|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
For an inductive approach to the parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13.31-32, try this CrossMarks Bible study: This Is for the Birds!
Our text is composed of six different parables -- most are found only in Matthew.
The final two verses conclude the mostly parabolic discourse of this chapter. I will start with those verses the return to the first parable.
What is a "scribe"? How should the word be understood here? It is a word that literally refers to one who writes. They were people who could read and write. They were considered the experts in the law and/or Scriptures (or in any area of written texts). They were part of the opposition who had Jesus arrested and crucified. However, Matthew also suggests that there were Christian "scribes" in 23:34, as well as in our text. I would be inclined to translate grammateus with "scholar". "Scholar" may be a negative term when their arrogance and knowledge keeps them from learning anything new; or when their arrogance and knowledge has them looking down on and judging other people as beneath them; but scholar can also be a positive term when they "take from their treasure box what is new and what is old."
Greek has two common words for "new". Both are used in this illustration, as well as the word for "old".
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new (neos) wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed, but new (neos) wine is put into fresh (kainos) wineskins, and so both are preserved. (Mt 9:16-17)
While both words for "new," can refer to something that has existed only for a short time, kainos, especially in classical usage, referred more to something that was novel and different; or perhaps new in kind. In the above quote, the "fresh" wineskin may have existed for a while, but it hadn't been used, thus it was new to the wine. Similarly, when we say, "I bought a new car." That can refer to this year's model; or to an old car, that is new to me. In our text, the word kainos is used. While it can mean, something recent; in this context, it may also mean "fresh," in contrast to old and stale, as in this Jewish story (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People Edited by Nathan Ausubel Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York).
Usually the orthodox rabbis of Europe boasted distinguished rabbinical genealogies, but Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce was an exception. He was the son of a simple baker and he inherited some of the forthright qualities of a man of the people.
Once, when a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. When Rabbi Yechiel's turn came, he replied gravely, "In my family, I'm the first eminent ancestor."
His colleagues were shocked by this piece of impudence, but said nothing. Immediately after, the rabbis began to expound Torah. Each one was asked to hold forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors.
One after another the rabbis delivered their learned dissertations. At last it came time for Rabbi Yechiel to say something. He arose and said, "My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning."
And with that Rabbi Yechiel sat down. [p. 51]
Part of our job as scholars and preachers it to make the old traditions fresh and new each Sunday. I've heard people exclaim when they've read one of the modern translations of scriptures, "This can't be the Bible. I can understand it!" They were used to the Bible being old-sounding and stale. For Matthew, the old teachings are to be fresh and new and understandable.
However, there is a strain of Christianity that is anti-intellectual. Although faith needs to be child-like, it doesn't have to be dumb. Christianity needs scholars. Especially, in Matthew, Jesus' teachings are meant to be understood. Disciples are to be people who learn and understand.
Note the question Jesus asks the disciples, "Have you understood all these things?" Understanding (syniemi) is a key concept for Matthew in this chapter. See his additions of this word in the interpretation of the sower in 13:19 and 23. These parables were meant to be understood. We might also consider that in these parables and the book as a whole, the "scholar" writing them used things that were old -- both OT passages and traditions from Jesus' life; and things that were new -- adapting and redefining them for his particular community. I've often described the gospels as being like a sermon. The gospel writers, and preachers today, take traditional material (stories of Jesus), and apply them to the life of our hearers. (This seems to me to be one of the best ways of expressing the genre of the gospels -- they are sermons -- or like sermons.)
If the kingdom is only an old treasure, it may be nothing more than a dead tradition, a history lesson, something passe and taken for granted. If the kingdom is only a new treasure, it may be nothing more than a passing fad, a sudden infatuation, something that has no depth.
The treasure of the kingdom is as old as the power of God working in the creation of the world; God's calling of Abraham and Sarah; God's leading the people in the Exodus; God using Cyrus to free his people from Babylon; God's earthly presence in Jesus Christ; God's actions in the saints of old including the apostles and Martin Luther.
