Feast upon the Word Blog

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Sunday School Lesson #11

Posted by Jim F. on March 11, 2007

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Lesson 11: Matthew 13

We get the word “parable” from a Greek word (parabolē) meaning “to set aside” or “to compare.” It is a translation of a Hebrew word (mashal) that we usually translate “proverb,” but we might better translate that word as “wise saying.” The Hebrew word covers a wide range of things, from what we call proverbs to what we call parables, to what we might call a sermon.

During Jesus’ time parables appear to have been used by many teachers. Usually they were given in answer to a question, often a question asked by a follower, and they not only answered the question asked, they did so by showing that there is more to the answer than the follower thought. Used that way, parables are a way of making the questioner think about his question.

As Joseph Smith pointed out, it is often very helpful to ask ourselves what the question was that produced the answer (see the study materials for lesson 8), what answer might have been expected, and how the parable goes beyond the answer that might have been expected. We may also want to ask ourselves what question we might have to which the parable is an answer and how that answer goes beyond what we might have expected.

N. T. Wright (The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is) argues that Jesus’ hearers would not have heard the parable of the sower as we do. Instead, they would have heard it as a parable about the Israel’s exile and return, comparable to Isaiah 6 and Jacob 5. For them the point would have been that Israel has been sown in Palestine, but only some have hearkened to Jesus’ revelation of the Kingdom of God. However, if Wright is correct, why doesn’t this parable begin, as others do, “the kingdom of God is like”?

Whether Wright’s interpretation of the parable is correct or not, he makes what I think is an insightful remark: “The parable itself is a parable about parables and their effect: this is the only way that the spectacular truth can be told, and it is bound to have the effect that some will look and look and never see, while others find the mystery suddenly unveiled, and they see what God is doing” (41).

Verses 1-2: Chapter 12 seems to begin in a grain field, but it ends indoors, perhaps in a synagogue, perhaps in a private home. At the end of chapter 12, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for thinking him evil and for asking for a sign, and he uses the visit of his family to make the point that anyone who does the will of the Father is Jesus’ brother. Here in chapter 13, he goes outside and sits by the sea side to teach. When a large crowd gathers, he moves to a boat slightly offshore. Why does do so? How will that help him teach? As you read this chapter, think about how these teachings relate to what has come before them. What kinds of people are in the crowd? Are there likely to be scribes and Pharisees among them? Why? Who do you think would compose the majority of the multitude? Are the disciples also there? What teaching problem does this mixture of people present? How does Jesus deal with that problem?

Verses 3-8: Verse 3 begins “He spake many things to them in parables, saying,” then Matthew recounts the parable of the sower. How do you explain that introduction to the parable? Is Matthew doing more than merely recounting the parable Jesus told? In the parable Jesus seems to describe a very ordinary set of circumstances. The farmer has plowed his field (and remember that he did this by hand and that only the rich could afford an animal to pull the plow, so he doesn’t plow deep or evenly), but not every spot in the field is equally good for planting: there are paths in it beaten down by those crossing the field, there are stony areas, in places where some of the thorny weeds were not plowed under and have survived, and even the places with good ground have different yields. Though the farmer knows this, when he sows seed, he seems to sow it over the entire field, regardless of its quality for planting. Why? Is the yield—100 times, sixty times, and thirty times what was sown in the good soil—what the farmer would expect or is it a surprising yield?

What does this parable teach? It doesn’t come in direct response to a question, but what is the implicit question that it answers? Does it teach only one thing? Suppose you didn’t have the explanation given in verses 18-23. To what could you compare the parable? Does it teach us anything about missionary work? Joseph Smith gave an interpretation of this parable in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (97-98). How does Joseph’s interpretation of the parable apply to our own day?

Verse 9: Some read Jesus’ remarks about parables here and in other places as telling us that Jesus wished to conceal his teaching, but I think that is mistaken. I think he is telling us about revelation not about concealment. What does this verse tell us about the responsibility for understanding Jesus’ teaching? What does that tell us about how we receive revelation? Given the conflicts we’ve seen in previous chapters and stories, what group is most likely not to have ears to hear (or, in our usage “ears that hear”)? In other words, whom do you think Jesus may have in mind? Why? Are those who have been excluded—the “sinners” according to Pharisaic law—more likely to hear what Jesus has to say? If so, why? Might this particular parable be intended to inspire the disciples who have seen the intense opposition of the scribes and Pharisees? How? What does it take for us to have ears that hear? When are we most likely not to have ears that hear? Are Jesus’ parables supposed to work like the parable that Nathan told David so that, on hearing them, we will hear “Thou art the man” (1 2 Samuel 12:7)?

Verse 10: Has Jesus left the boat in which he was sitting? Why do you think that the disciples ask this question? Is it significant that they ask why Jesus speaks to them (in other words, the multitude) in parables?

Verse 11-12: Verse 12 may have been a common proverb: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Jesus applies it here to the disciples. What do the disciples have; what has been given to them? In the context of the foregoing parable, what do others not have? Specifically, what does Israel not have? So what will be taken from them?

Verses 13-17: Can you put this explanation for why Jesus teaches in parables in your own words? Whom have we seen not hear what John the Baptist and Jesus teach, and what prevented them from hearing? Jesus quotes scripture to them (the Greek version of Isaiah 6:9-10). Why does he quote scripture? Does it have anything to do with having ears that hear? Does verse 15 tell us that God closed the people’s eyes and ears so that they could not see and hear, or does it tell us that the people closed them so as not to see and hear? How do we close our eyes and ears to the teachings of the prophets? What blessing have the disciples received that many prophets and righteous people did not receive (verses 16-17)?

