RS/MP Lesson 25: “Truths from the Savior’s Parables in Matthew 13” (Joseph Smith Manual)
Posted by joespencer on January 4, 2009
On the second page of the lesson, Wandle Mace is recorded as having said: “I have sometimes felt ashamed of myself because, having studied the scriptures so much, even from a child, I had not seen that which was so plain when [Joseph] touched them. He, as it were, turned the key, and the door of knowledge sprang wide open, disclosing precious principles, both new and old.” The lesson is an illustration of this, and a very good one at that.
The “Teachings” part of this lesson comes entirely from a single letter written by Joseph to the elders of the Church and published in the Church newspaper in 1835. It is, in the end, a more or less systematic (or at least sequential) interpretation of Matthew 13. And it gives us a beautiful model of how Joseph read the scriptures. To the text, then!
The Savior taught in parables…
The first section of the teachings is a commentary on Matthew 13:10-17. It thus amounts to an explanation of the very motivation behind speaking in parables.
The Savior of course quotes Isaiah 6, arguably one of the most theologically difficult passages in scripture, and one I absolutely adore. Joseph’s interpretation of (the Savior’s interpretation of) Isaiah’s words is fascinating: “condemnation . . . rested upon the multitude that received not His saying . . . because they were not willing to see with their eyes, and hear with their ears; not because they could not, and were not privileged to see and hear, but because their hearts were full of iniquity and abominations.” (p. 296) A little further along in the same paragraph, Joseph says, alluding in part to D&C 93 (which in turn alludes to John 1): “herein is the condemnation of the world; that light hath come into the world, and men choose darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. This is so plainly taught by the Savior, that a wayfaring man need not mistake it.” (p. 296)
Parables, then, would seem to be given in a very particular way: they are constructed such that they are interpretable within the light, but uninterpretable in the dark. One could say: parables are neither a source of light, nor a cover that imposes darkness, but mere “objects,” perhaps texts, which one can make no sense of unless one has a source of light. What is so unique, in the end, about parables, is that they refuse to shed light on anything, instead requiring an already-obtained source of light to be seen and interpreted.
Hence, the multitude had every opportunity to see and hear: the text or object that is the parable had been put into their hands, but they refused to turn on the light, and so they could make no sense of it. And so it is that the world has earned its own condemnation: it refuses light in favor of darkness, “because their deeds are evil.”
Straightforward enough, yes?
The parable of the sower…
This portion of the lesson interprets Matthew 13:3-9, 19-23, the parable of the sower.
Joseph here begins to unfold something like a systematic reading of Matthew 13, or at least of the parables in Matthew 13: one after the other, they fall into a clear pattern. But what therefore comes as a bit of a surprise is the interpretation Joseph gives of this first parable. Rather than taking it simply as an articulation—especially in light of the Savior’s relatively straightforward explanation to His disciples—of the fact that the gospel is received in different ways by different peoples, Joseph brings it right back to the question of speaking in parables. The parable does not discuss the various responses to the straightforwardly annunciatory word, but the various responses to parables (this is made clear especially in the last two paragraphs of the section).
The parable of the sower, for Joseph, would thus seem to be reflexive, self-oriented: the parable, rightly understood, explains its own way of being, explains parables. Matthew 13, which will be, in the end, a whole series of parables, thus opens with a parable about parables. It is likely for this reason that this first parable gets a full explanation for the disciples: as the self-referential parable about parables, it forms an important circle, and it is only the Savior’s interpretation that allows the disciples to break into it, to understand what a parable is. This circle, broken into, will thus allow the disciples to interpret the other parables that follow.
In the last sentences of this section, Joseph adds a further detail: not only does this parable reveal the structure and purpose of parables, but it also makes clear that all parables are tied specifically to “the Kingdom.” Joseph therefore announces an interpretive program for reading the remainder of Matthew 13: “therefore we shall continue to trace His sayings concerning this Kingdom from that time forth, even unto the end of the world.” (p. 299)
There is something subtle about this statement, and it is too easily passed over. Joseph is announcing that there is a structure to the series of parables making up Matthew 13. The first, which he has just expounded as self-grounding, a self-explaining parable about parables, describes the establishment of the Kingdom in the time of Christ. The subsequent parables will tell, in order, the history of that Kingdom “even unto the end of the world.” This is precisely how Joseph will interpret the remainder of the chapter: the whole thing is a kind of history, coded as so many parables (all of which can only be interpreted in light of the first, reflexive parable).
