IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 24, August 9 to August 15, 1999

Matthew 13:1-23

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



    1. Chapter 13 in Context.

      Ch. 13 represents the third of Jesus' five great discourses in Mt. The first was chs. 5-7, the second ch. 10 (note the similarities among the respective conclusions, 7:28-29; 11:1; 13:53). A narrative section (chs. 11-12) links the second discourse and the third, as chs. 8-9 linked the first and the second. As chs. 5-7 present Messiah's Law for the citizens of the kingdom, and ch. 10 his instructions for the heralds of the kingdom, so ch. 13 gathers together seven parables of the kingdom. Here Messiah elucidates and builds upon both the purpose and the effect of his mission as set forth in the preceding chapters (see the comments on the entirety of ch. 11).

    2. The Structure of Chapter 13.

      Seven parables are collected here. The first stands over against the other six. The six have in common the opening words "the kingdom of heaven is like [homoia in each case, except for the verb homoiotha in v. 24]...."

      1. The Parable of the Sower, the introductory, definitive parable, 13:3-23. The parable itself (vv. 3-9) is addressed to the crowds (ochloi), v. 2, but the parable's meaning (vv. 18-23) to the disciples alone (v. 10), for reasons given in vv. 12-15.

      2. Three further parables for the crowd, vv. 24-35. The "them" of vv. 24, 31, and 33, is ambiguous; but references to the "crowd" in vv. 34-36 make it clear that these three parables are addressed to the crowd.

        1. The Parable of the Weeds, vv. 24-30. In keeping with the teaching of vv. 10-17, the explanation of this parable is reserved for the disciples (vv. 36-43).

        2. The Parable of the Mustard, vv. 31-32.

        3. The Parable of the Yeast, v. 33.

      3. Three further parables for the disciples, vv. 36-50. After explaining the parable of the weeds (vv. 36-43), Jesus tells another three parables exclusively to his disciples. (The affirmation of understanding, v. 51, predictably has no counterpart in vv. 34-35.)

        1. The Parable of the Hidden Treasure, v. 44.

        2. The Parable of the Pearl, vv. 45-46.

        3. The Parable of the Net, vv. 47-50.

      4. Further notes on the structure of vv. 24-50.

        1. Parables 1 and 6. The sixth "makes an inclusio with the first ... by reemphasizing separation at the end" (Gundry, 251); note the kinship between the explanations of 13:37-43 and 13:49-50.

        2. Parables 2-3 and 4-5. Parables 2-3 express the same idea (from smallness to hugeness), as do parables 4-5 (great sacrifice for greater treasure). Vv. 24-50 are thus chiastic in structure.


    1. Definitions.

      1. Parable. In keeping with his method of clustering together teachings of the same sort, Matthew here uses "parable," Greek parabolae, for the first time (the term occurs 12 times in the ch.). A parable is an extended simile, a "like-saying." Cf. the introductory words, "The kingdom of heaven is like this." The noun is composed of the preposition para, "beside, alongside," and -bolae, related to the verb ballo, "to cast, throw." This etymology is suggestive: to shed light on a spiritual truth, Jesus "throws down alongside it" a picture or illustration. In order to perceive the spiritual reality, we must first attend to the picture and let it make its impact as a picture; only then are we adequately prepared to perceive what Jesus is illustrating.

      2. Allegory. An allegory is an extended metaphor. The Greek verb allagoreo consists of allos ("other") and (a variant of) agoreuo ("to speak"), and thus means literally "to speak so as to imply other than what is said" (Liddell & Scott, Greek Lexicon s.v. ). In the single NT instance of allagoreo, Gal 4:24, "Hagar stands for Mount Sinai" (v. 25a). Note the metaphorical language; the language of simile would be, "Hagar is like Mount Sinai."

    2. A Comparison.

      1. With respect to meaning. In an allegory each detail of the story has its counterpart in the meaning, whereas in a parable story and meaning meet not at every point but at one or at the most some points (cf. A. M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables, 10). For an allegory (such as The Pilgrim's Progress) to be understood, it must be interpreted (or deciphered) point by point, feature by feature. But in a parable the details serve to make the story realistic and so support its central thrust(s). Hunter likens the details to "the feathers which wing the arrow" (ibid.).

      2. With respect to method. A parable is life-like; there are no better examples than the parables of Jesus. "In a parable things are what they profess to be: loaves are loaves, stones are stones, lamps are lamps" (ibid.). But an allegory need not conform to such principles. Instead it "may stray off into some 'never never' world where eagles can plant vines and stars become bulls. The room which the woman sweeps in the parable of the Lost Coin is a room in any Galilean [dwelling]; the room which the man sweeps in The Pilgrim's Progress is not a room but 'the Heart of a Man that was never sanctified by the sweet Grace of the Gospel'" (ibid.).