Verses 18-23: If the disciples have ears that hear and eyes that see, as Jesus has said in verse 16, why does he have to explain the parable to them? Why is it important for the disciples to have this teaching about the different ways that people respond to the message of the gospel? The images here are common in Jewish literature: trees by a stream with roots that sustain them (Jeremiah 17:8, Ezekiel 31:2-5, and Psalms 1:3), trees with shallow roots that wither (Sirach 40:15, Wisdom 4:3-4, and Isaiah 40:24). Those images were part of their everyday experience. Are there contemporary images that might work for us as those images worked for them? There is a progression in verse 23, from receiving, to understanding, to bearing fruit. What do you make of that progression?

Verses 24-30: Verse 24 tells us that Jesus spoke another parable unto “them.” To whom does that refer, to the multitude or to the disciples? What clues in the chapter help you decide? Matthew introduces this parable (and that which begins in verse 31) with language that is very much like that used by Moses when he gave the Law to the people. (See Exodus 19:7.) Why might he have done so? Matthew could have placed the explanation of this parable immediately after the parable, but he doesn’t. He gives Jesus’ explanation (in verses 36-43) only after he tells two more parables. Why do you think he does that? As he has done earlier, Jesus appears to be working from one of John’s prophecies, amplifying it. (Compare Matthew 3:12.) Why might he have done so? Jesus tells several parables that begin “the kingdom of heaven is like.” The word translated “kingdom” literally means “reign.” In its earliest usages it meant “the king’s power and dignity” and it continued to have those connotations. How does this word relate to the Israelite understanding of themselves? To their expectations of the Messiah? How is it relevant to John the Baptist’s preaching that “the kingdom is near by” (Matthew 3:2)? What word or words do you think would best translate the idea of the reign of God into contemporary English? In what does the King of Heaven exhibit his power and dignity? Most commentators assume that the tares (weeds) were darnel, a weed that looks like wheat and sometimes carries a poisonous fungus. Does that add anything to your understanding of the parable? We usually understand this parable as a parable about the Church in the last days. Some, however, have understood it originally to have been about Israel: it is important not to force too soon the separation of those in Israel who believe in Jesus from those who have not done so. Which interpretation do you think most reasonable? Why?

Verses 31-32: What question might Jesus be answering? Why answer with a parable in this particular case? What does this parable address that many people might have found scandalous about the early Christian church? The mustard seed is indeed small, but it isn’t the smallest of seeds. And the mustard shrub, though large, isn’t gigantic. It grows to about 10 or 12 feet. Jesus is using hyperbole here. Can you think of other places where he does so or may do so? Why would he use hyperbole? Joseph Smith also gave an interpretation of this parable (Teachings 98). Is that the only way we can legitimately interpret the parable? Why or why not? The Kingdom of God is often referred to as a tree in scripture, but this is perhaps the only time it is compared to a herb. Those who heard Jesus probably would have been surprised at his use of a mustard seed and the mustard plant. Why do you think he might have used a metaphor which they wouldn’t have expected?

Verse 33: Compare 1 Corinthians 5:6. Is leaven used as a symbol in the same way in both places? How is this parable the same as the immediately previous one? How is it different? This is one of the few places where leaven is used as a positive symbol. See, for example, Matthew 16:6, and remember that every house had to be completely free of leaven during Passover. How is leaven a good symbol for evil? In this parable, how is it a good symbol of the reign of heaven? We have an interpretation of this parable by Joseph Smith (Teachings 100) as well.

Verses 34-35: Matthew says that Jesus teaches only in parables when he teaches the multitude, but that hasn’t been the case from the beginning. Jesus gave some parables in the Sermon on the Mount, but he didn’t speak only in parables. Why do you think his teaching method has changed?

Verses 36-43: Compare the explanation that Jesus gives here with the explanation in Doctrine and Covenants 86:1-7. What do you make of the differences in explanation? Do those differences help us better understand how to think about parables? According to this interpretation, what is Jesus trying to explain, evil persons in the world or evil persons in the kingdom? What do you learn if you think it about it each way?

Verse 44: To whom do you think Jesus is speaking in this verse? Is he still speaking only to the disciples or has he turned back to speak to the multitude? What do we learn about the kingdom of heaven from this parable that we didn’t learn from the previous parables (verses 24-33)?

Verses 45-46: Does this parable teach anything different from the last one? If not, why did Jesus tell two parables, one after the other, with the same meaning? If it does have a different meaning, what is it?

Verses 47-50: Does this parable differ significantly in its teaching from the parable of the wheat and the tares? Do we learn anything from the order of these parables: the sower; the wheat and the tares; the mustard seed and the leaven; the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price; and the fishing net? Can you attribute a primary teaching to each of these and then see any coherence to their order?

Verse 51: Jesus introduces the final parable in this series with a question: “Have ye understood all these things?” Why does he think he must ask that before telling the next parable?

Verse 52: Pay attention to the footnote for “which is instructed” (52b). With the possible exception of the parable of the sower, all of the previous parables have been about the kingdom of heaven. This one is about someone who becomes a disciple in that kingdom. Why does Jesus end this series of parables with this one? Do you think that the disciples would have been surprised by the person Jesus uses as an example of someone who becomes a disciple? Why? Why do you think Jesus uses that example? What would a scribe (a rabbi, a recognized interpreter of the Law) treasure? What old things would be in his treasury? What new things? Is this related to the method Jesus used when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount: “you have heard it said [something ‘old’], but I say [something ‘new’]”?

Verses 53-58: Jesus returns to Nazareth (presumably) and teaches in the synagogue. People are amazed at his wisdom (probably referring to the parables, his wise sayings). When they ask how he got this wisdom and how he does these might works or miracles, why are they amazed? Why are they offended? (The Greek word translated “offended” could also have been translated “scandalized” or “caused to stumble.”) How does this event relate to the teaching at the beginning of the chapter (verses 13-15)?

