Saturday 6 March 2010

Jonathan T. Pennington on Matthew 13

Jonathan T. Pennington, ‘Matthew 13 and the Function of the Parables in the First Gospel’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13.3 (2009), 12-20.

Before looking more specifically at Matthew 13 itself, Pennington considers the place of Jesus’ parables in his ministry more generally. He draws here on the work of N.T. Wright, noting that ‘several of Jesus’ parables are quite close to apocalyptic discourse, with a strange story interpreted so that its secret symbols may be understood by those with ears to hear’. The disciples ‘play the role of seers with Jesus as both revealer and interpreter of the mystery. And inevitably, this mystery is about the story of Israel and God’s coming work and judgment’ (13).

‘Jesus’ parables are not merely ways of communicating information about the coming kingdom but much more radically, they are a retelling and retooling of the very story of the OT, now centered and consummated in Jesus himself… 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’ (13).

This is important for Matthew 13 too, where the separation at the end-time harvest ‘is not based on ethnic Israel identity but faith-response in Jesus’ (13).

Matthew 13 is a ‘lodestar’ for understanding parables in Matthew, because it is one of Matthew’s five major blocks of teaching, it stands apart from the other discourses in containing only parables, it contains two explicit quotations from the Old Testament related to why Jesus teaches in parables, and it is placed at a crucial turning point in the narrative (see 14).

The discourse itself is intricately structured. There are seven parables, leading off with the four soils (13:1-9). After a conversation with the disciples on why Jesus speaks in parables, containing a quotation from the Old Testament (13:10-17), comes an explanation of the four soils (13:18-23).

Then, the remaining parables come in two sets of three. The longish parable of the wheat and the weeds (13:24-30) is followed by two shorter parables (mustard seed, leaven, 13:31-33). With 13:34 comes a transition in the chapter and another quotation from the Old Testament (13:35), after which comes an explanation of the wheat and the weeds (13:36-43). These are parables of ‘spreading or growth’ (15).

The next three parables are in reverse to what has gone before, with two shorter ones (treasure, pearl, 13:44-46) followed by a longer one of the net with an explanation (13:47-50).

The first four parables have a ‘farming’ theme, while the last three have a ‘merchant/business’ theme (15). The second and the seventh parables both ‘describe a mixed group of good and bad’ (16), both are explained by Jesus, and both are about separation at the end of the age.

Pennington holds that three threads run through the entire chapter: the sower, the secret, and the separation (see 16-18).

The sower
It is apparent that the first parable ‘is not primarily an exhortation to be fruit-bearing ourselves but is rather an explanation of the mixed reception to Jesus’ kingdom message’ (16). The parable describes what happens when the seed is sown.

The secret
The disciples do not know what to make of the parable of the sower (13:10), and Jesus’ answer ‘is as shocking as his parable is vague’, for he is teaching in parables ‘not to reveal the truth of God to all, but to conceal’ (17).

‘So, even though our tendency in Christian understanding is to think of Jesus’ parables as evidence of his down-to-earth, relating-to-the-people teaching style, in reality they are just the opposite.’ The shift from the plain style in the Sermon on the Mount to parabolic teaching comes after the opposition in chapter 12, when Jesus ‘changes his teaching style to this prophetic double-functioning mode so that he can simultaneously judge and proclaim’ (17).

The separation
Jesus’ parables themselves separate those with understanding from those without, a theme which ‘goes through all three of the major parables here in chapter 13’ (17). ‘The Great Separation is already occurring according to how one responds to Jesus and his message. All who follow Jesus are the holy remnant whom God has graciously preserved even in the midst of His justified judgment’ (18).


‘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’ (18).

No comments: