From mystery to Truth

The Purpose of the Parables. Verses 10-17 are formally an interlude between the first parable and its explanation, but they are essential to the understanding of the chapter as a whole, as they set out the division between the enlightened disciples and the unresponsive crowd which is the focus both of the structure of the chapter and of much of its contents.

Unlike the telling of the parable, this is a private conversation between Jesus and the disciples who have initiated the conversation with the direct question: Why do you speak to them in parables? One presumes that the disciples have noticed that some of the listeners are perplexed and do not understand. – so why use this cryptic form of teaching rather than plain statement?

Jesus’ response is that to know the truth about the kingdom of heaven is to have the knowledge of the mysteries. The Greek mystērion, used only here in the Gospels, became important for Paul to indicate that God’s truth comes only by revelation, not by natural insight. That is the sense here too—only those to whom it has been granted (by God) can understand the nature of God’s kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, and therefore the facts about its growth, membership, demands and privileges which these parables convey. Parables, which to the hostile and the merely curious were simple stories, would yield their riches only within this context, to those who have the knowledge of the mysteries. Thus there is an inevitable division between you (the disciples) and them (specified in Mark’s version as ‘those outside’). The carefully antithetical structure of this verse, as of v. 12 and of vv. 13 with 16, reinforces the division of people into two groups.

This division is reinforced with an allusion to Isaiah 6:9–10, which describes Israel’s failure to respond to the prophet’s message. Jesus sees himself in a similar prophetic role, meeting a similar unresponsiveness in those of his hearers who are not disciples, and it is this situation which makes parables an appropriate method of teaching. In terms of the division of vv. 11 and 12, the same form of words can reveal ‘secrets’ to anyone who has, but convey nothing but riddles or mere everyday stories to anyone who has not. It is the appropriateness of parables to this situation which is the point of this verse (as of vv. 11–17 as a whole); it does not spell out either their purpose or their result. Thus the common view that Matthew with his because is deliberately ‘softening’ Mark’s statement of purpose (‘so that’), making parables a means of overcoming their unresponsiveness rather than causing it, is beside the point. Verse 13 alone could be read in that sense, but in the context of the paragraph as a whole this is impossible: the division between the disciples’ enlightenment and the crowd’s dullness is repeatedly affirmed and emphasized as the essence of the disciple’s privilege, and parables are explained as appropriate to this situation, not as designed to change it. Anyone can hear, but only a disciple can understand.

The same passage in Isaiah which inspired v. 13 is now quoted in full in the LXX version (vv.14-15). The wording of the introductory formula is not that of the formula-quotations, but it conveys the same idea of fulfillment. Isaiah 6:9–10 was not in fact a prediction for the distant future but rather for Isaiah’s own experience, but this experience formed a typological pattern which is now fulfilled as Jesus re-enacts the role of the Old Testament prophet. Perhaps a statement of fact, is fulfilled in them, is used rather than the usual purpose clause to show that the spiritual dullness was the situation within which Jesus taught rather than itself the product of his teaching. The language makes clear that the people have actively closed their eyes and ears thus placing the blame for their unresponsiveness not on the prophet (Isaiah or Jesus) but on the people themselves. Thus, as we saw in v. 13, the emphasis is not on either the purpose or the result of Jesus’ speaking in parables, but rather on the existing situation within which it took place.

Verse 16 forms a striking counterpart to v. 13, contrasting ‘you’ with ‘them’. This beatitude stresses the theme of a division between the enlightened disciple and other people. The disciples are thus privileged (blessed) above their unbelieving contemporaries, but v. 17 adds a further dimension; even the people of God in the Old Testament period (prophets and righteous men, as opposed to those who refused the prophets’ message) did not share the privilege of seeing what you see. Jesus thus claims again that in his ministry the time of fulfillment of the hopes of Israel has come.

Notes

Matthew 13:9 Whoever has ears: The same expression is used in Mt 11:15 to call attention to a significant teaching

Matthew 13:10 granted: the subject is not mentioned leaving one to assume God is the one who grants. This would be a typical Jewish construction of the phrase to avoid a direct mention of God and retain an air of “mystery.”

Matthew 13:11 mysteries: mystērion meaning “mystery” or “secret” [EDNT 2:466]. The gospel usage of mystērion relies upon the Jewish tradition of its meaning. Out of the Jewish tradition comes the transcendent, humanly inaccessible revelation of God, which is historically set in action by God himself in his acts of salvation and judgment in the past, present, and future, which already now has been made evident to the one who is called and will be made evident to all on the last day. In terms of content, mystērion refers primarily to the saving acts of God in Christ.

In the Gospels mystērion is found only in the account of the “sower and the seed” (Mk, Lk and Mt) in the expression “the mystery of the kingdom of heaven/God” The saying uses mystērion to describe the experience of the presence of / breaking in of God’s reign in the words and works of Jesus. It is basically still hidden, to be revealed in all its glory only in the end times, but is made accessible already now to Jesus’ disciples and can be experienced and comprehended by them in faith, while to those who stand on the outside it remains a puzzle and therefore hidden.

Matthew 13:12 To anyone who has…: the object is not specified, but it likely refers to “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (v.11). This implies there are consequences to this grant of knowledge.

Matthew 13:14 fulfilled: Matthew uses the unique verb anaplēroō (rather than merely plēroō), meaning “to completely fulfill” the prophecy in question. It is suggested that “completely fulfilled” implies human responsibility and that Matthew’s overall introductory formula is phrased to avoid any thought of divine causation that might be mistaken as a lessening of human responsibility.

Matthew 13:15 a general comment: The quoted text from Isaiah 6 is from the LXX (the Greek language OT). The Greek text varies slightly from the original Hebrew. The expression in Hebrew “hear” becomes “hardly hear” in the Greek (and is translated in our English). The same is true of the other verbs in the LXX version – which are not literally carried into the NAB translation. The expression rendered “see” is literally “truly see” or “surely see.” In other words, the LXX adds some intensity about the verbs to communicate the gravity of the context of Isaiah’s original message.

Matthew 13:16 blessed..: The use here provides a reversal of the Isaiah 6 passage by describing the blessedness of those whom have been granted the mysteries. prophets and righteous people: not only are the disciples blessed as compared to their contemporaries who do not see/hear/understand, the disciples are also blessed in comparison to the great Jewish heroes of the past.

Matthew 13:22 worldly: the Greek word aiōn can refer to time (“this age”) or place (“this world”). Underlying its use in this context is the Jewish eschatological division between this age and the age to come.

Sources

  • G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) 46-48
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 298-307
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 282-87
  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 498-522
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 219-27
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 193-202
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris(Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 879-82
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 371-85
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 142-6
  • D. Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 179-87

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – The New American Bible (NAB)  © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC..

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