Matt 13 and the Mysteries

This week’s course of study in Come Follow Me includes Matthew 13 and the topic of Jesus’ parables. The typical way we deal with this is to emphasize the notion of allegory and open interpretations. That is a parable need not have only a single meaning. What I think sometimes get lost in this discussion is the shift from the beginning of the chapter to discussion where only his disciples are the audience (Matt 13:10). Jesus explaining his use of parables says, “it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven but to them it has not been given.” (11) What are these “mysteries”? (“secrets” in NRSV & NIV) Are they significant?

Typically Mormons have connected the word “mystery” with the mystery religions popular across the Roman Empire Jesus lived within. Hugh Nibley in no small part helped push this interpretation. He followed the interpretation of scholars like Morton Smith against traditional Protestant views that the mysteries were “nothing else than a series of initiatory ordinances for achieving the highest salvation which today are lost and unknown to the Christian world.” (“The Meaning of the Temple”) While I think one can go too far in this direction, it certainly seems clear that Jesus in Matthew 13 is referring to parables having an inner meaning that the disciples knew but the masses did not. Now some of these inner teachings may have been tied to initiatory rituals, but I suspect most were not. However they most likely were tied to inner teachings. Indeed Matthew 13 seems to be clearly making just that connection.

It’s not clear why he would teach with parables if the issue was just secret inner teachings. If his inner circle already knew these teachings, then why bother having sermons with double meanings? A possible interpretation would be that the teachings were heretical but it was a way to have plausible deniability to the Pharisee mainstream lest he be accused of blasphemy. That is those who had been initiated into these inner teachings could have elements refreshed or new elements taught in such a way that the Pharisees would not pick up upon.

The other interpretation for parables was given my Bruce R. McConkie. “Parables are a call to investigate the truth; to learn more; to inquire into the spiritual realities, which, through them, are but dimly viewed. Parables start truth seekers out in the direction of further light and knowledge and understanding; they invite men to ponder such truths as they are able to bear in the hope of learning more.” (Mortal Messiah 2:245) The idea is the very nature of a parable suggests multiple meanings which leads to people wanting to discover the deeper meaning. That is part of their literary structure is a demand for further inquiry. The fact they are so open doesn’t merely lead to thinking on them by the listener, but a desire to find the correct meaning. Curiosity in piqued leading to return attendance at sermons and potentially joining the movement.

These interpretations aren’t opposed to each other. Rather the very nature of a parable demands one to muse over its meaning, especially as it relates to deeper meanings. It’s worth noting that many of these meanings seem to have an apocalyptic aspect. Quite a few of the parables are focused on the last days or the destruction of the wicked. Jesus’ connection to the apocalyptic tradition of the era is well known. Many of his teachings have this aspect of inner secrets tied to the future of the planet and the economy of God.

One obvious example of this inner teaching, at least from at contemporary Latter-day Saint perspective, is the parable of the sower which ends with “brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.” Typically we interpret this in terms of D&C 76 and the degrees of glory. Irenaeus, a Christian writer of the early 2cd century, interpreted this as implying degrees of reward. (Against Heresies 1:567) So this reading isn’t really out of keeping with early Christian interpretations. 

What is interesting is that Matthew presents Christ as only teaching in parables. “All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them.” Presumably this only refers to this section of teaching, since arguably the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make use of a lot of parables but it pretty clear in its ethical demands. Perhaps it is just Jesus’ more apocalyptic teachings that are taught in this veiled way. 

An other aspect of the parables is how it structures a separation from Judaism in general. Jesus is creating an organization that in important ways such as the authority of the disciples marks it from just being a part of Judaism. This isn’t that unique. There are indications that John the Baptist’s movement had moved in a similar direction. Jesus had largely picked up most of John’s followers. We know there were various such movements at the time. The Essenes being one well known example. The effect of inner teachings is to lead people to first have to join the movement as a movement to learn the inner teachings. Again this was not unique to Christianity but could be seen in various mystery religions (often adopting Egyptian myths in various ways) around the Roman Empire. It is important to note this feature though as it strongly indicates that Jesus was forming a Church and a Church with an inner group who had specialized knowledge.

