About Speaking in Parables

Matthew 13:1-23

This passage contains the Parable of the Sower, and in many translations, it has this as a heading, added by the translators. Yet, while the parable is in this passage, the passage is not entirely about the parable. You will no doubt recall that we are right in the middle of a section of Matthew’s Gospel that has the growing rejection of the Jews as its theme; consequently, if we view the passage outside of this theme, we will be taking the passage out of its context, and that is never a good idea.

That is how it is usually taught, however.

The scene opens shortly after Jesus had Pharisees for lunch, as we saw last time; He and the disciples went out to the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds were so big, he addressed them from a boat out on the water. Why shouldn’t the crowds be huge? In the last scene, He had healed everybody who needed healing… on the Sabbath, no less. I’m sure the news spread quickly and since everyone had the day off from work, they came out for the show. Maybe if they were lucky, a Pharisee or two might be crazy enough to challenge Him again!

In verses 3-9, He told the crowd the Parable of the Sower. Beginning at verse 10, we have His aside with the disciples; remember, they are in a boat, and the crowd is ashore… They asked Him why He was speaking to the people in parables. Before we look at the answer He gave, a parable is a metaphorical story that uses common frames of reference to deliver an inconvenient or uncomfortable truth in a non-threatening way, and has been used by the wise to communicate with and instruct others for about as long as people have been writing things down; they are used pretty much universally, and we still use them today, although in our time we usually call them “illustrations”.

In our passage, Jesus answers this way:

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. (13:11-12)

I hope that the first thing you recognized in reading these two verses is that He hasn’t answered their question yet; this is a set up for the answer that will become apparent as He goes along. In short, what He is telling them so far is that they have been chosen as His disciples to have everything reveled to them, but the crowd hasn’t been. Consequently, He speaks to them in a way that requires a certain level of discernment before a person comprehends. He continues:

This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand. (13:13)

Just looking at this, you might expect that Jesus is quoting an Old Testament passage here, but He is not quoting anyone (yet). However, this is the answer to their question; He is speaking to the people in parables because they are not ready to deal with Truth, for they are in open rebellion against God. Why do I say this? Simple Jesus is not the kind of Messiah they are looking for, for they want a Messiah to deal with their political problems (i.e. the Roman occupation) not their spiritual problem of sin. Since God’s plan isn’t what they want, they rebel.

If you are in the habit of sharing your faith, you will recognize this as something quite common in our time, for it is fairly common to find a person who is quite open to the Gospel, as long as Jesus is the kind of Savior who will solve the person’s earthly problems, say financial or career problems, or their relational problems, or their problems with substance abuse or other addictive issues. Yet when their sin is mentioned, they are no longer interested, for they don’t see that as an issue, because they are “a good person”.

Jesus continues quoting from Isaiah 6:

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’ (13:14-15)

At the beginning of this passage, I reminded you of the overall theme in which this falls, that of Israel’s growing rejection of Jesus; do you see it now? It is nothing new in Israel’s history, and Matthew has once again tied the story of Jesus into Israel’s history, even though in this particular case, it is on the negative side of history. The people, by and large, want what they want, when they want it, and if God doesn’t deliver, they turn their backs on Him.

Jesus taught in parables, and those who were seeking relationship with God could very easily understand His teaching, and those who didn’t particularly care what God was doing if it wasn’t what they wanted would have no clue.

If you are wondering about the actual parable, you can read it in verses 3-9, and if you are curious about its meaning, Jesus explains that in verses 16 ff.

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More Fun with Pharisees

Matthew 12:22-37

I must confess that most of the time when I read a passage in which Pharisees are involved, I see politicians in my mind’s eye and this passage is no exception. Have you ever noticed how some politicians will keep reading the day’s talking points no matter how idiotic they sound?

Here they go again!

Jesus is presented with another person who is possessed by a demon; He drives out the demon, and the Pharisees start reading off their talking points:

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” (12:24)

As we know, Jesus has already made them look like fools for saying this, and here we go yet again. This time, He has even more to say, even borrowing heavily from one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches (or was it the other way around?):

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (12:24-28)

Jesus’ words were so memorable; I would have simply said, “What are you, stupid?”

First, Jesus points out the sheer stupidity of their charge, and then He turns it around on them: Maybe they drive out demons by the power of demons, but Jesus doesn’t, and if they drive out demons by the Spirit of God and the Son is before them driving out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God is standing right in front of them.

I don’t think I want to debate against Jesus, how about you?

He uses another example in verse 29 of a strong man’s house to make the same point again. Then, beginning in verse 30 it gets more serious:

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (12:30-32)

I am guessing that if we could have seen the faces of those Pharisees at this point, we would have seen a very special shade of bright red as they seethed in their fury against their long awaited Messiah. They have just been informed of having attributed to work of the Holy Spirit of God to the Devil, a sin for which there is no forgiveness, and they have done so sounding like complete fools in the process.

Ouch.

