Parables of the Kingdom. 13:44-52
Other than the parable of the sower, which probably serves as an allegorical teaching parable about the way kingdom parables function, Matthew, in this chapter, gathers together a set of parables which proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven. In v44-52 we have the kingdom parables of the hidden treasure, the expensive pearl and the dragnet with its interpretation. The passage concludes with Jesus reminding the disciple that they are now fully trained to make known the coming kingdom of God.
v44. The parables of the hidden treasure and expensive pearl are a pair of parables that makes much the same point. The kingdom of God is a present reality and worth everything to obtain. Both parables let us into a secret about the kingdom of God, the eternal reign of God. The kingdom, in Jesus, is now. Theologians call this "inaugurated eschatology"; the kingdom is "now", but is also "not yet." In the parable of the hidden treasure, some people balk at the deceitfulness involved in hiding the discovery of a treasure until its hiding place can be purchased. In Jewish law, what is found in a field belongs to the owner of the field. Jesus is not passing a comment on the morality of the situation, but is rather illustrating the value of the kingdom. A person will go to great lengths to get the treasure.
v45-46. With the parable of the expensive pearl, Jesus is not suggesting that entry into the kingdom of heaven can be purchased, in the sense of giving up all to gain the prize. Salvation is not by works. The parable illustrates the true value of the kingdom. An expert pearl merchant would sell all to obtain a perfect pearl.
v47-48. The parable of the dragnet is parallel to the parable of the weeds and wheat. The kingdom of heaven is like the situation that exists when a net is dragged between two boats, or the shore and a boat, catching "all kinds of fish", both good and "bad" fish (worthless: ceremonially unclean or too small). The fishermen inevitably sort out the good from the bad.
v49-50. The tendency has been to interpret the parable of the dragnet as if it concerns the church and its mission. In line with this interpretation, the parable describes the gospel gathering people into the church, both true and false believers, who then, in the day of judgement, are separated for blessing, or cursing. Yet, the parable is really a last-days judgement picture. The kingdom of God has burst in upon us, the end is near and the day of sorting is at hand. If we want to escape the fiery furnace, now is the time to "repent and believe." Of course, the images of the "fiery furnace" and the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" are images of doom; they describe the day of judgement, Jer.29:22, Dan.3:6, 4Ezra.7:36.
v51. Jesus asks the disciples whether they "understand all these things." He possibly means the unexplained parables, but it is more likely that he is asking them whether they understand the hidden meaning of the kingdom parables, namely, that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." They reply "yes", and they probably do understand that the kingdom has come upon them in and through the person of Jesus.
v52. Jesus responds to the disciples' claim that they understand the meaning of the kingdom parables, with a short teaching parable. There are numerous suggested interpretations, but it is probably best to follow the line that the "teacher of the law" is a person who understands a mystery, and in this instance, it is the disciples who understand and who therefore should teach. They are those who are "instructed (discipled) about the kingdom of heaven." Therefore, like a wealthy householder who brings out of his storeroom treasures new and old, the disciples, in like manner, should set forth the mystery of the gospel.
Wise as serpents
In an age of tolerance, it is very difficult to proclaim the exclusive nature of the Christian gospel and not end up condemned before others. Some years ago an Anglican bishop was interviewed on national television in Australia. He was questioned on the growth of Buddhism, the fastest growing religion in Australia. He tried to be both accepting of others, while upholding the uniqueness of Christ. This is not an easy call in today's politically correct environment. There was some 120 responses to the segment, 102 were supportive and 15 were outraged. The 15 got the running, of course.
It's rather sad that our capacity to accept difference is now so undermined by political correctness. A statement like, "I don't think Buddhists are right", is likely to be regarded as racist. So much for free thinking.
The problem we face is how to communicate the uniqueness of the Christian faith in a pluralist secular society. The answer could lie with kingdom parables. The kingdom parables proclaim the gospel in an oblique form so as to draw out the seeker after truth. They are inoffensive little stories that served to please the crowds, blind the Pharisees, bore the Romans, but call out the seeker. In the end, the one who seeks, finds. So, let's get cracking and create some modern-day parables that proclaim that God's eternal reign is about to burst in upon us.
1. What is the main point of the treasure, pearl and net parables?
2. If it is the task of disciples to communicate the gospel of the kingdom, discuss ways we can bring out "new treasures as well as old" in twentieth century parables.