46 Responses to “Sunday School Lesson #11”

  1. Rebecca L said

    Thanks, as always, for your questions! Btw, how does Joseph Smith interpret these parables?

    I would see the overarching theme as something like ‘by our willingness to hearken, we become members of the kingdom of God, separated from (and separable from) the world, and able to do the work of the Lord.’

    I do see the progression of the parables as interesting. The parable of the sower is about entering into the kingdom by hearing, accepting, and providing fertile soil. The next three parables seem to refer to what comes next–specifically the challenges individuals face, in the world, as we strive to grow. Notice this is just after the parable about seeds being choked out. Interestingly, wheat and tares are very similar in appearance. Maybe it is more a case of manifesting by our choices (enduring) what we really are. This parable concludes with final judgement.

    The next parable seems to treat the kingdom of god as an institution (or corporate body in the medieval sense). The parable of the mustard seed showing the work of the kingdom is not only to endure and overcome trials as individuals, but to provide a place of shelter in the world.

    The third in this sequence, once again refers to the mission aspect of the church, but the imagery is both communal and individual. It is as yeast is dispersed through dough that it acts, all together, to create a good proof.

    Once we have become members of the kingdom, our path is thus charted: hearers of the word become doers (wheat/tares), we strengthen the church itself and provide shelter(mustard seed) and enlightenment/vision/missionary efforts (yeast) for others.

    As for the field, the pearl, and the fish. I have always read the field and the pearl as an admonition that we should sacrifice everything for the kingdom of God. Without denying that interpretation, it occurs to me on re-reading that there is something much more important being communicated.

    In each parable, Christ was the one who was the man. He was the sower, he planted the field with its wheat and tares, he planted the mustard seed, and he was the woman leavening her bread. Is he not also the man who has hid and watched over the treasure, the merchant purchasing the pearl? Is he telling the disciples that he has paid, for the kingdom of heaven, all that he has to pay? He is the man, again with the fishing net and his angels come to do the dividing which hearkens back to the first parable and the parable of the wheat and tares.

    Of course Christ’s declaration of his own sacrifice, underlines his right to make the divisions, and makes his rejection by his own all the more painful.

  2. Chris Laughman said

    Just a quick note – the scripture referenced in v. 9 is actually 2 Sam. 12:7.

  3. brianj said

    A related discussion, on secrecy and why Jesus used parables, can be found here.

  4. brianj said

    “Most commentators assume that the tares (weeds) were darnel, a weed that looks like wheat and sometimes carries a poisonous fungus.”

    Can you give me a reference for that (or even better, the genus of fungus)?

    Ooops! Nevermind: see here.

  5. Jim F. said

    Rebecca L: Thanks for your meditation on the linkage of the parables.

    Chris Laughman: Thanks very much for correcting my typo.

    Brian J: Thanks for the additional references.

  6. Ben McGuire said

    I had the pleasure of teaching this lesson (I get called to substitute once in a while – usually when they need someone late Saturday night).

    I spent very little time actually talking about the specific parables. Parables are metaphors. They aren’t just similes, they don’t conjure up a simple comparison. As metaphors they have both a literal and an allegorical meaning – and we cannot afford to ignore either one – to do so defeats the purpose of the parable – which is to tease our minds to thought about its meaning. If the explanation is simply provided to us, if we assume that we have it all, then this aspect goes away and the parable loses its power to move us.

    Because of this, we don’t interpret parables. Parables interpret us. And if we accept the allegory in the parable (say of the sower), then we also make a commitment to faith in Jesus as the sower, and of the Messianic expectation.

    In Jesus’s explanation, clearly, the full exploration of the parable is never given or intended (he merely suggests to his disciples that the parable is allegorical and then leaves most of the meaning up to them.)

    The beautiful thing about the language of the parables is that it needs to be “likened unto ourselves” no matter what we know of its historical context. Even if what is common to us would not have been common to them, of what is strange to them is not strange to us, if we engage the vividness of these parables and liken them unto ourselves, they have served their purpose.

  7. nhilton said

    The Bible Dictionary entry in the LDS KJV includes some things about parables that I don’t understand. What is the point of the 2nd paragraph “…and is applied to the balanced metrical form in which teaching is conveyed in the poetical books of the Old Testament.” What does that mean? Does this mean Jesus spoke in poetry or that the OT was written in poetry or that the word parable just includes that kind of writing & if so, who cares?

    Also, the 3rd line of the 3rd paragraph, “(e)Observe the proper proportions of a parable, and do not make the episode more prominent than the main line of teaching.” Does this mean to limit our application & consideration of the parable? I’ve always thought the parable to be like Ben#6 mentioned but I read this BD entry as cautioning me to limit my interpretation. If I limit my interpretation I feel more concerned about “getting it right.” I don’t want to misinterpret the parable if there is a narrow meaning & I’m reading it too broadly.

    The following classification of parables seems to limited in the parables’ scope. As I read these classifications I almost loose my love of the parable because it stops teaching me right at the point where it completes the task it is classified as filling.

  8. Ben McGuire said

    The Bible Dictionary is a lousy tool. It is, for the most part, still the same Bible Dictionary provided in the Oxford Bibles from which we adapted it when we produced our own version.

    What the second paragraph means – that you are asking about, is that the word “parable” – going by the Greek, is used to translate the Hebrew in Psalm 78, which is quoted in Matthew 13:35 (referenced in the BD article). Thus the poetic unit of Psalm 78 was called a parable, and thus the word parable could (apparently) be used to refer to the style of writing in Psalm 78. This note simply deals with the way the word was used, and really doesn’t have a lot to do with what Jesus is doing. It’s use here is a bit problematic. Unless we presume that Jesus spoke Greek (which we normally don’t) when he taught, he would have used an Aramaic or Hebrew original.

