NT Sunday School Lesson 11: Matthew 13

MsA reminder that I post regularly for those who are new to these notes: These are study notes for the lesson material, not notes for creating lessons. I assume that a person would use these over several days, perhaps a week, of study. Of course someone studying the lessons will also be able to create a lesson, but the purpose of these notes is primarily for the students in Gospel Doctrine class and only secondarily for teachers of the class.

This is a chapter of parables. We get the word parable from a Greek word (parabol?) meaning “to set by the side” or “to compare.” It is a translation of a Hebrew word (mashal) that we usually translate “proverb,” but we might better translate that word as “wise saying.” The Hebrew word covers a wide range of things, from what we call proverbs to what we call parables, to what we might call a sermon. Jesus’ hearers probably wouldn’t have made a sharp distinction between those things.

During Jesus’ time parables appear to have been used by many teachers. Usually they were given in answer to a question, often a question asked by a follower, and they not only answered the question asked, they did so by showing that there is more to the answer than the follower thought. Used that way, parables are a way of making the questioner think about his question. Do we use parables that way, or do we reduce them to stories whose meaning is obvious, something that doesn’t require that we think? How might we go about using the parables the way the seem to have been used originally?

As Joseph Smith pointed out, it is often very helpful to ask ourselves what the question was that produced the answer (see the study materials for lesson 8), what answer might have been expected, and how the parable goes beyond the answer that might have been expected. We may also want to ask ourselves what question we might have to which the parable is an answer and how that answer goes beyond what we might have expected.

N. T. Wright (The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is) argues that Jesus’ hearers would not have heard the parable of the sower as we do. Instead, they would have heard it as a parable about the Israel’s exile and return, comparable to Isaiah 6 and Jacob 5. For them the point would have been that Israel has been sown in Palestine, but only some have hearkened to Jesus’ revelation of the Kingdom of God. However, if Wright is correct, why doesn’t this parable begin, as others do, “the kingdom of God is like”?

Whether Wright’s interpretation of the parable is correct or not, he makes what I think is an insightful remark: “The parable itself is a parable about parables and their effect: this is the only way that the spectacular truth can be told, and it is bound to have the effect that some will look and look and never see, while others find the mystery suddenly unveiled, and they see what God is doing” (41).

Verses 1-2: Chapter 12 seems to begin in a grain field, but it ends indoors, perhaps in a synagogue, more likely in a private home. If this is a private home, it is probably Peter’s home in Capernaum, where Jesus appears to have lived when he had a home anywhere. (Archaeologists believe they have found the remains of Peter’s house.) At the end of chapter 12, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for thinking him evil and for asking for a sign, and he uses the visit of his family to make the point that anyone who does the will of the Father is Jesus’ brother. Here in chapter 13, he goes outside and sits by the seaside to teach. When a large crowd gathers, he moves to a boat slightly offshore. Why does do so? How will that help him teach?

As you read this chapter, think about how these teachings relate to what has come before them. What kinds of people are in the crowd? Are there likely to be scribes and Pharisees among them? Why? Who do you think would compose the majority of the multitude? Are the disciples also there? What teaching problem does this mixture of people present? How does Jesus deal with that problem?

Verses 3-8: Verse 3 begins “He spake many things to them in parables, saying.” Then Matthew recounts the parable of the sower. How do you explain that introduction to the parable? Is Matthew doing more than merely recounting the parable Jesus told?

In the parable Jesus seems to describe a very ordinary set of circumstances. The farmer has plowed his field (and remember that he did this by hand, and that only the rich could afford an animal to pull the plow, so the ordinary farmer doesn’t plow deep or evenly). But not every spot in the field is equally good for planting: there are paths in it beaten down by those crossing the field, there are stony areas, in places some of the thorny weeds were not plowed under and have survived, and even the places with good ground have different yields. Though the farmer knows this, when he sows seed he seems to sow it over the entire field, regardless of its quality for planting. Why? Would that be normal behavior for a farmer? If not, what might this divergence from what we expect teach us?

It may be relevant to understanding this parable that the verb sowed is in the present infinitive, suggesting that the action is continuous, something ongoing.

Is the yield—100 times, sixty times, and thirty times what was sown in the good soil—what the farmer would expect, or is it a surprising yield?

What does this parable teach? It doesn’t come in direct response to a question, but what is the implicit question that it answers? Does it teach only one thing? Suppose you didn’t have the explanation given in verses 18-23. To what could you compare the parable? Does it teach us anything about missionary work?