The passage, and the chapter ends with these words, and I don’t think that I need to say anything more, for they are more than self-explanatory:

 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (12:33-37)

It is interesting for us to note that in almost all cases, Jesus speaks in a manner that is respectful, reasonable and calm; you just don’t see Him go off on anybody… except from time-to-time, when He goes off on the Pharisees. I think I have an idea why that is: for one thing, they are supposed to know better, and of all Gospel characters, they are the ones who should recognize the Messiah. For another thing, they are never really reasonable; it’s their way or the highway. Lastly, as mediocre politicians will always do, they just keep on  reading their talking points, no matter what else might happen, for, again like any mediocre politician, they believe that if they just tell their stupid lie enough times, people will believe them. The sad part is that those politicians usually turn out to be right, and people believe them in the end.

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Servant of God

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.

In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Matthew 12:15-21

This passage takes place immediately after the passage we discussed last time, Matthew 12:1-14, and it is a continuation of the action. Thus, the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus after He outsmarted and outflanked them in the healing of the man’s hand, and Jesus withdrew, followed by crowds. He healed everyone in the crowd, still on the Sabbath mind you, and this brief discourse followed.

Considering the resumption of the previous narrative that begins in verse 22, this discourse can be looked at as a sort of interruption that reminds the reader of just who Jesus is, yet for me, it appears that Matthew isn’t using this as a literary device to remind us, even though I would imagine that the Holy Spirit was doing so in the way that events unfold in this chapter. In both cases however, we are pointed to the character and mission of the Christ in these verses.

So, knowing what the Pharisees were thinking, Jesus withdraws, heals many more people on the Sabbath, and tells the people not to tell others about Him. Looking at this, and the quotation that follows, it seems clear to me that Jesus is not asking them to keep quiet out of fear of the Pharisees and their plotting, but because of the very nature of His mission; Jesus never goes out of His way to draw attention to Himself, for He has no interest in becoming a celebrity, for His mission is to do the will of His Father, not to make a name for Himself. Personally, I think we can take a lesson from His example.

Matthew seeks to once again connect Jesus with Israel’s past by relating His simple request of the people to keep quiet about Him, to the prophecy of Isaiah 42:1-4. If you compare Isaiah to Matthew, you will notice some slight variation. Often New Testament authors quote the Septuagint in their Old Testament quotations, but that isn’t the case here. Either this is Matthew’s interpretation of the text, or it is his own translation from the original… or both. Whatever the case may be, he makes it clear that Jesus will be denounced by the Jewish leaders because He is God’s humble servant. Those very leaders see themselves as God’s servants, and this is what they should be, and to be fair to them, maybe they really were God’s servants.

Yet, in no way were they ever God’s humble servants, for in the end, their total lack of humility would be their downfall. I think we can learn much from the example of the Pharisees…

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Lord of the Sabbath

Matthew 12:1-14

Matthew continues his narrative in this section which highlights the growing opposition to Jesus in certain Jewish circles. Notice as you read the verses that the disciples of Jesus are right in the middle of the controversy; didn’t they go out on a mission of harvest?  You may recall that chapter 10 was all about Jesus preparing to send them out, then they aren’t mentioned in chapter 11 and here they are in chapter 12. Are they back now? Did they ever go out? Was Jesus’ preparations and instructions intended only for the future after Pentecost?

Matthew doesn’t make this issue clear, and I’ll let you ponder it on your own…

They are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath, and the disciples pick a few heads of grain to eat, and the Pharisees jump in: Holy heart attack! They are harvesting on the Sabbath! (12:1-2)

Jesus refutes their allegations with examples from the Scriptures (12:3-7) and then concludes with an amazing statement in verse 8: “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”

Matthew continues the narrative:

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (12:9-10)

When Jesus entered the synagogue, what was He thinking; was it His intention to heal the man with the injured hand? The text doesn’t say, it doesn’t even tell us if Jesus knew about the man being there, and the Pharisees would have had no way to know what was in His mind at that moment, so leaving nothing to chance, they set Him up, paragons of virtue that they were. It would be my guess that His answer wasn’t exactly what they expected:

He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (12:11-12)

Look very carefully at His answer, and then re-read the question. Did you notice that Jesus answered a question they didn’t ask? Notice that they asked if it was legal to heal someone on the Sabbath, and that the answer was that is legal to do good on the Sabbath. To heal someone on the Sabbath is a specific action that they wanted to use in bringing an indictment against Him, but to do good is a vague generality that most people would have difficulty in objecting to; it isn’t a specific action that is “actionable” in the legal sense, or in plain English: it really isn’t anything with a legal basis for dispute.

Now, look carefully and see what Jesus actually did:

Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other (12:13).

Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, and lo and behold, the hand was perfectly fine. I guess there wasn’t anyone there who needed healing after all!

Now dear readers, those of you who are amateur lawyers and sleuths, what did Jesus do? Did He heal the man, or was the man already fine? If you think He healed the man, then when exactly did He do it? What is your evidence? Did you see Him heal the man?

Do you recall the advice that Jesus gave the disciples in 10:16, that they should be as “shrewd as snakes and harmless as a dove”? Here is one of the best examples of that in all of Scripture.