To sum up, then: the parable of the sower explains why parables themselves cannot be understood, and it thus—that is, through its self-referentiality—marks a foundation, or, as Joseph says, “has an allusion directly to the commencement, or the setting up, of the Kingdom in that [Christ’s] age.” The very circularity of a parable-explaining-parables gives a ground to a history of the Kingdom.
If any of what I’ve explained here makes sense, then an important question can be raised: why does the Kingdom begin with parables? Actually, perhaps this question can be raised regardless of the quasi-philosophical issues I’ve discussed: Why does Joseph assert that the use of parables lies at the foundation or makes up the commencement of the Kingdom? That, it seems to me, is a question that could bear interesting fruit.
Joseph, however, moves on immediately.
The parable of the wheat and tares…
This section of the lesson interprets Matthew 13:24-30, 38-43, the parable of the what and tares.
One should immediately notice that this parable receives, like the first, an interpretation within the text of Matthew 13, and Joseph comments on this interpretation as well as on the parable itself. However, one should also notice that there is a major difference between the first and second parables in light of their placement within Matthew 13: while the first parable receives an interpretation immediately (and hence, even before the telling of the second parable), the second parable receives an interpretation only after the event of the telling of all the parables (and hence, only after the telling of the other parables). The structure of the chapter is thus as follows:
(1) The parable of the sower
(2) The explanation of the parable of the sower
(3) The parable of the wheat and tares
(4) The other parables still to be discussed below
(5) The explanation, once the multitude has been dismissed, of the parable of the wheat and tares
Thus, while Joseph does draw on the explanation of this parable (that is, on number 5 above), his interpretation of the overarching structure of the parable-speaking event of Matthew 13 more or less ignores it. Only the first parable—that of the sower—retains its self-referential character.
In the second paragraph of this section, Joseph seems to see this parable as forming a kind of continuation of the first: the sower’s seeds are the seed planted in this parable. As he says: “Now we learn by this parable, not only the setting up of the Kingdom in the days of the Savior [the very words Joseph used to describe the first parable], which is represented by the good seed, . . . but also the corruptions of the Church, which are represented by the tares, which were sown by the enemy . . . .” (p. 299) It is as if, then, this parable now extends or augments the first parable: not only does the sower sow (and the seeds find their various final destinations), but once the good seed has taken root in the good ground, something else happens.
We call this “something else” the great apostasy. But Joseph looks at this “time of darkness” in a somewhat surprising way. He says: “His disciples would fain have plucked up, or cleansed the Church of [the tares], if their views had been favored by the Savior. But He, knowing all things, says, Not so. As much as to say, your views are not correct, the Church is in its infancy, and if you take this rash step, you will destroy the wheat, or the Church, with the tares; therefore it is better to let them grow together until the harvest, or the end of the world, which means the destruction of the wicked . . . .” (p. 299)
What is so surprising about this? Joseph would seem to suggest that the apostasy is necessary, less a tragic disaster than a fortunate fall. Note: (1) that Joseph sees this parable as articulating the time stretching from the foundation of the Kingdom in the days of Christ to the end of the world itself, the destruction of the wicked at the last day; (2) that that whole stretch of time is the growing season, during which both wheat and tares will be found in the fields; and thus (3) that it is only at the end of that time that one will realize who the wheat and who the tares have been.
The parable does not say, as do our common descriptions of the apostasy, that the wheat was to be replaced by the tares for a time, and that the wheat would eventually find its way back into the field. Rather, it claims that wheat and tares have been in the field since the very beginning, since the apostasy began: and the same holds true now. The trick is that the identification of the wheat and the tares cannot be accomplished until the very end. That is, it is not at the end that wheat suddenly comes back, but that the wheat that has been there all along becomes identifiable. What this means is that the whole history of the apostasy is simply the history of indiscernibility: of not being able to tell who keeps (or would keep) covenants. It is not the history of corruptions and the like—especially since these things continue into our own time.