Historically the most frequent interpretation has been that the field is the heart of the listener. Others, such as Origen, have interpreted it to describe three kinds of Christians at different levels of perfection. An anonymous ancient commentator explains one version of this idea:

One who yields thirtyfold, that is, who does no evil but does good to the extent one can, this is indeed thirtyfold. One does not yield completely. One who yields sixtyfold is not fully able to show contempt for all one’s goods and fast regularly all one’s life, or live in celibacy, or suffer bodily deprivations. That would be sixtyfold. Therefore the Lord says to his apostles, who are capable of sixtyfold: “Sell what you have and give alms.” But upon those incapable of sixtyfold he enjoins thirtyfold, saying, “Give to everyone who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who asks for a loan.” Likewise, the one who is capable of sixtyfold cannot completely attain a hundredfold. How many are those who are able to give up their goods, suffer the loss of their possessions, live in celibacy, suffer bodily deprivations and yet do not have the heart to sustain a hundredfold? (Manlio Simonetti, Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture NT 1a [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001] 268.)

Joseph Smith gave an interpretation of this parable in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (97-98). How does Joseph’s interpretation of the parable apply to our own day? Is Joseph’s interpretation now the only acceptable one, or can we continue to understand the parable in new ways? Why or why not?

Is this parable intended to be an exhortation of some kind? Some scholars have argued that it is. But if it is, what is it an exhortation to do?

Verse 9: Some read Jesus’ remarks about parables here and in other places as telling us that Jesus wished to conceal his teaching, but I think that is mistaken. I think he is telling us about revelation not about concealment. What does this verse tell us about the responsibility for understanding Jesus’ teaching? What does that tell us about how we receive revelation?

Given the conflicts we have seen in previous chapters and stories, what group is most likely not to have ears to hear (or, in our usage “ears that hear”)? In other words, whom does Jesus have in mind? Why? Are those who have been excluded—those declared sinners by the Pharisaic interpretation of the Mosaic law—more likely to hear what Jesus has to say? If so, why? Might this particular parable be intended to inspire the disciples who have seen the intense opposition of the scribes and Pharisees? How? What does it take for us to have ears that hear? When are we most likely not to have ears that hear?

Are Jesus’ parables supposed to work like the parable that Nathan told David so that, on hearing them, we will hear “Thou art the man” (1 Samuel 12:7)?

Verse 10: Has Jesus left the boat in which he was sitting? Why do you think that the disciples ask this question? Is it significant that they ask why Jesus speaks to them (in other words, the multitude) in parables? To this point in Matthew’s account, the people have responded positively to Jesus. Why, then, do you think he makes this sharp contrast between the multitude and the disciples?

Verse 11-12: Verse 12 may have been a common proverb: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Jesus applies it here to the disciples. What do the disciples have; what has been given to them, making them rich? In the context of the foregoing parable, what do others not have? What answer can you give that will explain the strange promise that the Lord will give to those who have and take from those who don’t? What does Israel not have? So what will be taken from them? Are various levels of interpretation appropriate to this parable: individual, Church, Israel, . . . ?

What are the mysteries of the kingdom of God? To think about the answer to that question, ask yourself what has been given to the disciples, since Jesus says he has given them those mysteries. Raymond Brown has made a cogent argument that in Jewish literature of the New Testament period “the mysteries” referred to plans that God had made but are not known except through revelation (Raymond E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968]; see also 2 Esdras 10:38 and Wisdom 2:22 to see how the word was used).

Verses 13-17: Can you put this explanation for why Jesus teaches in parables in your own words?

Whom have we seen not hear what John the Baptist and Jesus teach, and what prevented them from hearing? Jesus quotes scripture to them (the Greek version of Isaiah 6:9-10). Why does he quote scripture? Does it have anything to do with having ears that hear?

Notice that when the Lord says that their eyes and ears are blessed, he uses the same word that he uses in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), makarios.

Does verse 15 tell us that God closed the people’s eyes and ears so that they could not see and hear, or does it tell us that the people closed them so as not to see and hear? How do we close our eyes and ears to the teachings of the prophets? What blessing have the disciples received that many prophets and righteous people did not receive (verses 16-17)?

Verses 18-23: If the disciples have ears that hear and eyes that see, as Jesus has said in verse 16, why does he have to explain the parable to them?

Why is it important for the disciples to have this teaching about the different ways that people respond to the message of the gospel?