The Pharisees, realizing that He had outsmarted and outflanked them, were somewhat less than pleased at this:

But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus (12:14).

I’m sure that you noticed the change in their attitude; they wanted a basis to file charges against Jesus, now they just want to kill Him.

The question for us to ponder is this: Why were they so anxious to kill Him?

Before you shoot off a reply, really think about it, for the typical Sunday school answer might not work for this one. (And I’ve already told you the answer, but most will have missed it)

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My Yoke is Easy and My Burden is Light

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:25-30

Still speaking in reference to the towns He listed in the last section, Jesus extends His offer of grace; there is still time to repent. He begins praising God the Father for the way that He has hidden His salvation from the “wise and learned” while revealing it to “little children”.

At first glance, this might seem to a little odd; to praise God for hiding His truth, but look again; that isn’t what Jesus is saying at all. The only ones that find the truth of the Gospel to be hidden are the “wise and learned”; the simple can see it easily… if they want to. The wise ones have problems because they want to analyze things with the wisdom of this world. Look at it this way: Philosophy is an inquiry into the great questions of life. The Gospel answers the great questions of life; why don’t the great philosophers accept the Gospel in most cases?

Two things come to mind right away: One is that the Gospel is not a human philosophy, but a revelation from God; philosophers aren’t looking for that in their quest to figure it all out by themselves. Two, the Gospel is simple and not at all convoluted as philosophy usually is.

Jesus offers another explanation: Only the Father knows the Son, only the Son knows the Father, other than those the Son chooses to show the Father to. The only way to the Father is by the Son, and the wise and learned ones seek to find their own way to His truth.

In the final verses of the chapter, Jesus offers to all the chance to come to Him. It isn’t too hard, it isn’t too complicated; it only requires a response.

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Repent or… ?

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Matthew 11:20-24

In these verses, Jesus turns to the towns in which He performed miracles and taught, and noting their lack of repentance, He, well… He let them have it!

I suppose that a commentator can go in multiple directions with this text, but as I see it, there is really only one lesson from this text that is important for us to master: Repentance.

To repent means to turn away from something, in this case it means to turn away from our old way of living, and live for Christ and His Kingdom. I must add a note of caution here; it doesn’t mean to feel bad, it means to do something. You see the difference; right? If I feel bad, I’m not changing anything, I’m just feeling bad. To repent requires action, the turning away from our old ways; we may or may not feel sad or guilty or whatever, we just do.

Imagine what Jesus is saying here: These people who had listened to His teaching and witnessed His miracles, or even received a miraculous healing; they were duly amazed, and then went on with life as usual: It’s hard to believe.

Or is it?

No, come to think of it, it isn’t hard to believe at all; we do it all the time. I know so many preachers who see a problem, and what do they do? Most often, they preach a sermon, maybe even a really great one, and then nothing whatsoever happens and they are discouraged. Everyone who heard the sermon said a loud “Amen!”

Then they went home and carried on in the same way, while thinking their neighbor missed the mark.

So, what lesson should we learn from this text?

Something about a guy with a plank in his eye trying to get a speck of dust from his neighbor’s eye comes to mind, the idea of looking in the mirror comes to mind are we following Jesus or are we just believing in Him?

Jesus has a little more to say on this subject, and we’ll see what it is next time…

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John has a Question

Matthew 11:1-19

A new section of the book opens in 11:1; a section that continues through chapter 14 in which Jesus’ ministry is viewed in light of the rejection of certain groups of Jews. We begin with the change of scene in verse 1 in which Matthew tells us that after giving the disciples their instruction, Jesus went out to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. His activities here are much the same as they had been before, when some of John the Baptist’s disciples bring Him a question from John, who is in prison:  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus gives them an interesting reply to convey to John: Go and tell him what you have seen… and then He adds something else: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (10:6). John was the one who was called to prepare the way for Jesus; he must not stumble now that he is in prison. Could it be that John, like so many others, had expected a Messiah who would come to settle old scores and rise up a new, earthly and political Israel?

After giving His answer, Jesus continued addressing the crowd, now speaking of John. In verses 7-10, He confirms both His own identity and John’s by recounting just exactly who John was, and the fact that he was sent to prepare Jesus’ way onto the scene, quoting from the prophet Malachi. In 11 ff. Jesus continues:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (11:11-15)

With these words, 2 things are clear: First, yes, John was the real messenger of God, and second, something is amiss, for their Messiah and God’s Kingdom are under attack by the forces of darkness. He continues:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (11:16-19)

Jesus goes on in these verses to compare the people of that generation to children who are playing their games and complaining about everything. One group complains that nobody is dancing, the other group that nobody is mourning; neither is happy. They complained about John’s austerity, they complain about Jesus’ festivity…

Why are they really complaining?

So they can deflect attention and avoid making a choice to either follow or reject the message they are hearing, but what they are overlooking is that their avoidance is indeed their decision, and their fate is already sealed.

Sound familiar to anyone?

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

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