Parables of the Kingdom
- Main Text: Matthew 13:24-43
- Accompanying text: Psalm 84:1-7
The parables of Jesus ignited the imagination of his audience. The Greek word used for parable is found mainly in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and it is also in Hebrews 9:9 and Hebrews 11:19 where it is used to describe specific Old Testament references as illustrations or types of New Testament realities. It’s worthwhile noting the difference between parables and fables. A parable is typically a story grounded in portrayals of every day, recognisable events (e.g. a sower went out to sow, etc) whereas a fable uses fanciful ideas (e.g. a tree that might talk, the hare and the tortoise might be in a race, etc). The parables of Jesus point to spiritual ideas whereas fables suggest moral lessons or home truths.
It’s important to remember that “parables are usually understood as having one main point, and to be addressed mainly to opponents and outsiders” . Therefore, we should be cautious in using the details of the story to formulate views on doctrine, prophecy and theology lest we come to underinformed conclusions (e.g. with Luke 18:1-8 and the parable of the persistent widow, should we conclude that God is an unjust judge? Its main point is the importance of perseverance in prayerful petitions, not the character and identity of the judge).
Sometimes parables appear to contain warnings about unbelief. “But what is the meaning, the reality of these warnings? How should we interpret them in the context of all of Scripture and in light of the character of God revealed in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? First off, warnings are not the first word God gives. Warnings come as the last word offered to those who reject all the other words of promise and blessing that call for complete trust in and worship of God alone… The purpose is to prevent the outcome pictured from happening! It is not given to assure that it does happen…Warnings are a sign of love, not rejection” .
When used in a sermon, the parables are often best presented in an expository style with just a few, if any, additional scriptures.
Context and Story-line
The Jewish religious leaders looked “for a reason to bring charges against” Jesus (Matthew 12:10). Matthew notes that their antagonism toward his teachings was a fulfilment of a prophecy from Isaiah, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding” (Matthew 13:14). Nevertheless, Jesus continued to travel “about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1), and multitudes of people followed him enthusiastically wherever he went. This infuriated the scribes and Pharisees all the more. It was at this point that Jesus changed his teaching style by using parables. His disciples asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ (Matthew 13:10). Christ’s response was that his parables would not be understood clearly by the unreceptive, but to the believer they would reveal spiritual insights. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables” (Mark 4:11). Most of the parables that Jesus taught revolved around the kingdom of heaven, of which Jesus is King, and it is only by acknowledging Jesus the King that a deeper understanding of the parables becomes possible.
Jesus delivered his first set of parables as he sat on a boat while the crowds stood and listened to him on the shore of the still Sea of Galilee (Matthew 13:2). On this occasion he spoke only in parables (Mark 4:33-34). Most of those parables are to do with how the growth of the kingdom of heaven is achieved. The first of them is the well-known parable of the Sower, followed by the story of how tares were found among the wheat harvest. Some commentators say that the tares refer to a kind of fake or phoney wheat that can be recognised only near harvest time, and that any attempt to root them up beforehand would have resulted in rooting up the wheat also. One spiritual lesson for us is that those, who tend the field which is the church, shouldn’t try to identify and separate the wheat from the tares. We should treat everyone with the same grace and compassion, and we shouldn’t judge because God is the merciful judge. The servants, who seem pre-occupied with the enemy and with what he has done, want to take immediate action against the tares to preserve the good seed, but the owner’s main point is “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:30). The rest of verse 30, about the preparation for the burning of the chaff, should be seen in the light of the preceding comments about warnings.
“Consider the imagery of seed…seeds are disproportionately small compared to what they eventually produce” . The Parable of the Mustard Seed describes the expansion of the kingdom of heaven. Both Luke and Mark introduce this parable with a question from Jesus, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?” (Luke 13:18) Note that the kingdom is the seed that is sown, and not the results of the sowing. Also, the seed is not easily seen as it lies in the field, which we could interpret as the world. From its small beginning the seed grows into a tree, in the branches of which all kinds of birds get included. This is a story not only of growth but also of inclusion. The church, which is the kingdom on earth, is for all kinds of people, and they can find peace and freedom there. You’re included. The seed goes from hiddenness to visibility, for all to see and find refuge therein.
Jesus follows this with a parable about leaven (yeast). His audience may have associated the idea of leaven more with the growth of wickedness than with the growth of the kingdom, but, as usual, Jesus would challenge assumptions. It concerns a woman baker who is using three measures of flour. That’s “a bushel of flour, for crying out loud! That’s 128 cups! That’s 16 five-pound bags! And when you’ve done putting in the 42 or so cups of water you need to make it come together, you’ve got a little over 101 pounds of dough on your hands” . In the parable the yeast, representing the kingdom of heaven, is hidden in the dough and permeates it, thus becoming inseparable from it, part and parcel of it, until the whole, huge lump gets leavened. His listeners were probably mystified. What in the world is he talking about? For those who understand the things of God, however, we can see that there is nothing that Jesus cannot and will not redeem. The kingdom will prevail, and it’s unstoppable. Everything is saved by him. The “earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).
The disciples had been listening to all these parables, and now ask Jesus to flesh out the details of the parable of the tares in the field to them. What meant what, and who is who in this story? “Thus in this age the kingdom will not be received by all, good and evil will coexist, and only at the end of the age will final separation and judgment occur” . An important point to note is that the “Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (Matthew 13:41). In other words, the righteous leaven takes over the whole lump, with no space for sin and for those who refuse the sacrifice of Christ. Jesus continues in Matthew 13 with more parables about the kingdom, and, when “Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his home town, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?’ they asked” (Matthew 13:53-54).
- Mark 4:26-34
- Luke 4:1-15
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- Anthony Thiselton, The Power of Pictures in Christian Thought: the use and abuse of images in the Bible and theology, (London, UK: SPCK, 2018). 87.
- Gary Deddo from https://www.gci.org/articles/scripture-gods-gift-part-6/
- Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002). 67.
- Craig Ott and Timothy Strauss with Timothy C Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission, (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2010). 34.