    The Hebrew word mashal is used to refer to a range of material, is is most often translated proverb, although it can also refer to a simile, or a poem. It is a rather loose term for a range of rhetorical structures. And our use of the word “parable” in the Old Testament is caused by the Greek translation.

    Then we get this line:

    “The only true interpretation is the meaning the parable conveyed, or was meant to convey, when first spoken.”

    And this is wonderful, but essentially meaningless. After all, who is the person who is capable of providing us with the intentions of Jesus? My anti-intentionalist streak runs rampant here, but the problem is recovery of the original intent. Not only do you have problems guessing what it was, but you have no real way (apart from personal revelation perhaps) that you have even uncovered it.

    Take the parable of the sower from lesson 11. The common part of the story was the sowing. The farmer would toss his seed around (this was normal). And then, he would plow the ground. (I imagine that most English readers are unfamiliar with this aspect of the story). The unfamiliar – the part that would provoke the Israelite audience was the yield. At a time when a good yield was seven or eight fold, and ten yield was an overabundant harvest, a thirty, or sixty or hundred fold yield was beyond miraculous. And the audience at that point has already been forced to recognize the parable as allegorical. For us, since we are not palestinian farmers in the first century AD, and since we don’t for the most part have access to this (even if we may know about), it is strange and common in all the wrong ways. And then we have the multiple translations as barrier, and so on. We are hindered from understanding the parable in such a way by the parable itself. And this comment can’t really be a reasonable response. It stems from a mode of thought that says that only what the author intended can possible be the true meaning.

    And of course, this is usually followed by someone who has miraculously seen into the mind of God and can tell us exactly what Jesus intended. The problem with parables is that by their very nature, there is no intended meaning (of this sort). They have a purpose which is different from a meaning. They cannot be simply interpreted (such an act destroys the purpose). The parable is to provide us with insight, to let revelation work within us. So, we read them and liken them unto ourselves – and if this was what was intended, than any interpretation which does this is in fact in line with what was intended and so is the “only true interpretation”.

  9. Cherylem said

    I have enjoyed your comments regarding parables; what you’ve had to say will directly impact how I teach this on Sunday.

  10. Jim F. said

    Ben, thanks for your response. It is helpful and, in my opinion, exactly right. I especially appreciate your perspicuous discussion of the problems of authorial meaning.

  11. Robert C. said

    Ben, I like your comments on parables. However, I’m left wondering, in light of your comments on authorial intent, how to read Jesus’ explanation of certain parables. I guess I’m trying to discern which of the following two points you are trying to make (or some other point altogether):

    (1) The author’s original intent in giving the parable is not really that important, it’s the revelation that the parable causes to work in us that is really important.

    (2) The author’s intent cannot generally be known, so the best we can do is to to try to derive meaning from the parable through revelation.

    I thought you were making a point more like (1), but if that’s the case, I’m not sure why Jesus would offer the explanations of the parables he did, so I’m left believing something more like (2), which I think undermines what I liked best in your comments—that is, I want to believe (1) but feel pushed to believe (2). (It should go without saying that I’m interested any anyone’s comments on this, not just Ben’s….)

    Isn’t this him explitictly telling us what his intent was for giving those particular parables?

  12. nhilton said

    Ben, so you’re saying that the BD is wrong in its narrow interpretation of parables? What about the support of this narrow interpretation that’s so often cited to Joseph Smith?

  13. Ben McGuire said

    For Robert C #11:

    (1) Yes. Clearly, were Jesus to have attempted to deliver the same message to us in a present day setting, he would have used a different set of comparisons in his parable that would make more sense to us. So unless we are supposed to be familiar (and not just aware) of the elements in the comparison, we shouldn’t think of the elements as actually being the meaning of the parable. Although the use of common everyday events has a hidden application. Suppose that the next day you were a farmer (who had just heard the sermon given by Jesus), and you are out spreading your seed on a field you are about to plow ….

    (2) Yes …. and no. I would say yes, in that in this application, (where we are talking about spiritual truths and so on), the spirit of revelation can show us the meaning of the Kingdom of God (which is what these parables are trying to teach us). I would say no in that we can make some intelligent guesses as to possible meanings that Jesus intended to invoke in his audience via historical background, context, intertext and so on. But in doing so, we don’t have any real way of determining how close we have come to understanding it as it was intended to be understood. Furthermore, we only really investigate the literal aspects of the metaphor in this way in any case.

    Which brings us to the question of Jesus’s explanations. The parable of the sower, Jesus explains – but he doesn’t really explain it. Yes, he describes certain elements of the story as symbolic representations of other things. But, he doesn’t give all of the elements. Who then is the sower? And what is the implication of understanding the parable? What is the harvest? If you understand the parable, are you not the seed fallen in good soil? And have you produced the fruit which affirm that this is the case? In many ways, Jesus’s explanation doesn’t give us the meaning of the parable, nor does his explanation itself invite us to act (although it is Jesus who invites us to act). He just confirms that it is allegorical in nature and asks us to ponder its implications. I am not sure that Jesus is claiming to be explaining the parable (although we usually assume this). Rather, having just gotten done quoting Isaiah, and the emphasis on hearing, he then invites them again to “hear” the parable of the sower.

    This is just another invitation to participate in the metaphor, which he explicitly defines as such. He doesn’t define his own role in the parable, nor does he claim that understanding the parable should invoke faith in Jesus (which I read as part of the meaning here).

    Finally, I would say this, in our position, we have trouble looking for intent when the text refers to unfamiliar things. But the audience present when Jesus spoke would not have had such difficulty and so they would be much more likely to guess his intent. My further point is that in doing what our lesson manual does with this parable – in looking merely at the comparisons being made, we miss the invitation to see more. And if we focus on these comparisons – even if we do it by introducing the historical background, and the historical context, we are still not engaging the metaphor. We are completely capable of understanding every that Jesus explains in the second go around, and still missing the point.

