Summary of the text:
The context: The parables we hear this week are part of a collection of parables of the Kingdom collected by Matthew in chapter 13 of his gospel account. As with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), there is ambiguity around whether Jesus’ audience is the crowd (13:2; 34) or the disciples (13:10; 36). A natural reading seems to suggest verses 31-33 are addressed to the crowd, and 44-52 to Jesus’ disciples. To what extent does the audience affect our understanding of the meaning of these parables? Does it change the way we approach preaching these passages?
The well-known formula “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…”, which appears (with small modifications) throughout the chapter may be somewhat misleading. The parables of this chapter expand not so much on the nature of the Kingdom, but how it is received or grasped. As ever, Jesus does not give abstract teaching about the nature of the Kingdom and the world but rather shows us what participation in God’s Kingdom means. We might hear an echo not only of the prayer of “your Kingdom come” (6:10), but the promise that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit (5:3) and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (5:10). Like a small mustard seed or yeast, God’s strength works through weakness (cf. 1 Cor 1:27; 2 Cor 12:9).
Do not despise the day of small things (31-33): The two parables in 31-33 each emphasise both the smallness and growth of the Kingdom. Neither parable ought to be pushed too literally: one would not generally sow a single mustard seed, which would have grown to between two and six feet – perhaps “the greatest of shrubs” (NRSV), but unlikely to attract nesting birds. Likewise three sata of flour is perhaps 39 kilograms (50 pounds) – the (unrealistically?) large quantity of flour corresponds to the largeness of the particular mustard bush (tree?) which Jesus has in mind. As so often in his parables, Jesus uses hyperbole to make his point. Dry attention to the details and (in)accuracy of Jesus’ illustrations will not serve to bring the gospel to contemporary hearers!
As early as the fourth century, Hilary of Poitiers noticed that a mustard seed must be “seized by someone and delivered up to death as though buried in the field by a sowing of its body” and yeast “is buried with the judgement of death.” The smallness of the seed and the yeast point us to the inauspicious breaking in of the Kingdom, in a lone man crucified. If the church is indeed an agent and participant in God’s Kingdom breaking in, its life must surely reflect not only providing safe shelter as a mustard seed does for birds but also being “poured out for many” (Matt 26:28) like yeast which penetrates the whole dough.
The Kingdom re-orders priorities (44-46): In v33, the woman is described literally as hiding (ἐγκρύπτω) the yeast in the dough – a bridge to the parable of the hidden treasure. In the parables of the treasure the pearl, the emphasis shifts from the inauspicious beginnings of the Kingdom to its value. The discoveries made by the man in the field and the pearl merchant are the opportunity of a lifetime. To acquire these new things, each must give up everything they have – but this sacrifice is in fact joy (v44)!
Here is a challenge for preachers. So often in the western church the sacrifice of “costly discipleship” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is felt as a burden. Many of us have things we hold onto which prevent us from ‘buying into’ the Kingdom: it is indeed difficult for those with earthly riches to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 19:24). This is a parable; Jesus is not commanding that we sell all we have. As much as it may be tempting to point out all of the things contemporary hearers value more highly than the Kingdom, we should keep the emphasis where Jesus has put it. How do we present the Kingdom of Heaven in such a way that its beauty inspires and delights? How does God’s Kingdom and the work of Jesus Christ capture our hearts so that we consider all else garbage compared to it (Phil 3:7)? Neither the man in the field nor the merchant needed to be commanded to give up everything for this treasure. Finally, we might remember that Jesus himself gave everything up for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, for the joy set before him – a joy in which he invites us to share (Heb 12:2).
Sharing the treasure (47-52): While the parable of the dragnet begins similarly to our earlier parables, it seems to have more in common with the parable of the wheat and weeds (vv24-30; 36-43). Matthew takes care to separate this parable from the idea of ‘fishers of people’ – it is the angels who sort at the end of the age (v49). Of significance in the interpretation of the parable is praxis. Evil-righteous (v50) is the contrast for the bad-good of verse 48. Could there be a connection between the righteous and those who have sacrificed everything for the Kingdom (v44-46, but see also Matt 5:6)?
The final verses summarise not only this last parable, but the whole chapter. Jesus is speaking here to those to whom he has explained the parables. Jesus’ listeners have heard and understood: how much more do we hear and understand this side of the cross and resurrection! But what to do with this understanding? It is to be shared! Jesus is discipling his hearers to become teachers (see Matt 28:19); they are like landowners who possess treasure (v44). This treasure is not to be held onto tightly, but given away freely. Εκβάλλει (v52) is translated here “brings out” (NRSV), but elsewhere “cast out” – the treasure is not displayed for others to admire, but given away for others to receive. In this way, the teaching echoes the Kingdom itself – permeating the whole dough (v33). How might God’s Kingdom be embodied in our churches? How do we teach, exhort and encourage one another, rejoicing in what we have received and giving it freely to others?
 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 2000-2010), NT 1A:201-02
Jacob Traeger is a Church Planter and Mission Facilitator in Canberra, Australia with the Lutheran Church of Australia. He currently serves at Immanuel Woden Valley Lutheran Church. Jacob studied Jacob is passionate about equipping God’s people to live all of their lives out of their identity as children of God, as well as pointing those who don’t know God yet towards their creator and savior.
Jacob is married to Kate, whom he met while studying at university in Adelaide. They enjoy playing board games and hiking in Canberra’s bushland.
Seeing the Church as a foretaste and sign of the full restoration of creation (rather than a project we must bring to completion) contains hope for the future of the world. Just like the Church is not the perfect community with Christ and one another, the world is certainly not yet restored. But God is active in both, and he works towards his purpose in mysterious ways.
Stefan Paas, Pilgrims and Priests (London: SCM, 2019), 203
Key Sermon Illustration
Pearls were of much greater value in Jesus’ time than they are today. Queen Cleopatra is reputed to have had two pearls which together were worth around 15 million denarii. A denari was roughly a day’s wage for an unskilled labourer, so based on the current minimum wage in Australia, that comes out as maybe AU$2.25 billion ($1.5 billion US) for those two pearls. Even if my maths isn’t quite right, pearls were incredibly valuable in the ancient world.