The images here are common in Jewish literature: trees by a stream with roots that sustain them (Jeremiah 17:8; Ezekiel 31:2-5; Psalms 1:3; the tree in Lehi’s dream, 1 Nephi 8:13; perhaps Alma 32:37), trees with shallow roots that wither (Sirach 40:15, Wisdom 4:3-4, Isaiah 40:24; Jacob 5:3). Those images were part of their everyday experience, and the first group probably depends also on the imagery of the Garden of Eden, a well-watered place with the Tree of Life at its center. Are there contemporary images that might work for us as those images worked for them?

There is a progression in verse 23, from receiving, to understanding, to bearing fruit. What do you make of that progression?

Why does receiving the word and understanding issue in bearing fruit? What if it did not? What could the verse mean without that connection?

Verses 24-30: Verse 24 tells us that Jesus spoke another parable to them. To whom does that refer, to the multitude or to the disciples? What clues in the chapter help you decide?

Matthew introduces this parable (and that which begins in verse 31) with language that is very much like that used by Moses when he gave the Law to the people. (See Exodus 19:7.) Why might he have done so?

Matthew could have placed the explanation of this parable immediately after the parable, but he doesn’t. He gives Jesus’ explanation (in verses 36-43) only after he tells two more parables. Why do you think he does that?

As he has done earlier, Jesus appears to be working from one of John’s prophecies, amplifying it. (Compare Matthew 3:12.) Why might he have done so?

Jesus tells several parables that begin “the kingdom of heaven is like.” The word translated “kingdom” literally means “reign.” In its earliest usages it meant “the king’s power and dignity” and it continued to have those connotations. How does this word relate to the Israelite understanding of themselves? To their expectations of the Messiah? How is it relevant to John the Baptist’s preaching that “the kingdom is near by” (Matthew 3:2)? What word or words do you think would best translate the idea of the reign of God into contemporary English? In what does the King of Heaven exhibit his power and dignity?

Most commentators assume that the tares (weeds) were darnel, a weed that looks somewhat like wheat (though it is not difficult to distinguish the two) and sometimes carries a poisonous fungus. Does that add anything to your understanding of the parable? We usually understand this parable as a parable about the Church in the last days. Some, however, have understood it originally to have been about Israel: it is important not to force too soon the separation of those in Israel who believe in Jesus from those who have not done so. Is the point of this parable that we should not be impatient to purify the Church? Does it teach us anything about church discipline? Which interpretation do you think most reasonable? Why?

Compare this parable to that of Mark 4:26-29. Does either help us understand the other?

Verses 31-32: What question might Jesus be answering? Why answer with a parable in this particular case?

What does this parable address that many people might have found scandalous about the early Christian church?

The Kingdom of God is often referred to as a tree in scripture, but this is perhaps the only time it is compared to an herb. Those who heard Jesus probably would have been surprised at his use of a mustard seed and the mustard plant. Why do you think he might have used a metaphor that they wouldn’t have expected? The mustard seed is indeed small, but it isn’t the smallest of seeds. And the mustard shrub, though large, isn’t gigantic. It grows to about 10 or 12 feet. Jesus is using hyperbole. Can you think of other places where he does so or may do so? Why would he use hyperbole?

One traditional and popular interpretation of the parable understands the mustard shrub to represent the church. Another more recent interpretation takes the shrub to represent the influence of the church in the world: the shrub is comparable to the leaven of Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:21. Yet another takes the seed to be the Word, Jesus Christ, and the shrub to be the gospel; in this interpretation, the seed is like the seed of Alma 32:28 and the shrub is like the tree that springs from Alma’s seed (Alma 32:37, 41).

Joseph Smith also gave an interpretation of this parable (Teachings 98). What are we to make of those other interpretations in light of the Prophet’s?

What might the birds of the air represent in this parable? Or, perhaps, do they represent nothing, serving only to illustrate how large the shrub has become? How would you decide how to answer that question? Is it significant that the last part of verse 32 is a quotation from Daniel 4:21?

Verse 33: Compare 1 Corinthians 5:6. Is leaven used as a symbol in the same way in both places? How is this parable the same as the immediately previous one? How is it different? This is one of the few places where leaven is used as a positive symbol. See, for example, Matthew 16:6, and remember that every house had to be completely free of leaven during Passover. How is leaven a good symbol for evil? In this parable, how is it a good symbol of the reign of heaven?

We have an interpretation of this parable by Joseph Smith as well (Teachings 100). How does he understand what Jesus is teaching here? How does his interpretation compare to others?