16 comments for “Matt 13 and the Mysteries

  1. I don’t know if this fits, but Alma had an interesting take on mysteries–

    9 And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.

    10 And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

    11 And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.

    It seems like people should only share the mysteries God lets them, but it’s important for us each to find them out individually–not knowing them is compared to the chains of hell.

  2. Yes, and I think contextually it appears that Alma is talking about some sort of initiatory rite. So (3) describes “a preparatory redemption” and (4) seems to be very similar to the part of Isaiah that Jesus quotes. The preparatory rite makes them high priests. The rite appears to be a purification rite that enters into the rest of God in a preparatory fashion. It sounds a lot like the endowment which was a preparatory ordinance. While Alma 12-13 doesn’t go into the details, there are clues in what their preparatory ordinance involved.

    There appear to be temple related stuff in the lost 116 pages as well. It’s also worth looking up Nephi’s use of “mysteries of God” in places like 1 Nephi 10:19.

  3. I believe that the parables were given as to get man to think and contemplate for the purpose of further questioning and in that process create a personal relationship with Christ. As that develops Christ then reveals more truth to them. The wicked don’t question though, they fail to understand because they are unwilling to come unto Christ to seek his truth.
    I think we fail though when we try to throw our LDS spin on it such as things pertaining to certain temple covenants, the three kingdoms of glory, etc. Christ didn’t mean these nuances in his parables relating to his kingdom as spoken in chapter 13. He is speaking strictly as what our hearts must become, we must become believers, hearers, and in the end become the very kingdom he speaks of.

  4. BTW, the hundredfold, sixty, thirty is in direct reference to hearing the word of God and increasing in abundance of understanding- to them which take hold of the word will be given more abundance while those who don’t take hold it shall be taken away.

  5. I’m not sure those uses are really opposed Robert. After all Nibley’s appeal to Matthew 13 as tied to the temple and cosmology depend upon the idea that peoples hearts improve in degree. But Nibley certainly is right that Irenaeus and Clement use that verse to indicate deeper connection to God and thereby rewards.

  6. Clark,
    I don’t think Jesus ever spoke in terms relating to the temple or cosmology, or even of specific rewards of the like as recorded in Matthew 13. In the previous chapters he has been accused unduly and this dissertation is in direct response and is mostly about speaking in a way that teaches about receiving the word and to those who hear he gives more but from those who don’t he taketh away. Speaking of the kingdom itself Jesus uses a very black vs. white dichotomy. It’s all on a scale. Light always cleaveth to more light whereas darkness always moves towards more darkness. Thus, in the analogy of the 100, 60, 30, Jesus will give more abundance. It will always compound until, like Alma taught, one knows the mysteries in full.

    Lemuel hit it spot on about this chapter dealing specifically with receiving the words of Jesus and the kingdom vs. not receiving them.

  7. I personally don’t have much to add, but I feel a couple of lengthy quotes from NT Wright are applicable (one is about Paul rather than Jesus, but it’s still on point):

    1. “The closest parallel to the parables thus turns out to be the world of Jewish apocalyptic and subversive literature—when properly understood. In Qumran, the message of the prophets is interpreted by the Teacher of Righteousness, resulting in a ‘pesher’ reading which applied old words to the current situation. In apocalyptic visions, the seer is asked by an angel whether he understands the vision, usually replies that he does not, and then has the ‘mystery’ revealed to him by the angel, explaining in a quasi-allegorical manner that the woman is Jerusalem, the beast is the king of Greece, or whatever. In Jesus’ parables, the disciples play the role of the seers, with Jesus himself as both revealer and interpreter of the ‘mystery’. As in the scrolls and other apocalyptic writings, this revelation is not the unveiling of abstract truth per se, but the disclosure of a subversive and dangerous message. Israel’s history is moving swiftly towards its climax—but it is happening in this way, not as expected. It is a message designed to encourage those who ‘have ears to hear’ to believe that they really are the true Israel of the covenant god, and that they will soon be vindicated as such—while the rest of the world, including particularly the now apostate or impenitent Israel, is judged. This is how apocalyptic literature works; this is the characteristic message it conveys. I suggest that Jesus’ parables worked in much the same way, and conveyed (at this level of generality) much the same message.”