  14. Ben McGuire said

    For nhilton #12:

    Yes, and not just that, I am saying that the BD is also wrong in its definition of parables. The way in which it differentiates between application and interpretation is problematic. Does the faith which a parable is designed to build a locutionary act or is it perlocutionary? Do we not apply the parable as we understand it? Or are we supposed to understand it first and apply it later (and doesn’t this itself contradict the notion that only in faith can we understand it)? This separation seems to me intended to simply reinforce the idea that God (Jesus) as author is the sole arbiter of the meaning of the text. Since I believe that meaning is created in an act of reading and isn’t dependant on the author, I don’t have any reason to pretend that this difference exists, and so I can suggest that meaning and application are inextricably intertwined.

    Now, as for Joseph Smith, let me point out that Joseph’s interpretations cannot hold with the BD’s own insistence on a single true interpretation. Take this (from the TPJS) –

    “Now we can discover plainly that this figure is given to represent the Church as it shall come forth in the last days. Behold, the kingdom of Heaven is likened unto it. Now, what is like unto it?

    Let us take the Book of Mormon, which a man took and hid in his field, securing it by his faith, to spring up in the last days, or in due time; let us behold it coming forth out of the ground, which is indeed accounted the least of all seeds, but behold it branching forth, yea, even towering, with lofty branches, and God-like majesty, until it, like the mustard seed, becomes the greatest of all herbs. And it is truth, and it has sprouted and come forth out of the earth, and righteousness begins to look down from heaven, and God is sending down His powers, gifts and angels, to lodge in the branches thereof.”

    Here we have an interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed. But this interpretation could not have been understood in this fashion by any member of the audience to whom Jesus was speaking when he gave this sermon. Either it is not the true interpretation, or the true interpretation was never intended for the audience of Jesus (both are problematic assertions).

    I really am interested in Matt 13:17 –

    “For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.”

    There seems to me to be something odd about this verse in light of this discussion. After first asserting that is the lack of faith and righteousness which prevents us from understanding, he then goes on to say that prophets and righteous men also wished to hear. Asserting that there is this secret meaning available only to the righteous and then suggesting that these comparisons are that secret meaning. After all, most LDS kids who have been through seminary have been taught this stuff – and taught it in such away that these comparisons are quite obvious. And it had nothing to do with their particular state of righteousness.

    It reminds me of John 8:56 –

    “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.”

    If I make an appropriate connection between these verses, then this reflects this idea that these parables were not merely informative comparisons with some kind of “true” meaning (and that we cofirm our own rightousness in understanding that true meaning – whether it comes from Matthew or from the TPJS). Rather these prophets and righteous men were looking for the Messiah and the fulfillment of prophesy. Engaging these parables commits us in an act of faith. Faith in Jesus Christ, faith in the gospel.

    Now I am going to ramble on a bit, but Kierkegaard gave three parables related to this topic (I have stolen most of the paraphrasing from Vanhoozer):

    1) One who hears the Word of God and does it is like a person who looks at oneself in the mirror and remembers what one sees therein. What kind of looking at oneself in the mirror of God’s Word, he asks, is required in order to receive a true blessing? We can only benefit from looking at the Word as we move beyond inspecting the mirror to see ourselves.

    2) The lover’s letter is about a man who receives a letter from his beloved written in a strange language. Desperate to read the letter, he takes a dictionary and begins to translate one word at a time. An acquaintance enters, interrupts his translating, and says: “Aha, you’re reading a letter from your beloved.” The lover replies: “No, my friend, I sit here toiling and moiling with a dictionary… If you call that reading, you mock me.” We cannot arrive at the meaning of the Word using linguistic and historical tools only.

    3) In the parable of the “king’s decree,” Kierkegaard asks us to imagine a country in which a royal ordinance goes out. Instead of complying with the command, however, the king’s subjects begin to interpret. Each new day sees new interpretations of the ordinance; soon the populace can hardly keep track of the various offerings: “Everything is interpretation-but no one reads the royal ordinance in such a way that he acts accordingly.”

    Do we look at the mirror or in it? Do we simply interpret the decree or do we read it in such a way that we act according to its dictates? Do we struggle with its meaning as we look at the words, or do we see the love letter? These are the same kinds of questions that the parables of Jesus invite us to ask, and so invite us to participate in faith in the Kingdom – which is different from simply talking about it.

  15. Cherylem said

    Again, great comments.

  16. Ben #14, just to confirm your reading there, perhaps in a roundabout way:

    In the original transcription of Joseph’s comments on the parable of the mustard seed (that happens to be my favorite talk of all time), Joseph doesn’t say things even so strictly. Rather, he says “perhaps” when he suggests the Book of Mormon as a meaning. Joseph seems to be suggesting that the parable is rather elastic, and that it can be read in a number of different registers. That he takes up the BoM reading in a talk about the sealing ordinances, the nature of angelic visitation, the series of events called Adam-ondi-Ahman, and the purposes of the Abrahamic covenant. Even as he introduces the Book of Mormon, he outstrips his own reading.

  17. All, an interesting article that makes many of the points Ben is raising here is J. Hillis Miller, “Parable and Performative in the Gospels and in Modern Literature,” in The Postmodern Bible Reader.

  18. Jim F. said

    Ben, youi continue to do an excellent job of making some relatively difficult ideas accessible. Thanks very much.

  19. Cherylem said

    Joe #17,
    I liked this: “the series of events called Adam-ondi-Ahman.”

  20. nhilton said

    RE: Wheat & tares, I’ve always heard LDS interpret this to mean that the wheat & tares can’t be differentiated until harvest time. However, it’s clear that they can be per Matt. 13:26-27.