The treasure of the kingdom is as new as hearing the stories of God and God's love for us today. It is as new as falling in love with God again today. It is as new as God's power living in our lives this very minute. It is as new as Jesus coming to us in bread and wine.
Using slightly different terms, Jaroslav Pelikan makes a necessary distinction: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." (The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), page 9)
The kingdom needs scholars who keep alive the faith of those who have gone before. The kingdom needs scholars who continually open up the old treasures for us through the new event of Jesus Christ. The kingdom needs scholars who continually interpret the old in light of the new situations we are facing today.
The scholar in this parable combines different old images to create something entirely new. The mustard seed was a traditional symbol of something small. It is used in Mt 17:20 to illustrate small faith. Scientifically, it is not the smallest seed even in the Middle East; but we're dealing with a story, not science.
The picture of birds nesting on the branches of a tree is an old image.
On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar [NOTE that cedars don't bear fruit]
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind. [Ezekiel 17:23]
All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs
under its branches all the animals of the animals of the field
gave birth to their young;
and in its shade all great nations lived. [Ezekiel 31:6]
Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
the birds of the air nested in its branches,
and from it all living beings were fed. [Daniel 4:12, see also v. 21]
Scientifically, the mustard seed never grows into a tree. At most it might be a large shrub, but we're dealing with a story, not science.
One interpretation is that the parable lampoons the old pictures of the great tree -- usually the cedars of Lebanon. The mustard plant was often considered a weed in Palestine and the large cedars trees don't grow there. Today we might make a contrast between the mighty Redwoods of that exotic land, California, and the crab grass or dandelions growing in our own yards. Which is more illustrative of the kingdom of God? (Someone suggested that dandelions are a good illustration of the resurrection -- they keep popping up -- even through cement -- in spite of our attempts to do them in. Wasn't/isn't Jesus a bit like that?) We might also get more personal: do we think that we are more like the giant redwoods or crab grass?
Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) disagrees with this interpretation:
The view currently popular in some circles of NT scholarship that Jesus here lampoons apocalyptic views of the kingdom by comparing it to the mustard plant rather than to the apocalyptic tree is misplaced. The tree imagery is not dismissed or satirized. It remains, despite its inappropriateness as the final result of a mustard seed. The challenging feature is that the future tree-like glory is in continuity with the present smallness and ordinariness of the mustard plant. The presence of the hoped-for kingdom in Jesus, his works and disciples, is no more obvious than a garden herb -- but the kingdom will come in God's power and glory nevertheless. A king who operates in meekness (11:25-30) and rides a donkey instead of a war horse (21:1-9) can be represented by a kingdom symbolized by a garden herb rather than a great tree. For Matthew's readers, the imagery was no longer surprising, for, like the modern reader, they had long since been accustomed to it from Mark's Gospel, their sacred tradition. For them (and us) the parable functions not to upset our imagery of what the kingdom is as such, but as an encouraging/threatening image contrasting the present lowliness of the kingdom with its final greatness. [p. 309]
Another possibility considers Luke's version where the mustard seed is sown in the "garden" ("on the ground" in Mk; "in the field" in Mt). Ancient Jewish rules did not allow the planting of mustard seeds in a garden. This was part of their "diverse kinds" rules, where different types of things were not to be mixed together (see Lev. 19:19).
Bernard Brandon Scott (Hear Then the Parable) writes about this:
Because of the potential for uncleanliness in planting a mustard seed, a hearer would be sensitive to where and how the mustard seed was planted. The parables that deal only with "seed," not with a specific seed, do not consider this problem. But by naming the mustard seed, the potential of diverse kinds is introduced. By planting the seed in a garden, the man has risked breaking the law of diverse kinds by mixing what should not be mixed, creating the garden as an unclean space. [p. 383]
And later: "The kingdom is associated with uncleanness just as Jesus himself associates with the unclean, the outcast." [p. 387]
I wonder how his interpretation relates to the parable just before it: the sowing of weeds into the wheat field.