In this parable the woman uses an incredible amount of flour, almost ten gallons (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20, trans. James E. Crouch [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress] 262). Why do you think Jesus describes an ordinary thing like making bread in such extraordinary terms?

Verses 34-35: Matthew says that Jesus has been addressing the crowd in the previous verses and that he teaches only in parables—in this case meaning that he doesn’t teach them directly, but speaks, as it were, in riddles—when he teaches the multitude. But that hasn’t been the case from the beginning. Jesus gave some parables in the Sermon on the Mount, but he didn’t speak only in parables. Why do you think his teaching method has changed?

Verses 36-43: Why does Jesus go back into the house with the disciples? (Remember that he left the house in verse 1.)

Compare the explanation of the parable that Jesus gives here with the explanation the Lord gives in Doctrine and Covenants 86:1-7. What do you make of the differences in explanation? Do those differences help us better understand how to think about parables?

According to this interpretation, what is Jesus trying to explain, evil persons in the world or evil persons in the kingdom? What do you learn if you think it about it each way?

In verse 41 another translation of “things that offend” is “stumbling blocks.” The Greek word always refers to things rather than persons. ”Them which do iniquity” could also be translated, “those who are lawless,” in other words, those who are disobedient. What is Jesus promising will happen at the Second Coming? Why do you think that the promise of verse 43 is so brief in comparison to the threat of verses 40-42?

Verse 44: The idea of finding hidden treasure is an ancient one, but it is one that continues to take hold of many people. When we tell or listen to stories of finding hidden treasure, what do you think those stories reveal about us?

To whom do you think Jesus is speaking in this verse? Is he still speaking only to the disciples or has he turned back to speak to the multitude?

What do we learn about the kingdom of heaven from this parable that we didn’t learn from the previous parables (verses 24-33)?

Verses 45-46: Does this parable teach anything different from the last one? If not, why did Jesus tell two parables, one after the other, with the same meaning? If it does have a different meaning, what is it?

Why does this parable and that in the previous parable (verses 44-45) repeat “sold all that he had”? What is Jesus underscoring with that repetition?

Verses 47-50: Does this parable differ significantly in its teaching from the parable of the wheat and the tares?

We might expect that the fish that are not worth keeping are cast into the fire, but they are not? Do you think that is important to understanding the parable, or is it just an incidental detail needed to make the parable work? How do you decide?

Is this a parable about the church and the Second Coming, or is it a parable about missionary work?

Do we learn anything from the order of these parables: the sower; the wheat and the tares; the mustard seed and the leaven; the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price; and the fishing net? Can you attribute a primary teaching to each of these and then see any coherence to their order?

Verse 51: Jesus introduces the final parable in this series with a question: “Have ye understood all these things?” The word translated “understand” means “to have an intelligent grasp of things.” Why does he think he must ask this question before telling the next parable? Does understanding have anything to do with bearing fruit? If so, how so?

What do you think those hearing this question would answer? What should they answer? Is this also a question for us as we read these parables?

Verse 52: Pay attention to the footnote in the LDS edition of the scriptures for “which is instructed” (52b). With the possible exception of the parable of the sower, all of the previous parables have been about the kingdom of heaven. This one is about someone who becomes a disciple in that kingdom. Why does Jesus end this series of parables with this one?

Do you think that the disciples would have been surprised by the person Jesus uses as an example of someone who becomes a disciple? Why? Why do you think Jesus uses that example?

What would a scribe (a rabbi, a recognized interpreter of the Law) treasure? Is the scribe intended to be an analogue for anyone who is converted to the kingdom of heaven, or does he represent only a certain kind of person, someone like the ancient scribes? If the former, why does Jesus use the figure of the scribe? If the latter, who does this figure represent?

What old things would be in the scribe’s treasury? What new things? Is this related to the method Jesus used when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount: “you have heard it said [something ‘old’], but I say [something ‘new’]”?

Verses 53-58: Jesus returns to Nazareth (presumably) and teaches in the synagogue. People are amazed at his wisdom (probably referring to the parables, his wise sayings). When they ask how he got this wisdom and how he does these might works or miracles, why are they amazed? Why are they offended?

The Greek word translated “offended” could also have been translated “scandalized” or “caused to stumble.” It is the same word used in verse 41. How is Matthew 11:6, which uses the same word, relevant?

How does this event relate to the teaching at the beginning of the chapter (verses 13-15)?

Please make responses at Feast upon the Word.