  21. Ben McGuire said

    First for everyone, it is interesting that the Gospel of Thomas contains a version of the parable of the sower, but not the explanation. It is an interesting thought that we can interpret the parable – we don’t necessarily need to intepret the interpretation.

    For nhilton #20: This interpretation comes from the traditional connection between the Tares and the Darnel grass. Darnel is difficult to differentiate from wheat (at least palestinian wheat from the time of Jesus). The second connecting thought is that in pulling up the darnel grass, there is a high degree of risk in pulling up the wheat too. The seeds of the darnell grass are quite different from wheat (and much lighter) and could be winnowed out easily enough at harvest. And the straw it left was probably also useful for the things straw was used for, so probably we read more into it there than is necessary.

    I am reminded in all of this about an entry in a book I own by Matthews titled _Manners and Customs in the Bible_. It is an interesting volume. I once used it in a debate when dealing with the notion of the wedding garment. As the book explains, there was this special garment which was worn by those attending weddings. The special garment was provided by the host. And so on. And I used this book to show that this was a contemporary practice. Of course, the only source of such a thing happening (according to Matthews) was this narrative in the New Testament that I was debating about. It was a circular argument (although I didn’t disclose the circular nature of my position – not very ethical I admit – but at the time, quite satisfying I suppose). How much of the traditional discussion about tares and wheat comes from interpretations of the text as opposed to contemporary external sources? Most of it I would guess.

  22. Robert C. said

    Thanks for the very interesting responses Ben, and thanks Joe for the reference to Hillis Miller’s article. One point I particularly liked in his article is how he talked about the abundance of the poetic word in comparison with the seed and in contrast to the one-to-one correspondence that is endemic to logic:

    The economy of equivalence, of giving and receiving, of equable translation and measure, of the circulation of signs governed by the Logos as source of proportion and guarantee of substitution or analogy, is upset by the parables. [p. 134]

  23. nhilton said

    Robert, I loved the quote. Thanks. It made me feel better because it seems that “everyone” wants to quicky and finally interpret the parables but I can not. I will not. They seem fluid…like Maria in the Sound of Music…a wave upon the shore.

    But just what were tares in Jesus’ time? This can’t be answered? Darnel grass is similar but not exactly it? And the concept that to destroy it at sprouting would also destroy the sprouting wheat. If the righteous are wheat & the wicked are the tares…then the righteous require the wicked in order to fulfill their measure of creation…to become ripe, ready for harvest: therein is a thought worth pondering.

  24. Rob said

    We finally had this lesson today. To me, the whole key to understanding the use of parables comes in v.11–where we are told that Jesus is using parables because many in his audience do not have access to the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” Whenever I see the term “mysteries,” I’m tempted to think of them in the Greek sense of cultic (=temple) rites. Could it be that Jesus is saying that he speaks in parables because his audience hasn’t recieved temple rites? Those who have, will get profound meaning out of the parables. Those who don’t repent to accept the gospel rites will only get stories, that may further blind them to the truths they might otherwise recieve.

    I like how Christ refers to the experience of Isaiah in the temple here in his explanation of why he’s teaching in parables. Does this also help us better understand Isaiah 6? All are invited to come unto Christ, to literally meet him at the temple. Those who choose not to participate in temple ordinances, are left with what can only be confusing and variously interpretable stories, parables, or prophetic utterances. Without the temple, the sayings of Christ or Isaiah or any prophet are liable to lull their listeners into false interpretations whereby they will hear and not understand.

  25. Jim F. said

    Rob, there’s no evidence that there were anything like the rites we have in our temples at the time of Christ, so if that is what Jesus meant, then his audience would have been unable to have understand what he was saying. It would have had no referent.

    Nevertheless, apropos of the discussion on Robert C’s post, A Hermeneutic for the Unlearned, it seems to me that the text invites the kind of thinking you are doing, particularly that about Isaiah.

  26. Jim, can you comment on Matt.13:52? I don’t think I fully understand this verse.

    I’m teaching this lesson April 8th so am about 1/2 way through my study. I find it interesting that the first half of the lesson (to the multitude) has parables that get more and more concentrated until the last is only a verse long, but basically the same message as the first.

    Since I’m teaching this on EASTER, I’d like to tie it in with that holiday. :) I’m thinking the leaven parable might be a good springboard to Passover. What do you think? Any other suggestions?

  27. robf said

    Jim, while I’m not sure what the nature of temple rites were at the time of Christ, his referring to Isaiah’s temple experience in this chapter makes me wonder if there isn’t more going on. There is also the possibility that author of this gospel had the temple and any post-resurrection ritual knowledge in mind when he composed this section as well. I’ll continue to explore this, but don’t want to be too quick to dismiss reading this from the perspective of temple worship.

  28. robf said

    An interesting article on musterion/”mystery” in the Bible is:

    Harvey, A. E. “The Use of Mystery Language in the Bible.” Journal of Theological Studies 31 (1980): 320-336.

    According to Harvey, musterion is used in the Greek OT as a translation for the Hebrew “sode” and Aramaic “raz”–which refer to the secret, divine council, divine assembly, or counsel.

    Harvey also finds association with musterion and apocalyptic literature.

    While for Harvey, this points away from association with Greek or other “mystery religions,” I think for LDS readers, this actually strengthens a reading related to what we would now consider temple knowledge.

    Jesus says that to some it is given to know the mysteries–the secret councils of God/the divine assembly. He then refers to the experience of Isaiah having this revelation in the temple. To those who don’t get this revelation, he gives parables.

    At any rate, I think the association here with temples, the divine assembly, hidden knowledge, and parables provides much more than a simple story followed by a fairly straightforward alogorical interpretation. For those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see (perhaps anointed to see and hear?), maybe there is a much more bountiful reading here (a hundredfold, sixtyfold, or thirtyfold?).