    Wright, N. T.; Wright, N. T.. Jesus Victory of God V2: Christian Origins And The Question Of God (Kindle Locations 3712-3724). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

    2. “It is highly unlikely that when Paul says ‘I do not want you to remain in ignorance of this mystery’ he is referring to a new ‘mystery’, a secret piece of wisdom or doctrine which he is about to reveal. . . We would be wrong, in any case, to suppose that when Paul speaks of a ‘mystery’ he must necessarily be talking of a ‘new doctrine’ which is to be added on to those already taught. Paul is obviously well aware that the word could be used in that fashion, but in several of his own uses he seems to mean something different, something more like a penetrating insight gained through a combination of scripture and reflection on the gospel.”

    Wright, N. T.. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4) (p. 1232-1233). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

  8. Ivan, it’s worth noting that for Protestants there’s an inherent bias towards the Bible being sufficient. That tends to lead to dismissing the more apocalyptic ascents as anything but teachings of future events. You’ll see that most Protestants including Wright share that bias. Those who tend to push mystery as more akin to the larger cultural use, including as you note the dead sea scrolls, are either loosely affiliated or are atheists. There are exceptions of course.

    Now of course with Paul it’s a bit trickier. Again from a Mormon perspective you have him talking about being caught up to the third heaven (which Joseph chimes in on) as well as things like baptism for the dead. It’s quite possible that he’s not talking about a new mystery yet simultaneously is talking about something more than the simple gospel as Protestants view it. Again I think Clement and Irenaeus are useful here. Irenaeus in particular is preaching against gnosticism which is a set of mysteries and rites he rejects. That he still seems to accept these other aspects against gnostics is always interesting.

    Robert, Jesus had two aspects. One was the ethical teaching which is what most focus on. There he tends to follow Hillel the Elder in many of his views as well as his method of exegesis. Although there are exceptions, particularly the hard sayings of Jesus. The second main aspect of Jesus is apocalyptic where he shares much more with the Enochian tradition and certain similarities to the dead sea scrolls. In the apocalyptic vein (and the parables in Matt 13 have strong apocalyptic overtones) then he often deals in cosmology and end times. Sometimes this is somewhat indirect, such as Jesus calming the stormy seas when the apostles fear drowning. This is an intentional echo of Psalms 74 which was itself a common near eastern myth where God conquers the dragon/sea which represents chaos. Now one could argue this echo isn’t itself cosmology, although it does suggest to the listener an equation between Jesus and God by Mark. Jesus walking on the water has this mythic overtone as well. Quite a few of the narratives of Jesus have these overtones – although one can always dispute how much they owe to the author of Mark and how much to Jesus.

    So the apocalyptic motifs aren’t just in prophecies Jesus presents but there are mythic overtones to many of the narratives as well. Jesus’ visit to hell and return is very cosmological as well. Yes many of these elements get more filled out by later figures. But they still are important even within the gospels.

  9. Well, all I can say is to read Wright’s entire book series at this point, since I think you’re really misreading him (perhaps you already have, but even then I think you’re misreading him; he doesn’t treat the Bible as sufficient in these works – in fact he brings in tons of extra-biblical material to make his points). Perils of short excerpts, I guess, but I think he’s more right than you’re willing to give him credit. You’re basically dismissing him with a wave of “well, he’s a biased Protestant” without really engaging his ideas.

    You may think Wright is reading to constrained, but it seems to me you’re a little guilty of reading beyond the mark here as well.