    3. The Parables of Jesus.

      1. The presence of allegorical features. Mt 13 itself interprets certain features of the parables allegorically. Cf. the explanations of the parables of the sower, the weeds, and the net.

      2. The controlling factors. The parables remain parables. The term consistently used is parabolae, never allagoria. Without exception, Jesus' stories are drawn from life; the features that are interpreted allegorically all remain - without exception and without phoniness - integral to the picture that is being painted or the story that is being told.

      3. Jesus' methodological freedom. Why should it be decided, a priori, that Jesus' method was strictly parabolic, that the inclusion of allegorical features was foreign to him, and therefore that the interpretations of certain parables (inasmuch as these interpretations detect allegorical features in the parables) must be ascribed to the early church (so Dodd and Jeremias)? Why should the early Christians be any more disposed to incorporating allegorical features than Jesus himself - especially when the OT contains allegory as well as parable - or indeed more allegory than parable (thus C. F. D. Moule, "Mark 4:1-20 Yet Once More," Neotestamentica et Semitica, eds. E. E. Ellis and M. Wilcox, 109)? While it is helpful to distinguish "parable" from "allegory," we must be careful not to separate them as though a speaker or writer (especially one so free, creative and subtle as Jesus) is prohibited from interlacing them in his teaching. What we find, in fact, is that Jesus uses allegorical features as expressions of his pedagogical artistry and within the framework and under the control of his chosen parabolic medium. For warnings against too facile a distinction between parable and allegory, and for support of the position taken here, see Moule, ibid., 107-11; and Carson, 301-3.


    1. The Picture. 13:3-9.

      1. The order of sowing and plowing in 1st-c. Palestine. Cf. P. B. Payne, "The Order of Sowing and Ploughing in the Parable of the Sower," NTS 25 (1978-79), 123-29 (as summarized in NTA 23 [1979], 151): "According to classical, OT, intertestamental, NT, early Christian, and rabbinic literature, plowing regularly follows sowing in order to bury the seed. Plowing before sowing was also a generally recommended procedure, but this was not always done. In particular, when wheat was sown prior to the first rains of autumn, the common practice in Palestine seems to have been to sow directly on the unplowed, fallow ground. In terms of the realism of the parable of the sower, it makes little difference whether or not the field was plowed before sowing. Neither the confidence of J. Jeremias [Parables] that the field was unplowed, nor that of K.D. White [NTA 9: 556] that the field was plowed seems warranted." Likewise Gundry, 253: "we cannot tell whether plowing had preceded or was to follow." The important thing in Mt is the condition of the soil and the consequent effect of the soil on the seed; Mt says nothing about plowing or its effect on the soil.

      2. The seed on hard soil, v. 4. This soil is hard from being on "the edge of the path" (so Gundry, 253, for para tan hodon) which ran around or across the field. Thus the seed cannot penetrate the surface, and it is easily devoured by birds.

      3. The seed in shallow soil, vv. 5-6. Here there is only a thin layer of topsoil beneath which (unseen by the sower) is a layer of limestone. The plant "sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow" (v. 5b); for botanical explanations, see Gundry, 253. Mt stresses the withering of the plant under the heat of the sun.

      4. The seed in thorny soil, v. 7. Whether the sowing occurs after plowing (so that the seeds of thorns still pose a threat), or before (so that dried up thorn bushes are to be plowed under), the stress falls on the murderous effect of the thorns.

      5. The seed in good soil, v. 8. Here too the stress falls on the result - the producing of a crop, in contrast to the destruction of the other seed. Mt's order, "100, 60, 30," reverses that of Mk; a hundredfold yield is "excellent but not fantastic" (Gundry, 254). Cf. Gen 26:12.

    2. The Way to Understanding. 13:10-17.

      Already in v. 9, Jesus calls for alertness to the parable's meaning. The parable is told not for its own sake, but as a pointer to spiritual realities.

      1. A distinction of audience. V. 10 witnesses (as have many previous passages in Mt) to the distinction between the disciples and the crowd ("them" in v. 10b; cf. v. 2). But (as noted in comments on Mt 5-7) a line of distinction is different from a wall of separation.

