Thursday, April 28, 2011

Understanding The Parables in Matthew 13

In his insightful  essay on the parables of Jesus found in Matthew 13, Jonathan Pennington, Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explores the specific question of the coherence and function of the collection of parables in Matthew 13.  Pennington begins by considering how Jesus’ parables fit into his ministry and teaching overall.  The insight he draws from this consideration is that the parables are part of his work as a prophet of judgment and renewal. The parables are not simply teaching or informing or making a moral or religious point. They are instead the vehicle for the paradoxical and dangerous campaign which Jesus was undertaking, namely a redefinition of the people of God and a reorientation of the grand story of Israel’s hope. With this insight, Pennington sees Matthew 13 as a similar apocalyptic retooling of Israel’s self-understanding, namely, that the great separation of God’s people from those condemned is not based on ethnic Israel identity but faith-response in Jesus.

He then lays out the larger context of the book of Matthew in which we come across the parables of Matthew 13. He believes Matthew has structured his narrative as a clue to the purpose of the parables. The why of this parabolic ministry is explained by Jesus Himself, later on in Matthew 13 and to make sense of this explanation, it is important that one is conversant with the story so far in the first gospel.  It is this what makes Pennington deal with the narrative flow of the book of Matthew in this section.

After his summarization of the story so far, Pennington moves to Matthew 13 to catch a bird’s eye view of the parables.  He notes that, It is at the altitude of the whole chapter that we can discern a pattern in these parables. The divine crop-circles that he observes in Matthew 13 is summarized by him as, An opening parable about a sower of seed and its interpretation in relation to the kingdom, two other major parables about the separation of good and bad and their interpretation as the end of the age when the kingdom comes, and four little parables about the hiddeness and great value of the kingdom.

In his next section, he deals with the meat of the matter, working on the purpose and intention of this structure and pattern of the parables in Matthew 13. Pennington suggests three main threads that run through this entire chapter and structure that, when examined, pull it all together. These are the Sower, the Secret, and the Separation.  The parable of the Sower is the opening parable of this whole teaching section of Jesus in Matthew 13 and thus serves as the main or the big parable in this chapter.  Jesus Himself gave us the interpretation of the parable and the Sower is He Himself. Pennington observes that this parable is not  primarily an exhortation to be fruit-bearing ourselves but is rather an explanation of the mixed reception to Jesus’ kingdom message. … reading the parable in its context, it becomes clear that primarily this parable serves to explain why the Great Sower, Jesus himself, meets with such mixed results with most people not receiving and believing! This parable is primarily descriptive of what happens when the Gospel seed is sown, by Jesus himself and, by extension, by his disciples as well. After noting this descriptive aspect of this parable, Pennington asserts that this leads us to the second thematic thread of this chapter, which he calls the Secret.

By secret, Pennington is referring to the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven.  He notices how the disciples were perplexed by the teaching of Jesus in vague metaphors rather than his clear teaching so far. Pennington pictures this scene quite vividly as follows : To feel the weight of their confusion one must think back to the narrative that precedes this text… These fishermen and tax collectors and political revolutionaries are following Jesus because they have seen his God-given miraculous powers and because every time he opens his mouth they are amazed at his wisdom and authoritative and clear teaching… Nothing shows this better than the incredible teachings as summarized by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount. What insight, wisdom, and clarity are found here, such that at the end of the Sermon everyone responds the same way: “Wow! He teaches as one with authority, not like our scribes!” (7:28-29). But now here in chapter 13 Jesus’ teaching seems crazy. What is this odd story? An apparently careless farmer goes out and sows seed very poorly. Most of it is wasted on the road and clearly bad soil for sowing, and then one little portion produces an astronomical, unheard of, fairy-tale like yield. What kind of sermon is this? What kind of story is this? What does this vague little story have to do with Jesus’ teachings as in the Sermon on the Mount? We can easily imagine the disciples’ perplexity: “What happened to that powerful, meaty teaching like Jesus used to give us?”  It is in reply to this confusion of the disciples that Jesus responds with a very crucial and shocking answer. It is from this answer that we gain understanding on the why of this parabolic ministry of Jesus. Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 to show how his parabolic ministry is a fulfillment of that which was told to Isaiah, to preach even though his hearers will not hear or perceive. Pennington reasons, This is why Jesus is now teaching in parables—not to reveal the truth of God to all, but to conceal. There is a mystery—the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (verse 11)—that functions as a word of judgment. At the same time, Jesus offers an unprecedented word of blessing on his disciples: You are blessed because unlike many former prophets and righteous men, you do get to see and understand this mystery (13:16-17).  Pennington also notes that from this response of Jesus, we can see how the common tendency to see Jesus’ parables as His down to earth style of teaching is entirely wrong.  It is actually the opposite and is done with the purpose of preventing people with hardened hearts from understanding.  Pennington notes, It is not accidental that this shift occurs after the great opposition of chapter 12 and the religious leaders’ resolution to destroy Jesus (12:14). Jesus changes his teaching style to this prophetic double-functioning mode so that he can simultaneously judge and proclaim.  Pennington finally summarizes his understanding of this second thematic thread of secret as follows : This is the nature of parables: They conceal and at the same time reveal if one understands the interpretation. If one is not given the knowledge to understand (by God) then the meaning remains a mystery, a secret. If one is given the knowledge then understanding and perception occurs. Therefore, this whole parable section hinges on this idea of the revealing and concealing of secrets.