  29. cherylem said

    #28 Robf,
    Remember that in ancient times, only one man entered the holy of holies once a year, so the temple experience, with its sacrifices etc, was certainly nothing like what we have today, with all of us entering not just one day a year, but whenever we can find the time for temple worship.

    I have a quote regarding the temple experience during Jesus’ time that is interesting:

    “It [the temple] overshadowed Jerusalem and dominated life in the city. Eighty percent of employment in Jerusalem depended on the temple, not only on its day to day ritual needs but also on the periodic pilgrim festivals and the ongoing building project which it constituted. Nine thousand priests and Levites worked there, although not at the same time, operating what was in fact a giant abbatoir. The twice-daily official sacrifices on the vast ever-burning altar consumed thousands of animals and forests of wood. There were cattle pens on the north side and sometimes the water of the Kidron stream where the blood was flushed became so thick that it was sold to famers as fertilizer. Over it all hung a pall of smoke from burning flesh, and when the great pilgrim festivals, like Passover, were in full swing the priest stood in blood sacrificing the victims of private offerings. Jews were expected to make the pilgrimage to the temple three times a year, twice in the spring – at Passover and Pentecost – and once in the fall, at Succoth. Therefore Jerusalem thrived on what today would be called the convention business. This combination of smoke, blood,and business, whose priests were in league with Roman power to preserve their office and their landed interests, was the historical reality of the sacred for the Gospel of Mark.” (The Gospel and the Sacred, Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly, 15-16 [a Girardian text]).

    This doesn’t mean that what we do today doesn’t relate to that ancient temple – I actually think it relates a lot. But it was not the same temple going experience that we have, not even close.

    It is most interesting that Christ’s murder/sacrifice would happen with this temple as a backdrop.

    There is more to be said – about what Jesus taught his disciples privately (we don’t know) both before and after his resurrection, and about what was going on in the temples in the BOM (though I believe we think there were normal animal sacrifices there).

    But I personally believe that our modern day temples are unique in several respects (no matter their roots in Masonry, for instance, or their relationship to ancient temple practices). Perhaps it is that very uniqueness which offers the most hope and the most profound understanding . . .

    And I do think you are on to something regarding council of God/divine assembly, etc . . . and I also believe that reading the parables for yourself as giving meaning to and explaining the temple experience is not inappropriate – it is probably most appropriate. But like Jimf said, that probably isn’t how the people who were listening to Jesus would understand those parables, even the disciples.

    Remember that line in Matthew 13: “I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:35) I think we could think about this one line for a very long time.

  30. robf said

    Another good reference on the sod/mystery/divine council:

    Brown, Raymond. “The Pre-Christian Semitic Concept of Mystery.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20 (1958): 416-443.

    Lots of good stuff there, including references in the Pseudopigripha and Dead Sea Scrolls–including secrets of the divine council revealed by the fallen Watchers, mysteries relating to the governing of the cosmos, and apocalyptic visions revealing mysteries of the future, and mysteries revealed to initiates in the Qumran community.

  31. cherylem said

    Recently I’ve been given the opportunity to submit a book proposal on Mormon spirituality . . . the editor of the series asked me to include a section on how Joseph Smith got his hands on Second Temple Judaism literature, and how he was “influenced by ancient documents
    from Second Temple Judaism and how he happened to get his hands on that stuff: The Book of the Watchers (Ethiopic Enoch), Jubilees, 4 Ezra, and such.”

    It made me smile.


  32. robf said

    Cherylem, thanks for the thoughts. While temple worship now is in many ways very, very different from that of the High Priest, or the Levites, or the festival throngs at the time of Christ (which we might consider a period of apostacy), I think the textual tradition supports this passage as Jesus refering to something “hidden” that was associated with a revelation of the divine council, which earlier prophets and visionaries had associated with the temple.

    With a rich religious heritage of mysteries associated with the temple and apocalyptic revelations, I think it unreasonable to think that Christ didn’t have something about this in mind when he specifically referred here to the mystries and Isaiah’s temple experience here–though I could easily see some folks not “getting” it.

    So while it would be anachronistic to read this as a specific reference to modern temple endowments, I see a clear connection–which Jesus and some of his followers would have made–between mysteries, the divine assembly, and the revelation of such at the temple.

  33. cherylem said

    #32 Robf, and I agree with you.

    Girard (my hero) thinks that “things hidden” has to do with the whole scapegoating sacrificial process . . . and both his and your thoughts can happily coexist. Again, and I think I mentioned this once before, our temple experience (of which Girard is of course unaware) turns the violent scapegoating and the need for human/[substitionary] animal sacrifice upside down, as we stand in awe around the altar of healing and power.

    And in relation to our conversation on the learned/unlearned, this is one area that I think yields rich understanding as our knowledge of the ancient temple experience increases. We may make easy comparisons to that temple in our usual SS classes, but knowing the differences is even more interesting.

  34. robf said

    Amen, cherylem.

    And I wish we knew a lot more about worship in the 1st Temple, not just 2nd Temple worship and apocalypticism. Maybe the Book of Mormon can help us out here?

    On a related note, elsewhere it has been mentioned that Jesus didn’t teach the Nephites in parables. Maybe he didn’t have to, because, among other things, they were at the temple. He could reveal secrets/mysteries and His counsel/council there Himself–including some things that can’t be uttered.

    Finally, in Elder’s Quorum this week, we read the Spencer W. Kimball lesson #6 about studying the scriptures. Some class members were talking about how great the scriptures are because they have lots of good stories in them that we can relate to. That made me think again about Jesus and his parables. Are the scripture stories for us like the parables were for those Jesus taught?