      2. A distinction of condition. The disciples are in a different condition from the crowd prior to Jesus' teaching the latter in parables. The first group (as their name demonstrates) are those who have responded favorably to Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God and have committed themselves to following him on his terms. Members of the crowd, on the other hand, have heard Jesus' (or the disciples') proclamation of the kingdom but have not (or not yet) responded favorably to it; they still stand outside the circle of disciples (or - if Gundry's interpretation of Mt's ochlos is correct - within the circle as false disciples).

      3. A distinction of response. Mt 13 represents Jesus' response to the disciples and the crowd respectively, in view of their existing condition.

        1. The disciples. Given their past response to his teaching, Jesus now ushers them into a deeper understanding of the truth: "Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance" (v. 12a). Having repented and believed the gospel of the kingdom (4:17), they are now granted "knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom" (13:11, cf. vv. 16-17). The parables serve to elucidate and to enlarge upon the truth that they already possess; Jesus not only tells them parables, he explains them. Observe that the parable of the sower describes (as 13:18-23 will make plain) various responses, not to the parables but to "the message about the kingdom" (ton logon tas basileias, v. 19). Understanding the parables about the kingdom, presupposes understanding and acceptance of the message of the kingdom itself (4:17, 23).

        2. The crowd. Given their present rejection of earlier truth, the parables, far from granting them deeper insight, actually serve to obscure the truth to which they have already been exposed and thus become a means of judgment for their having rejected the message of the kingdom. "Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him" (v. 12b). V. 13 makes it especially clear that Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables because they do not see (what he has already told them), not in order that they may not see (what he is now telling them): "This is why [dia touto] I speak to them in parables: because [hoti, underscoring the dia touto] 'Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'" The quotation (in vv. 14-15) from Isa 6:9-10, describes their condition prior to Jesus' teaching them parables, not the result of his teaching them parables. Unless and until they rightly respond to the light they have already received, Jesus will not give them more light - but will on the contrary take away the light that they have received. Is not this frightful word of judgment the very means God has appointed for jolting the crowds out of their indifference and hardness into repentance and faith (cf. 13:15)? And how can they understand this parable and its explanation, until they receive the message of the kingdom? For further suggestions along these lines, see A. C. Thiselton, The Responsibility of Hermeneutics, 111-12.

    3. The Explanation. 13:18-23.

      The four kinds of soil represent four different responses to the proclamation of the kingdom.

      1. The resistant response, v. 19. The evil one is not said to cause the lack of understanding but to exploit it. The figure of v. 4 suggests that lack of understanding (v. 19) rests on refusal to understand, on hardened resistance to the Word - whereupon Satan "snatches away what was sown in his heart." This seems to describe hostile opposition to Jesus, particularly among the religious authorities.

      2. The shallow response, vv. 20-21. This describes persons who in some sense or to some degree follow Jesus (perhaps especially before the circle of disciples became sharply distinguished from the outsiders) but who, under pressure from trouble or persecution because of the word," in time fall away. Cf. Jn 6:66.

      3. The distracted response, v. 22. In this case, "the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke [the word], making it unfruitful." The story of the rich young man (19:16-22) well illustrates this response. This v., like v. 21, accounts for the falling away of persons who are disciples in name but not in fact.

        Gundry writes concerning the above three: "It is possible that the path represents failure to hear by not loving God with the heart, the rocky soil failure to hear by not loving God with the soul (i.e., by not risking one's life for the word in times of persecution), and the thorny soil failure to hear by not loving God with might (i.e., with the sacrifice of one's material wealth) - all of this after the pattern of Deut 6:4-5" (p. 261). But Mt 22:37 has "mind," not "might."

      4. The productive response, v. 23. This alone is the valid response to the gospel of the kingdom.

        1. The cruciality of fruit-bearing. "The man who hears the word and understands it," demonstrates that he has done so by bearing fruit accordingly. In other words, for Jesus what a person is finds expression in what a person does (cf. 7:16-20; 12:33); or, conversely, what a person does reveals whether he has really "heard and understood" the gospel of the kingdom and the attendant demands of discipleship. ("The bearing of fruit represents discipleship, not the harvest of the last judgment," apud Gundry, 261.) In other words, the planting of seed in the good soil is the only part of the parable that describes what happens when one becomes an authentic follower of Jesus and a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

        2. The degrees of fruit-bearing. Matthew reverses the Markan order to give emphasis to the most abundant yield ("a hundred"). At the same time, there is no suggestion that the lesser yields occur because there has been insufficient effort on the part of certain (true) disciples. "No blame is attached to the lesser harvest" (F. V. Filson, Matthew, 161). All of the soil is good, whether the yield is 100, 60, or 30. A parallel is provided in the parable of 25:14-30, where the talents are distributed in descending order (5, 2, 1).