After having shown how not everyone responds to the Sower in the same manner, and how those who do respond, do so, because God has blessed them with eyes to see and ears to hear the Secret or the mystery of the Kingdom, Pennington moves to his third thread, which he calls the Separation.  Pennington notes how the parabolic ministry is aimed at sorting out those with understanding from others. He argues, The Four Soils is a separating of responses into four types. Even more pointedly, the purpose of the second and seventh parables (the Wheat and the Weeds and the Dragnet of fish) is to separate the good from the bad. This is apparent not only in the parable stories themselves but also in their explicit, eschatological interpretation. Both parables speak of a separating of the good from the bad at the close of age when the Son of Man, Jesus, comes and renders reward and judgment.  He then moves onto show how the theme of separation can be found in the quoted passage from Isaiah 6. On the basis of this he shows how the theme of the great separation finds its ultimate fulfillment and consummation in Jesus, who is the ultimate prophet who preaches the mystery of the kingdom of God—the mystery that God has come incarnate in Jesus himself—and who is calling to himself a chosen remnant who will be granted understanding and insight into the mystery or secret.  Concerning this remnant, Pennington notes, Unlike the tares amidst the wheat or the bad fish in the net or the first three soils, “Blessed are your eyes and ears,” Jesus says, “because they see and hear” (13:16).

Pennington summarizes his overall point concerning Matthew 13 as follows using these three thematic threads, Matthew 13 is a highly structured pattern of parabolic teaching. It is not just a concatenation of assorted parables to show Jesus as an interesting and engaging teacher. Rather, it is a set of parables which should be taken together as a whole. Woven throughout the whole chapter is a set of three themes which in concert speak a powerful truth: Jesus’ parabolic teaching is a sowing of the Word in the world. This Word from God is simultaneously a message of judgment on the unbelieving and a word of hope and blessing for the believing. The Word both reveals and conceals and in the process it performs a great separation of all people (cf. Heb 4:12), based on their response to the Son, the Incarnate Word.

Pennington is wise and godly to not end his essay with the above summary. Rather he has one more section dealing with our response if we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear the secret of the Kingdom. He warns us that Instead of seeking just to understand Matthew 13, we are called to a posture of standing under its message, lest we prove ourselves to be unfruitful soil. He then enlists practical implications of the three main thematic threads that he has discussed so far. Concerning the Sower and His sowing, he says,  This word of the kingdom, the “gospel of the kingdom” as Jesus calls it, is still going forth through us today as Jesus’ disciples…To be a disciple of Jesus means to do the same things he did, to live a life of self-sacrifice, serving others, …. and crucially, to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom. Concerning the Secret, he calls us to be not be surprised when it [our proclamation] meets with every response from apathy to persecution. Pennington wants us to be confident in God’s election of some if not all of our hearers, who will be blessed with eyes to see and ears to hear. But just as with the four soils, the yield of even one fruit-bearer far outweighs any loss!. Finally concerning the Separation, Pennington calls all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, who have been separated from the unbelieving, to - humble praise and thanksgiving to God. Pennington’s rationale behind this exhortation is indeed very God-glorifying and sweet to any saint. Here is his argument drawn from the text itself for why praise and thanksgiving is fitting for all those to whom God has revealed the mystery of His Kingdom, This is because we see in this text and we know in our hearts that our believing is not a choice on our part but is a revelation that is given. This is grace. We did not choose God. We did not reason in all our brilliance and decide that faith in God was an acceptable risk to take. We did not earn favor with God by our great faith and goodness and God-centered hearts and lives. Rather, we were dead in our sins and God made us alive through Christ Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For no reason other than mysterious grace we have been granted to understand the divine secret of the gospel even in the midst of God’s just judgment on all of the world. If it were our choice it would not be divine revelation. For those who understand this, the only response can be praise and thanksgiving. Any response less than this fails to understand what the gospel is and the function of the parables as we see them in Matthew 13.  

Pennington thus concludes his essay by drawing every saint to his knees in rich adoration of the Almighty God and His grace in His Son, Lord Jesus Christ. If we are of the believing, then the parables of Jesus are aimed at our praise. It is hoped that this insight would draw out much praise and thanksgiving for our God, the next time the readers would come across the mysterious parables of Jesus. 

Matthew 13 and the Function of the Parables in the First Gospel  Read | Download

[1]  All quotations from the featured article by Dr. Jonathan Pennington, SBTS Journal of Theology, 13/3 (Fall 2009)

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