Harvest parables: context

wheatMatthew 13:24–3324 He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. 26 When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. 27 The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ 29 He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” 31 He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. 32 It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’” 33 He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”

Context. This week’s gospel continues with Jesus’ response to the rising opposition from all quarters of first century Palestinian life as described in Mt 11-12. Chapter 12 especially outlines the growing opposition and questions from a broad range of sectors – and, as it happens, Matthew 12 is not part of the Sunday cycle of readings, but is covered extensively in the weekday readings.

In the New American Bible (NAB) translation used by the Church for its proclamation of the gospel, Mt 12 “headers” include the following:

  • Picking Grain on the Sabbath – Jesus’ status as the authoritative interpreter of the law is exemplified in the incident of the disciples’ plucking and eating grain on the sabbath. The account ends with the clear message: “… the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.” (v.8)
  • The Man with a Withered Hand – The question of sabbath observance continues as Jesus initiated a challenge to the Pharisees rooted in his earlier question to them: “If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (v.7). This account ends with the Pharisee plotting to put Jesus to death.
  • The Chosen Servant – In the midst of the rising opposition to Jesus from the Pharisees, Matthew pauses and places Jesus’ response in the context of the OT Servant of the Lord. Jesus was fully aware of the rising opposition (v. 15) but continued his healing activity (vv. 15–16). His modesty and gentleness in the face of hostility are viewed as the fulfillment of Isa 42:1–4.
  • Jesus and Beelezebul – The healing of a possessed man who was blind and mute provides the occasion for exploring the source of Jesus’ power. The healing (v. 22) produces two reactions: wonder on the part of the crowds whether Jesus is the Son of David or Messiah (v. 23), and hostility from the Pharisees, who are convinced that he is the instrument of Satan (v. 24).
  • A Tree and its Fruits – Jesus takes the offensive with three warnings: (1) Closeness to Jesus is absolutely essential, and the Pharisees must recognize it or run the risk of being on the wrong side when God’s kingdom comes (v. 30). (2) The only unforgivable sin is attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to an evil spirit, as the Pharisees were doing in the case of Jesus. Failure to recognize the Son of Man for what he is may be understandable and even pardonable, but failure to recognize the source of his power is inexcusable (vv. 31–32). (3) The Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus stems from their wickedness, and in the final judgment they will be judged with regard to their willingness or unwillingness to confess that Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit (vv. 33–37).
  • The Demand for a Sign – Despite all the miracles that Jesus had already worked, the scribes and Pharisees ask for more signs. The basic meaning of the sign of Jonah seems to involve the preaching of repentance to non-Jews and its acceptance by them. In verse 40, Matthew has given a second interpretation of the sign of Jonah: the three days spent by the prophet inside the fish (see Jonah 2) were a type or a foreshadowing of the three days between Jesus’ death and his resurrection.
  • The Return of the Unclean Spirit – The passage about the evil spirit’s return is joined to the sign of Jonah by its reference to “this evil generation” (vv. 39, 45), and to the entire section beginning at 12:22 by its concern with evil spirits.
  • The True Family of Jesus – The long treatment of unbelief and rejection that began in the missionary discourse of chapter 10 and continued in the incidents of chapters 11–12 concludes with the definition of the true family of Jesus as those who do God’s will.

Chapter 12 tells how widespread is the opposition (or resistance) to Jesus’ saving message: Pharisees, the people, and perhaps even those closest to Jesus – his disciples and family. Signs of power and healing only lead to requests for more signs. Why do people not believe? Is there any explanation for the condition of things we have arrived at by the end of Matthew 12? Indeed there is; the explanation begins with simple words: “A sower went out to sow” (13:3)

Matthew 13 is a “day of parables.” The parable of the sower is spoken in public to great crowds (vv. 1–3), but its explanation and the teaching about parables are spoken only to the disciples (vv. 10–11). More parables are then spoken to ‘the crowds’ (v. 34), but the crowds are again left behind (v. 36), and the second explanation and further parables are spoken to the disciples in ‘the house’ (which Jesus had left in v. 1). The unresponsive crowds are thus clearly distinguished from the disciples to whom alone explanation is given, and this distinction is spelt out in vv. 11–17.

This short section of the Gospel according to Matthew presents a quick succession of parables:

  • Weeds among the Wheat (vv.24-30)
  • Mustard Seed (vv.31-32)
  • Yeast (v.33)
    o   At this point Jesus leaves the crowd and speaks only to the disciples when he explains the parable of the weeds in the field (vv.36-43)
  • The Treasure, the Pearl, and the Net thrown into the Sea (vv.44-50)

Last week’s gospel, the parable of the “Sower and the Seed,” began Jesus’ explanation of why people would resist or refuse the word of the Kingdom of heaven (13:19). This “word” is an expression that encapsulates all the proclamations, deeds and miracles given to the people that they might believe (Mt 8-9).

 

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