So what does it mean to sort out the wheat and the tares at the “end of the world”? Joseph explains: “the harvest and the end of the world have an allusion directly to the human family in the last days . . . .” (p. 300) Note first that this is a question of the whole human family, and not only of the saints during the last generation, etc. The whole human family has to be sorted out as wheat and tares at the end. And this, as Joseph explains, is the work of angels: “and the angels are to have something to to do in this great work, for they are the reapers.” (p. 300)
The angels will be further explained in the next parable. For now, though: “the servants of God go forth warning the nations, both priests and people . . . .” (p. 300) The wicked and the righteous respond according, and the angelic work will begin among them (again, that work will be clarified with the next parable), this having something to do with “the law and the testimony being closed up.” This last phrase is vital: for one, it must be noticed that the work of sorting out the whole human family is a question of writing and sealing up certain texts, but for two, it must further be noticed that there is here a return to Isaiah, now to Isaiah 8, a text that is closely tied to Isaiah 6, under discussion above. In Isaiah 8, the rejection of the angelic message results in the sealing up of the text, in its being transferred to another time or place, and here, much the same seems to be at work. Again, though, none of this will make sense yet: Joseph is getting beyond himself, and these details can only make sense with the next parable, which augments the story yet again.
The parable of the mustard seed…
This section is an interpretation of Matthew 13:31-32, the parable of the mustard seed.
Joseph’s interpretation here is simply astounding. Again it is an augmentation: more sowing, more reaping, etc. But now one talks of another, a different kind of seed: people are not planted here, but a text! Joseph explains: “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.” (p. 301)
This further planting, then, is a planting of a text in the ground, which sprouts as the Church, or perhaps the Kingdom, in the last days, becoming a massive tree, “and God is sending His powers, gifts, and angels to lodge in the branches thereof.” (p. 301) This last detail is the key: the Book of Mormon gets a movement going down on the earth, and then that movement intertwines itself with the powers of heaven. Men on earth and angels from heaven join hand in hand in bringing about this work.
But another detail should not be missed: the angels from heaven who come down to lodge in the branches of the tree were men anciently. Moroni, the first angel and one who is privileged among angels in D&C 27, is described as “a man” who “took and hid [the book] in his field . . . to spring up in the last days, or in due time.” The fathers and the children are thus tied together by this text, planted in the ground and eventually springing forth.
The sorting out of the whole human family begins to take shape, and its relationship to texts also begins to take shape. The fathers had certain covenants given to them, even before the coming of the Savior. When the Savior came, He established the Kingdom, which was shortly thereafter muddled by the planting of the tares. The way that all of this can be sorted out is through there having been planted, long before the final events, a text that would come forth in the last days. This text, having been translated and promulgated, gives shape to an organization for preaching that angels, the ancient fathers, are visiting to bestow keys of sealing, etc., on the people. The wheat and the tares begin to be sorted out through the work of sealing up, through the ancient covenants, all those from the time of the Savior to the last days who are wheat and not tares. The wheat and the tares are finally discernible through these means.
The work of the last days, the work of discernment, is thus begun with the emergence of a text, and it results, in the end, in the writing up of a new text, the book of the law of the Lord, the temple archives, etc. And so the work of preaching the Book of Mormon “will still roll on, until His words are all fulfilled.” (p. 302)
The remaining parables…
This last section of the lesson interprets Matthew 13:33, 47-52, three further parables.
The first is the parable of the leaven. Its “three measures” Joseph takes as “a little leaven that was put into three witnesses,” Martin, Oliver, and David. (p. 303) One is thus given the delivery of a text (the Book of Mormon), with all its angelic purposes, at the hands of three true messengers. This is a pattern found throughout the scriptures.
The second is the parable of the net. The preaching of the Kingdom, undertaken, according to Joseph, by “the seed of Joseph,” gathers all kinds, which then have to be sorted out. (p. 303) Again it is a question of the angels: “the angels shall come forth and sever the wicked from among the just,” etc. (p. 303) All of this is straightforward enough.
Finally, the last is the parable of the scribe who brings out of the treasury “things that are new and old.” (p. 303) Joseph compares this with the three texts of the Restoration: the Book of Mormon (old), the Doctrine and Covenants (new), and the JST (more or less the Pearl of Great Price, for now; both new and old). And he points out that these three texts answer to the three witnesses: the whole lump has thus been leavened. (There is, here, a kind of subtle argument for a closed canon, one might say…)
And that completes the story.
Joseph as interpreter
The question that must be raised, at the end, is this: How does Joseph read the scriptures? And what can learn about how we ought to read the scriptures by looking at all of this? What details deserve attention?
I want to leave the question open for now.
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