    I don’t think there really are many “deep” mysteries and too many LDS go looking for them when they don’t need them or they don’t exist (or they exist, but aren’t necessary for our salvation at this point, so speculating about them is pointless).

  10. Clark,
    Perhaps there’s some cosmology aspect, who knows. I think it important though to read these parables in context. And when done so it’s rather simple. Christ starts off about speaking of the sower in parable fashion as a way to better relate how one prepares to, or not to, receive his word. He had just dealt with a myriad of unbelievers and I think it was in this context he was speaking of. As LDS, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ, we tend to start fashioning particular latter day nuances into it of the which was never originally intended. We end up making it an indiscernible mystery from simple text of something that was never meant to be. It’s really simple to understand, even so much so a child can understand.
    It’s a starting point. It gets our curiosity and as we ask more about the kingdom he then gives us more abundance, not that the abundance is somehow in-between the actual lines, of which they are not. This is the fault I see too often. People start reading things in-between the lines, or should I say- making things up from in-between the lines to some how then claim they have solved the mystery of the parable. It’s kind of nonsense.

  11. Ivan, Wright has a different take on apocalypicism than many others do. That definitely affects his readings. I’m not saying one has to agree with the different takes. However I think the question of Jesus and apocalyptism is more open than you suggest. See for example this blog post by Wright on how he treats apocalyptic elements in Jesus.

    Now Wright is pretty influential on me. But I have a hard time reading say apocalyptic elements in the Book of Mormon and think that this apocalyptic element ought be eliminated or redefined just to a coming kingdom on earth rather than the events most Mormons assume will happen given latter-day revelation. It’d be improper to read the gospels in light of say Revelation which is why Wright doesn’t do that. However I’m pretty unconvinced by Wright’s treatment of say Mark 13. Wright’s interpretation is that Jesus is only concerned with the transformation of Israel and it’s place in the world. I have a hard time accepting that. Once you reject that reading of Jesus, then the apocalyptic element in the gospels probably should be read more in light of the surrounding traditions, especially the many apocalyptic texts.

    Robert, as I said, the early Fathers share these readings. So even if you don’t think it was Jesus’ intent clearly it was a very early tradition in Christianity. I think it a defensible reading and I think makes sense contextually too.

  12. My all time favorite is of course the parable of the wheat and the tares. I like it especially because Christ expounded upon it in latter day scriptures in the D&C which reinforces the simple dichotomy that Christ taught with of either saved on the one hand or cast aside on the other. Christ speaks so much of the Paramount importance of becoming part of the kingdom (singular) or being ultimately cast aside into outer darkness. No room to shoehorn anything in there, it’s just black or white, saved into eternal life or damned into eternal hell. I like it because it shows or teaches us the strictness of the way.
    Could one imagine writing it in modern LDS nuances? For instance, in the parable of the net cast into the sea our version we would write would go something like-

    47 ¶ Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind:
    48 Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good, mediocre, and some of little worth into vessels, some which were of a little value, others of good measure, and a few of great price, but cast some of the bad away.
    49 So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever some of the more vile wicked from among the just,
    50 And shall cast some of them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

  13. Clark – ok, I see better where you are coming from.

    FWIW, I initially did not like or agree with Wright’s take on apocalyptic, and he clearly is in the scholarly minority (not to mention popular opinion). However, he has won me over about 80% or so. I think he’s found something that people are just overlooking. We’ve got centuries of inherited Western “apocalyptic” thinking that biases our views of the texts, and I think, even if he’s not exactly right, he’s onto something and has a genuinely valuable insight about what apocalyptic really is.

    Although saying “the apocalyptic element in the gospels probably should be read more in light of the surrounding traditions” as though that is counter to Wright is a bit odd, since his reading is based heavily on “the surrounding traditions.” Wright just insists on reading them with our modern expectations of apocalyptic (such as “the end of the space/time universe”) stripped away.

