Thursday, December 5, 2013

Cultivating the Kingdom (Matt. 13:24-43)

Continuing where we left off in this series, we arrive at the next section of Matthew chapter thirteen's literary structure (as found here in layout #2). Jesus begins this next section with three parables about cultivating the kingdom (verses 24-33). The first parable describes weeds, or "tares" according to the KJV (v. 24-30). The second parable describes a mustard seed (v. 31-32). The third parable describes leaven (v. 33). All of these parables are about "the kingdom of heaven," which I discussed in detail in an earlier post (here). 

The first thing of interest to us should be the difference between the parable of the Sower (in the previous section) and this parable of the weeds. In the parable of the Sower, the seed sown is the "word of the kingdom" (v. 19), but in the parable of the weeds the seeds are "the sons of the Kingdom" (v. 38). The parable of the Sower transitions from sowing the message of Christ's kingdom on earth to his disciples cultivating that message in the world.  

In the parable of the weeds, seeds are sown within the Sower's field. When the crop starts bearing fruitfulness the Sower's servants come to him and ask where the weeds come from. His answer is that an enemy had done so. However, in order to preserve the fruit from his sowing, both wheat and weeds are then left to grow together until harvest time. 

In verses 36-43 (section C2) Jesus explains to his disciples what this imagery is all about. The one sowing the seeds is the Son of Man, Jesus (12:37; cf.  8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8, 32, 40). The seeds are Christ-following Israelites, the children of the Kingdom (v. 38). The enemy planting weeds is Christ's adversary, Satan. The harvest, contrary to modern eschatological daydreams, is not at the end of the physical universe or the end-times of global human history. The harvest is "the end of the age" (v. 39). The age referred to here is the age in which Jesus' disciples lived, the end of the age in which the old covenant was administered, the end of the age in which heaven and earth met together in a Temple in Judea. The reapers of this harvest are said to be "angels," messengers commissioned from above to administer the Lord's sentence upon evildoers, gathering out of the kingdom "all causes of sin and all law-breakers" (vv. 39-41). The destiny of such law-breakers is the fiery-furnace where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 42). The righteous, however, will fulfill the prophecy of end times described in Daniel 12:3. They will "shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13:43). "Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness in the heavenly-expanse (Hebrew, raqia)... like the stars forever and ever" (Dan. 12:3; cf. raqia in Gen. 1:6-8, 14-17).

The next two parables about the mustard seed and leaven follow along this same trajectory. "The Kingdom of Heaven," Jesus says, is "like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field." The Kingdom of heaven grows incredibly large, larger than all the garden plants, extending even to the point in which others are attracted to it, like birds of the air which come and nest at home in its branches (v. 31-32). The Kingdom of Heaven is also said to be "like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened" (v. 33). Three measures (Greek, saton) of flour is about thirty liters of flour, which implies that an astonishingly immense bread-baking operation is about to take place in the Kingdom of Heaven. If the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven hid inside this immense amount of flour, the most obvious implication of this Kingdom coming near is its subsequent rise in proportion to the immensity of the flour itself. The Kingdom of Heaven may start out out small, but when it leavens this mountain of seeds ground into flour the Lord will have prepared enough bread to feed the world.    

In verses 34-35 (section B2) Matthew explains why Jesus spoke to the crowds in nothing but parables. Matthew says, 
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: 
"I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world."
This quotation comes from Psalm 78:2, a Psalm that reviews much of Israel's exodus, especially Yahweh's faithfulness to his covenant through every act of Israel's stubborn rebellion during that exodus. Psalm 78 says that Yahweh established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a Law in Israel, which He commanded their fathers to teach to their children, so that generation after generation would set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments (Ps. 78:5-7). But Israel repeatedly rebells against Yahweh, testing Him and acting treacherously toward Him (vv. 56-57). They did not keep Yahweh's covenant, and refused to walk according to His Law. They forgot His works and even the wonders He has shown them (vv. 10-11). But instead of utterly casting off Israel altogether, Yahweh shows them loyal love, generation after generation. Yet they sinned still more against Him (v. 11). They did not believe in Yahweh or trust His saving power (v. 22). Therefore that generation died in the wilderness at Yahweh's hand (v. 31). Only when Yahweh killed them did others among them seek Him earnestly (v. 34). But even still, their heart was not steadfast toward Him. They flattered Him with their mouths and lied to him with their tongues (vv. 36-37). Yet Yahweh, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them all. He restrained His anger often and did not stir up all His wrath (v. 38). Instead he chose the mustard grain-sized tribe of Judah and built His sanctuary-kingdom there, a sanctuary wherein the "high heavens" and earth would meet (vv. 68-69). He also chose David His servant and took him from the sheepfolds to guide them with his skillful hand (vv. 70-72). It is all of this which Matthew quotes from, saying that Jesus' parables to the crowds of Israel fulfill the parabolic history of Israel presented in this Psalm. Its as though the people of Israel are again about to go through another exodus, led by the Son of David. 

Up to this point in Matthew's gospel, the sheep of the house of Israel are lost and perishing because of the corrupt leadership in Israel. In chapter thirteen, Jesus is presented as the greater son of David, the greater Solomon, to guide Israel with his skillful hand, even speaking wisdom to them in parables. But to begin to know Wisdom, and to understand His words of insight and His proverbs about the exodus awaiting that generation, they must fear the Lord (Prov. 1:1-7; 9:10). Only fools would despise such wisdom and instruction. Like Israel under Solomon's reign, the crowds of Jews before Jesus are instructed in parables--parables which describe the end of that age, the generation in which Israel lived at that time. Wisdom incarnate is presented before their very eyes, uttering parables out of His mouth, and that message is nothing new to the Israel of faith. Interestingly the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of Psalm 78 says that Yahweh speaks parables to Israel about those things which they have heard and known, and their fathers had told them. Matthew quotes from the Septuagint (Greek) text of Psalm 78 instead, paraphrasing it a bit too, and he describes Yahweh speaking parabolically about what has been hidden from the foundation of the world. What's the deal? Has Israel heard and known the wisdom of Yahweh revealed in this Psalm, or has it been hidden from them since the beginning? 

In a sense, both are true, because not all of Israel is the Israel of faith. All are God's covenant people, but not all of Israel was faithful and obedient to God's covenant. But perhaps Matthew is paraphrasing Psalm 78 to refer to the Kingdom of Heaven near to Israel in the days of Jesus. That kingdom would incorporate all nations through the seed-sowing of faithful Israelites. Israel had heard and known, and their fathers had told them, but Jesus was forming a new Israel for himself, a new Israel which incorporated Gentiles that had Wisdom hidden from them since the foundation of the world. 

By speaking in parables, Jesus leaves his Jewish audience with proverbs to ponder. Would they too flatter Him with their mouths and lie to him with their tongues? Would they too forget His works and the miracles He showed them? 

Jesus, being compassionate, would atone for their iniquity and would not destroy that entire generation. He would give Israel 40 years to repent before destroying their city and their precious temple, thereby ending the old covenant administration. Only the fools who despised Wisdom would be destroyed. But among the mustard grain-sized seed which feared the Lord, would there be an immense growth. The Lord would tabernacle in the midst of those people and there, in Him, heaven and earth would meet.

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