    For some the scriptures are invitations to come unto Christ–through the ordinances and personally, and to have his mysteries revealed–while to others do the stories become something else? Perhaps something that substitutes for the mysteries? In that sense, do they function as the words Isaiah is commanded to give in Isaiah 6, to close our eyes so that we can’t see, and harden our hearts so we don’t understand? Don’t thousands of years of scriptural interpretation show us that it is common to read the scriptures without coming to a knowledge of God–without having His mysteries revealed? Can we be lured away by the nice pleasant scriptural stories, and miss the point?

  35. Jim F. said

    ponderpath (#26): The verse (Matthew 13:52) is difficult, at least partly because of its relation to the preceding parable. Most commentators take “scribe” to refer to scribes within ordinary Judaism, but some think it may refer either to converted scribes within the Christian community or to those within the community who had the job of scribes. Or, the Heremenia commentary speculates, it could mean “educated Christians” (page 286).

    Whoever they are, these experts in the scriptures (which is what scribes were) are in charge of a treasure, namely the scriptures. Like a house steward, they can go into that treasure and bring out both old treasures and new ones. (The verse seems to me to be relevant to the discussion on another of this blog’s threads, “A Hermeneutic for the Unlearned.”)

    Looked at that way, I think the question is “What are the old things and what are the new things which Jesus had in mind when he told this short parable?”

  36. joe m said

    re: the statements about the Temple at the time of Christ, and why NT writers/readers would not be able to understand references to current Temple practices. how then do you justify 1 Cor 15:29, the reference to baptisms for the dead?

  37. Jim F. said

    joe m: I assume, as do many, including non-LDS, that baptism for the dead was practiced by at least Christians in Corinth. However, I know of no evidence that baptism for the dead was practiced in the temple.

  38. joe m said

    ah. thank you.

  39. Robert C. said

    Regarding Matt 13:52, I think the old and new is very interesting since typically old and new are contrasted to each other. Here’s a list of passages with “new” and “old” in them and Song. 7:13 seems to be the only other passage that uses “new” and “old” in a way that is not contrasting.

    I may, however, be jumping the gun in labeling the passages with old wine vs. new bottles and new cloth on an old garment (Matt 9:16-17) as “contrasting.” The point here seems to be that both new and old are valued by the householder. Notice Lev 26:10 talks about the old grain that will come out of the storehouse when the new grain arrives as promised(presumably b/c of the abundance of the old grain).

    Not sure what to make of all this, but I’m hoping to go back and study the old vs. new in Matt 9 more carefully. (And I know Joe has done some work on the wiki regarding the description in 3 Ne of the old law being fulfilled in Christ, maybe that’d be helpful to look at also….)

  40. Jim F. said

    Robert C: I don’t think what I am going to say has anything to do with Matthew 13:52, but I wonder how “old and new” relates to “new and everlasting.”

  41. nhilton said

    Jim & Robert, thanks for answering my question re: Matt. 13:52, #26. Jim’s explanation & Robert’s cross references have enlightened me! Is anyone teaching this lesson on Easter? If so, do you feel a need to tie it in with the holiday? If so, how are you doing this? Per the 2nd half of my question #26.

  42. Cherylem said

    I am teaching a special Easter lesson (not in the manual) on Easter Sunday. I announced at the beginning of the year that I would do this on Easter and Christmas. There were just enough Sundays that I would not miss any of the manual lessons except that I forgot to factor in Ward Conference – when the stake leaders used the gd time.

    Since we have 3 lessons on the crucifixion/resurrection I will probably combine lessons 25-27 into two, later on.

    For the Easter lesson, I’m going to use the gospel of Mark only. Then later, I will probably use only the gospel of Matthew in lesson 25, the gospel of John for lesson 26 and then skip to lesson 28 and use Luke for its passion narrative and the beginning of Acts. I think this will work. In each case we will examine the entire passover/crucifixion/resurrection story as presented by each evangelist.

    I’ll post my Easter lesson sometime tomorrow.

  43. brianj said

    Re: old and new

    First, a minor correction on what Robert wrote in #39. It was not “old wine vs. new bottles,” but rather “new wine in old bottles.” I agree with Robert’s point, however: “… both new and old are valued by the householder.” We briefly discussed these verses on this blog a few weeks ago (see here).

    When I read Matt 13:52, I picture the scribe as Matthew himself (and those like him). In telling his story about the “New” covenant, he frequently draws upon verses from the “old” covenant. That’s just one way, of course, to treasure the old and new.

  44. nhilton said

    Cheryl per #42, I’m sure your lesson will be lovely, but what about loosing the continuity between classes? My teenage children, who get the same lessons we adults give/get, engage in important conversation around the after-church dinner table. If I were to disrupt the scheduled lesson to teach “what I want” on Easter, I’d loose this valuable family interaction. I believe this was the intent of the church in having everyone 12 & up study specific material at the same time. I have seen its benefit first hand.

  45. Cherylem said

    NHiltonn – yes, what you say is true for those families who do interact. However, it’s possible to have great interaction about lessons that are different also. This is my fourth time around with GD – and every year I’ve taught I’ve done special lessons at Easter and Christmas. It’s worked very well.

  46. nhilton said

    After looking at this lesson which I’m teaching on Easter, I’ll focus on the first parable in Matt.13 of the soils & use it as a springboard to a word study on “fruit” & “firstfruits” culminating with Christ being the firstfruit of the resurrection (1 Cor.15:20-26) and we being Christ’s firstfruits (D&C 88:97-98). Other interesting/supporting scriptures are Gen. 1:11; Duet. 26:2; Matt. 3:8-10; Matt. 7:16-17, 21:19; Rev. 22:2,14; 1 Ne. 8:10; Alma 32:42; D&C 84:58; D&C 97:9. I thought I’d share this with you since it has been heavy on my mind as to how to reconcile teaching Lesson 11 & making it especially meaningful for Easter. I hope this works.

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