’ article, "Casting out the Treasure: a New Reading of Matthew 13.52," (Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 2008) is the most extensive treatment I’ve seen showing that the orientation of reading this verb as “bringing out” here began with a judgment by the Vulgate and had continued to be the dominant reading. Phillips makes the case, however, that “cast out” is a better reading. If that is the case – and I agree with him – then the analogy here is that the scribe is divesting himself in order to embrace the gospel, much like the digger and pearl merchant sell all to obtain the treasure and pearl.

Taken collectively, the parables of this chapter show three moments in the reign of the heavens. 1) From the foundations of the world, certain things were hidden – perhaps like leaven hidden in the flour or treasure buried in a field. 2) At the present time, the good and bad are co-mingled, like wheat and weeds, with some being deaf and blind and others being receptive to the hidden things that are now being poured out. In this present time, those who have discovered treasures will disregard all else in order to obtain it, and scribes will be bringing old and new out of the treasure. 3) At the consummation of the age there will be a great separation by the angels, who will separate good and bad – as one separates wheat from weeds, good fish from bad fish – and burns the bad while gathering the good.



  1. It occurs to me that Matthew may be the Jacques Derrida of the 1st century. Perhaps a Ph.D. in NT studies with a dissertation is in order: "Parables as Deconstructive Speech: The Inscription of Encryption."

  2. Priscilla EppingerJuly 22, 2014 at 1:06 PM

    I want to hear your AAR/SBL presentation on Matthew as Derrida. :)

  3. You may have to wait a while, Priscilla. I'm not sure that I understand either one of them yet.

  4. As someone who "has no Greek" (or Hebrew) I very much appreciate the insight I receive from your work!!!

  5. natalie marionneauxJuly 25, 2020 at 2:57 PM

    Thanks so much for your details digging into this scripture. So much more than meets the eye.

  6. When we look at the parables (and Bible as a whole) I've found it helpful to ask first what it tells us about God (theology), then move to what it might tell us about us (a spiritual anthropology if you will).

    In that spirit (small s), one of the best proclamations of this text I ever heard resisted, or delayed, the tendancy to tell listeners the Kingdom of God is worth giving up everything in order to have it. Rather the preacher told us that we are the pearl of great price, and that God (in Jesus Christ) gave up everything [Phil.2], in order to purchase us and to have us. We are worth that much to God.

    Seldom have I left worship thinking and feeling how wonderful God's love is and how valuable I am in God's eyes (and everyone else too)!!

  7. Thanks, Mark. Your work is always so helpful. I’m intrigued by the parable about the pearl merchant. I wanted to run some thoughts by you along the lines provoked by AJ Levine’s close reading and attention to the central role of the merchant. My interest is how the kingdom or reign is like the merchant, and it would seem akin to the mustard seed spreading, the kingdom is like a merchant searching and searching — desiring more pearls. This much makes sense to me, but then what is the pearl (if not the kingdom) but the object of the kingdom? The kingdom is social, while the pearl is singular. Perhaps though the pearl is the singular, standing for the goal of the kingdom in which all are one.

  8. Translation is tricky business. I now speak of the way of the universe rather than reign of the heavens rather than kingdom of heaven. In many of these parables, normal human activity is disrupted by the emergence of that which is more organic and natural. They portray the dislodging of the artifice of religion. They evidence recovery or reorientation. We have to lose our judgments to find joy in unexpected places. Like ourselves.


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