Read the passage here.
The passage that we’re looking at includes three parables, a kind of closing narrative, and then a final short narrative which also serves to close off this section as a whole (that is, the section of discourse). By way of overview, it looks something like this:
We’re going to run through these quite quickly so I hope you’ll bear with me. The first two parables (vv. 44-46) seem to have a similar (if not the same) theme – that is, they give us a similar picture. They show us someone who has found something very valuable, so valuable in fact, that he gives up everything that he already has in order to gain, or hold onto, that most valuable thing that he has found.
In this, we can probably understand that the kingdom (the treasure in the field, or the pearl of great price) is greater than anything that we think we have or can have. The people in the parables give up everything they have in order to gain the kingdom.
The question this should pose to those who hear the parables (that is, us), is whether or not the Kingdom of God holds the same pride of place for us. Is the Kingdom of God the thing for which we are living, for which we are striving and hoping? Or, would we rather hold onto something else? And if so, what would we rather hold onto?
We’ll leave that thought for a moment and move onto the third parable (vv. 47-49). Again, considering it quite quickly, this parable is very much like the parables we looked at last week (13:24-30), the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Both give a picture of good and bad together, but ultimately being separated – the bad being cast off – at the end time.
Very likely, this will make us consider whether we are the good or the bad fish. And in light of parables that we have just read, as well as the teaching that we’ve seen from Jesus throughout Matthew so far, the question should be set in stark contrast to the teachings of the Pharisees and religious leaders. According to Jesus, whether one is the good fish or the bad fish, whether one is wheat or weeds, is not a matter of what people you are born into (i.e. whether you are an ethnic Israelite), it’s not a matter of how well you keep the law; rather it seems to have much more to do with whether one is willing to accept the teaching of Jesus and seek first the Kingdom of God. In light of the preceding two parables, the question might be something along the lines of, “Is the Kingdom of Jesus what we really want and long for?”
Now, with respect to the Pharisees and their fixation on the Law, we should remember that, back in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus tells us:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:17-20
I point this out to make sure that we understand that Jesus is not saying that righteousness – even righteousness according to the Law – doesn’t matter. But what He is doing is very much re-defining righteousness. It’s not a matter of following the rules (as the Pharisees might define it), but very much a matter of following Jesus. (We’ve talked about this a lot, and we could talk about it a lot more, but we need to carry on).
So it’s at this point that we get this concluding interaction (as far as the parables are concerned) with the disciples (vv. 51-52).
51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
“Yes,” they replied.
52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”Matthew 13:51-52
There are a few considerations with these verses, but what seems to be going on is that Jesus is now re-defining what “teacher of the law” means – what it entails. Certainly, “teachers of the law” does not mean the Pharisees and Scribes (and etc.) as we’ve already seen them. It means something new in the Kingdom. It’s probable that this is something of a commission (that is, a preparation for the disciples as they become apostles, as they become new teachers of the law). Their responsibilities to teach the things of the kingdom become re-framed. It’s no longer just about the Mosaic Law, but about the law in light of the kingdom. In short, if you have understood these things, then make sure that you teach all of these things.
Now the final verses (vv. 53-58) that we’re looking at today may be better understood as a transition to the next section of narrative. The phrase, “When Jesus had finished these parables…” lets us know that this narrative-discourse section is closing or closed. Therefore, it seems natural to assume that the following verses are the beginning of the next narrative section. However, they certainly seem connected to what we’ve been reading about.
Specifically, what we get is a short narrative about people not recognizing the authority of Jesus’ teaching – but this time, not the religious leaders but rather what we can assume are the common folk. And the reason that they don’t accept Jesus’ teaching is not because of the content of Jesus’ teaching, but because Jesus himself seems so unremarkable. Or to put it another way, because Jesus is from their home town, he is too familiar. They don’t recognize the authority of Jesus, the truth of His kingdom message, because something remarkable should come from a remarkable place. They don’t recognize the significance of the message because of their pre-conceptions about the messenger.
Now I have a number of thoughts about this. It reminds me of our current culture where we tend to trust in the promotions of celebrities more than we do the witness of experts.
As I’ve also said before, this kind of thing works its way into Christianity as well. There’s something wrong when we are more inclined to listen to the pastor because of the size of their congregation than we are to listen to the pastor (or any other Christian) because of the depth of their study of scripture or the consistency of their prayer life.
As a kind of corollary to this, we’re not just enamoured with size, we’re enamoured with spectacle. When we look at the mega churches with their lights and lasers and fog machines, we see the level of technical expertise in their multi-media presentations, the talent of the music team, and the flash and charisma of the speaker, we tend not only to give that ministry a higher level of authority – they are closer to God, more led by the Spirit – but we are also prone to equate the spectacle with the message.
Now it may sound like I’m criticizing these sorts of things and I don’t mean to – not really. I’m a big believer that in whatever we do, we should seek to do our best. I merely mean to say that, when we fix our eyes on these things, it’s easy to lose sight of the thing that actually matters. It’s pretty easy to lose sight of Jesus.
In the verses that we’ve looked at today, the main thing that I see is that the thing that matters is the Kingdom, rightly understood. It is this that Jesus came to proclaim, in which we find our hope, and for which we should long. And secondly, that (in terms that we’ve phrased it before), there are those who want the kingdom and those who actually want something else (regardless of what they may claim, or believe).
I think that what we should understand from all of these parables is:
Firstly, we can’t take for granted that, because we call ourselves “Christian,” that what we are seeking first is God’s kingdom. We need to examine what it is we actually want, and what it is we actually put our hope and trust in. One can call themselves a Christian, believe themselves to be Christian, and possibly even in fact be a Christian, but desire and seek any number of things before the Kingdom of God. One might desire safety and security, one might desire prosperity, one might desire to be loved and accepted, one might desire simply to be right.
There’s may be nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. But when the Kingdom – when God, when our professed faith in Jesus Christ – merely serves as an instrument to provide us with these other things, it is not the Kingdom we are seeking, it is the Kingdom we are using.
This, at least, is what we mean by repentance. It’s not just ‘saying sorry’ to God for whatever things. It’s changing direction, following a different path, seeking a different thing.
This leads us to the second thing that we should try to understand from not only the parables, but the teachings of Jesus. The Kingdom is the fulfillment of God’s purposes, the direction towards which He is moving in and for human history. I don’t want to go on too long, but we know (I hope) that what Jesus is doing is dealing with the problem of sin. And we know that it is because of sin that human beings, and therefore creation, is fallen and broken. When we look back at the garden in Genesis, we saw that before the fall, human beings lived in perfect communion with God, each other, and the world. Before the fall, all of creation was very good.
The message of Jesus, that the kingdom of God is near, is the message to a fallen and broken creation that God is on His throne, ready and working, and that restoration is at hand.
I gather that it’s oftentimes hard to see, and even harder to appreciate, what all of this means because it is precisely a fallen and broken world in which we have lived all our lives.
But what I propose is that it is precisely because of this that we so often settle for so much less. So often we seek to find meaning and happiness in so much less than what is proclaimed in the Kingdom. So often, we long to hold on to what we have rather than seek the greater treasure or the pearl of great price.
So, in closing, I want firstly to encourage all of us to hold on. Many of us are going through things which are private and painful and which nobody else could understand. I would encourage you to hold on. But secondly and more importantly, I want to encourage us all not to hold on for the sake of holding on, but hold on for the more. Because what God has purposed for us and what God has promised us (and indeed what God has enabled us to participate in, even now, in the midst of a broken and fallen world) is so much more than we could hope for or imagine.