    Of course, whether his reading is correct or he hasn’t stripped away enough of his own bias is up for debate. I, after much resistance, was mostly won over by his evidence.

  14. One thing I probably should have added to the OP is the similarity of parable and Nephi’s exegesical method. For Nephi a text like Isaiah simultaneously functions on several levels: the national level in terms of relatively short term political events, the apocalyptic level in terms of long term end time events, the national level in a typological sense, the individual level in terms of the individual’s connection to God. That’s why you have him reading these Isaiah texts usually taken in terms of Assyria or Babylonian wars with Israel, but he’ll take it in terms of individual atonement, latter-day gathering, the spiritual redemption of Israel, etc.

    More or less what I’m arguing is that what Nephi does with Isaiah Jesus is doing with these brief evocative stories. That is they function at these multiple levels. I agree with Wright that what I might call the reduced apocalypse which is the short term place of Israel is an element. I don’t think it the only element. So I think one must include the end times, the cosmological element (so popular in platonism and other religious traditions), the individual’s relationship to God – what Robert is focusing in on, the nation’s relationship with god and so forth. As one thinks through the parables on each of these levels it simply has a different effect. What I’m arguing is that one level is this inner teaching level which has some connections to what we’d call the endowment.

    Consider a parable like The Parable of the Tenants. If we think only in terms of Israel, I think we miss something there. It’s very hard to read that parable without thinking of Zenos’ allegory for instance or Nephi’s vision. However also note that this parable, along with several others like Matt 24, lacks that “he who has ears to hear let him hear” that is so key in Matt 13.

    Getting back to apocalypse of the surrounding area – Wright is dismissing fundamentalist readings that see them as a code to specific historical events at specific times such as you see in the conservative protestant tradition in the US. Although I think even there we have to be careful given Lehi and Nephi’s vision and then the interpretation of this apocalypse that the angel gives along with events we’d see as pretty specific. So I don’t think the end times should be read in terms of cosmological end times the way a lot of evangelicals like to do with problematic theological constructions like the rapture. However neither do I think it should be disassociated with the perception of events, the way I think there’s a tendency to do. Largely because of skepticism towards prophecy – prophecy may be vague and perhaps intentionally ambiguous but I don’t think it’s just a psychological way of dealing with present day political stresses – the common way of scholars read Revelation for instance.

    Put an other way I think there’s a middle ground between fundamentalism and the idea of revelatory codes and seeing things all in terms of political fears and political expectations.

    How Wright reads say Revelation, Matthew 24, Isaiah 24-27, The Apocalypse of Abraham, 3 Enoch or so forth likely is different from how I would. I think there are elements he dismisses – particularly that movement through the heavens or through the rooms that so characteristic of merkavah or heckhalot literature (and loosely connected with apocalypses). I also think that at that stage one has to include non Jewish traditions. Not just gnostic which have obvious connections to Judaism and Christianity but also the way the Mithraic mysteries and various other mystery religions had apocalyptic elements. Also Zoroastrianism which most think apocalypses developed out of with their strong dualistic element. It’s worth raising Egyptian elements as well both because they were popular in the Roman empire at the time – particularly Isis – but because gnostic works like in the Bruce Codex have obvious dependencies on the Coffin Texts and Book of Breathings.

    I should also note that there’s a new book I came upon in a review that touches upon the issues I’m raising relative to parables. It’s Secret Groups in Ancient Judaism by Oxford.

  15. My head just spun around like three times! So dizzy..
    I seriously don’t think this needs to be so tricky.

  16. I don’t like Jesus’s reasoning that he gives for teaching in parables. I feel that his teachings should be getting non-believers to start believing; not say things that’s not entirely clear to his followers, and will make him sound a little off his rocker to those who don’t believe him.
    The parables do have their place. When asked about what we talked about on Sunday my daughter said “There was a man who planted wheat and a man who planted weeds.” Now she didn’t pick up on the point of the parable; but something stuck. The parables do provide a foundation for years of teachings.

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