Saturday, February 21, 2009

Jesus still baffles

The elder teen (I'm not going to be able to write this much longer) asked what the parables of the mustard seed and the woman and the yeast were doing in this place in Matthew 13? It seems that we have the parable of the sower, where Jesus is the sower. Then we have a set of three: I call these a unit because he explains the parable of the wheat and tares in 13:34-43, i.e., after the mustard and yeast parables. So these three at least go together.

But why? I can't quite figure it out, and there are at least two general explanations I've found. One, on p.953 of the Wycliffe Bible Commentary (but I'm not sure if the link matches the edition on my shelf), asserts that the birds in the branches, like the birds in the parable of the sower, represent deception from the devil. The yeast in the next parable, like the yeast in most other places in the Bible, represents corruption.

This idea appeals to me because the parable of the wheat and the tares is about how enemies invade the kingdom as it grows; the birds nest in the branches of the kingdom (ready to steal a little more truth?); a little yeast invades the whole lump of dough (as the Apostle Paul wrote elsewhere, not optimistically).

Now most other places I looked (including this passage from Edersheim's Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah) say that these illustrations aren't intended to be mathematical -- e.g., birds don't always mean the same thing, yeast doesn't always mean the same thing -- and that the parables have to do with the growth of the kingdom: the mustard seed meaning the growth of the Kingdom throughout the world, and the yeast meaning the growth of the Kingdom within an individual soul. Did not our Lord say, "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21)?

Which of these explanations is right? I'll tell you: I don't know.

But here's what I think today. If we look at the sequence of the parables, here's what it looks like to me:
  • the sower: seeds represent hearers, birds represent deception;
  • wheat and tares: growth of the kingdom, tares (planted by enemy) grow together with the kingdom;
  • mustard seed, meaning maybe growth of kingdom in numbers of souls (possibly with some deceivers mixed in)?
  • yeast in the dough, meaning maybe growth of kingdom in an individual soul?
  • treasure in the field (13:44), and
  • excellent pearl (13:45-46), meaning... how an individual responds to the kingdom?
  • the net (13:47-50), which is not quite identical to the wheat and the tares -- except here we have good and bad fish, but the enemy is not mentioned.
So what's the arc of the argument? I think Jesus is exhorting us to be full participants in the kingdom.

In chapter 12, Jesus is disputing with the Pharisees -- whose problem is that they really don't get it. They ignored God, and focused too much on rules, which should have led them to God. They were so deceived, in fact, that when God in the flesh came to them, they mistook God for the devil. Matthew then mentions the visit of Jesus's mother and brothers -- and Jesus redefines family, who's inside and who's out, based on doing the will of God.

So I think what comes next is: here's how people react to the word (i.e., Jesus's teaching) -- the parable of the sower; some will look like they're in the kingdom because they're found near subjects of the kingdom (wheat/tares and net/fish parables). These two bracket the set of four very short parables. Jesus shines the spotlight first on the macro (or what Edersheim calls extensive) growth of the kingdom (mustard-seed), then on the internal or intensive growth (yeast) of the kingdom within an individual soul. The spotlight then moves, in the parables of the field and of the pearl, to the question of how someone reacts to the news of the kingdom. We might abandon all else to buy the field and the treasure (the treasure would after all be sufficient to allow re-purchase of everything we gave up) -- but if we really understood the value of the kingdom, we would ideally want the kingdom for its own sole sake (parable of the merchant and the pearl).

Because of this possible (?) flow of the argument, and the possible application to our lives, I think the "majority" interpretation is probably correct, and that the editors of the Wycliffe Bible Commentary probably missed the boat on this one. (They interpreted the field and pearl parables as descriptions of what Jesus Christ did, which on one hand is more consistent in that the actors are Jesus or heavenly beings as in the net/fish, wheat/tares, sower parables -- but on the other hand does not really fit into the flow of the argument.)

1 comment:

Michael F. Martin said...

Any great literature works on multiple levels, and the gospels are great literature and more.

But I'm partial to the growth-related interpretation. You're going to say I have a one-track mind (and you'd be justified), but these passages were referenced in that earlier post I did on Waywords about the Kingdom of Heaven as superorganism. Growth happens in time, and (except in some Platonic realm) cycles in time mean evolution.

In each of the three parables, things look one way at a first moment in time, but very different a second (later) moment. One prescriptive point is that we should anticipate change. Another is that God is the source of change.