He suggests a similar understanding of the next parable.
That leaven in the ancient world was a symbol for moral corruption has long been recognized. ...
The physical characteristics of leaven support the metaphor for corrupting. Leaven is made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp, dark place until mold forms. The bread rots and decays, unlike modern yeast, which is domesticated. [He adds a footnote: "The NAB translation completely domesticates the parable by equating leaven with yeast and hiding with kneading."]
... In Israel there is an equation that leaven is the unholy everyday, and unleaven the holy, the sacred, the feast. [p. 324]
Scott concludes his comments on this image with:
Given the conventionally negative proverbial character of leaven, a hearer initially responds with shock and wonder. How can the kingdom be like leaven? Surely the appropriate conventional metaphor is unleaven? Does the parable repudiate Passover and the exodus? So a hearer is confronted with frustration and disorientation. [p. 325]
He brings in another picture of this: "Women as a symbolic structure was associated in Judaism, as in other Mediterranean cultures, with the unclean, the religiously impure. The male was the symbol for purity." [p. 326]
Instead of kneading (phyrao), the woman hides (krypto in Lu; egkrypto in Mt) the leaven in the mass of dough. The figurative use of hiding to describe the mixing of leaven and flour is otherwise unattested in either Greek or Hebrew. Even more, krypto implies a more negative sense than the more neutral kalypto, "to cover." It emphasizes the subjective element, that "the concealment is often for selfish reasons, e.g., to prevent others from using the object, to keep it for one self." [p. 326]
The woman's hiding confirms, not overturns, the leaven's negative connotation. Frustration is now intensified: how can the kingdom be like leaven, a woman, and hiding? Surely the proper terms are unleaven, a man, and open (or revealed)! [p. 326]
The parable calls into question ready attempts to predict on the basis of our knowledge of the holy and good where the kingdom is active. Instead it insists on the kingdom's freedom to appear under its own guise, even if it be the guise of corruption. [p. 329]
The scholar takes old images and understands from tradition and uses them with the coming kingdom in ways that boggles the mind because they are so new and radical.
Part of our challenge as preachers is to try and represent the old images in such new ways that it boggles our hearers' minds in creating a new understanding of the incomprehensible kingdom. What might be images today of the unclean, impure, and corrupt that might say something about the Kingdom of God?
It was not uncommon to hide treasures in ancient times. Remember that the third servant in the parable of the talents, buried what he had been given (Mt 25:14-30).
If finding the treasure entitled the finder to own it, why sell everything to buy the field? If finding the treasure did not entitle the finder to own it, why sell everything to buy the field? The most recent discoveries about the law back then indicates that if the treasure bore the mark of ownership, it had to be returned to the owner, but we're dealing with a story, not laws.
This story illustrates not so much a man possessing a field and its treasure, but how the treasure grasped and possessed him. His only concern in life seems to be to get that treasure no matter what it might cost him. Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes: "The treasure is so valuable that it is worth doing new, joyful, risky, and costly things to posses it .... He sells all that he has and buys that field. This is a risky act which threatens his life, but it is worth losing even his life (see 10:37-39). The empire requires setting aside all other priorities (4:18-22; 8:19-22; 9:9) in wholehearted commitment. Possessions must not hinder one from encountering God's empire (6:19-34; 13:22)" [p. 295].
I wonder, have we (myself included) become so comfortable in our congregations that we no longer risk doing new, joyful, and costly things because of the kingdom? At how many council meetings has something like this been said, "We don't have the money to do that."? In contrast to this, I heard of a family who was so committed to a project at their congregation that they took out a second mortgage on their house to pay for half of it.
I read this modern version of the parable: "A man left his family and work and all that he had, in order to follow a pretty woman. The kingdom of heaven is like that." While we normally assume that giving up everything for a pretty woman (or handsome man) is foolishness or uncontrollable lust or blind infatuation; I think there are similarities with being grasped by the desire to have the treasure in the field (or the pearl of great value in the next parable). I have seen people give up family and jobs because they had been grasped by alcohol or other addictive drugs. I had started to write, "They have turned their lives over to ...." But, at least with addictive substances, it is not a "turning over" so much as the drugs or alcohol grabs one's life and takes it away. The addictive substances (or lustful desires) take control of one's life -- and leaves one "out of control." Should we say that the kingdom of heaven is like that? It takes control of our lives.
The kingdom of God is not a treasure we possess. It is something that grasps us. Could we push the image even further and suggest that the pull of the treasure is corrupting? Can the power of the kingdom cause those caught in its grasp to associate with sinners and tax collectors and other unclean and unsavory types -- to give away money and time -- to give up American materialism and consumerism in order to faithfully follow?
Another approach I used with this parable is to consider two meanings of thesauros -- "treasure" or "treasure box" and suggesting a revised parable.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure box hidden in a field. A man finds it, but it is too big for him to carry home. He hides it again. He goes and sells everything he has. He buys the field. He digs up the treasure box. It is a beautiful box. He spends hours admiring the beautiful treasure box. He talks constantly about his beautiful treasure box. He wakes up in the morning thinking about the box. His last thoughts at night are about that box. When someone asks him, "What's in that beautiful treasure box?" He answers, "I don't know. I haven't looked inside. But it sure is a beautiful box." to this day, he still hasn't looked inside the box. He still doesn't know what great treasure the box might contain.
Admitted, this isn't the way Jesus' parable reads; but it is a story about the way we often emphasize the box rather than the real treasure it contains. Treasure boxes are important. They are needed to help preserve and protect the treasure inside; but if one never looks inside the box, the box also serves to hide and keep one away from the true treasure. Some of the "boxes" I've suggested were: Holy Scriptures; the church (as a building or denomination); liturgies and hymns; creeds and confessions; buildings and art; theologies and doctrines. All of these are treasure boxes that hold and protect and preserve the true treasure of Jesus Christ; but they can also become the objects of our affection rather than the treasure they contain. Then they become barriers to the true treasure.
A difference between this parable and the previous one is that the treasure in the field was found by accident. The pearl was discovered after searching. The message is essentially the same. Being grasped by what is valuable.
A speaker was talking about evangelism. He used this illustration: "You don't ask the older lady about the pictures of children on her mantel." Why not? Grandma will gleefully tell you all about her grandchildren in those pictures. She is likely to bring out more pictures and tell you more than you want to know. The speaker's conclusion was that we are more than willing to talk about that which is most important to us. It is not a job. We don't need training. We need very little and sometimes no encouragement to talk about such things. Why doesn't this happen more often with Jesus?
This parable can also give the image of being grasped by an outside force. The dragnet scooped up whatever was it its path. To be caught or not to be caught is not a decision for a fish to make. In fact, the word "fish" does not occur in the text, but "all kinds of things" and "good things and rotten things". "Rotten" things would not be a proper term to use for freshly caught fish. Elsewhere in Matthew it is used of bad or rotten fruit (7:17, 18; 12:33).
The verb used for "caught fish" is synago which is the basis for "synagogue". This perhaps could be an allusion to the "gathering" together of the believers that contains both weeds and wheat and for whom a separation is promised at the end of the ages.
For the time being weeds and wheat, good and bad exist together -- together in the world, together in our congregations, and together within our own lives.
As in the weeds and wheat parables from last week and the shocking, unexpected, and unclean images in parables for this week -- we can't be certain about who is good or rotten, evil or righteous -- and yet we are to be scholars. We are to understand. We are to take both the old and the new; not just center on the old or on the new. We are not to be looking in the wrong treasure box.
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