INTRODUCTION TO PART IV
The common message of John and of Jesus was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2; 4:17; 10:7). So many people had shown enthusiasm for John and for Jesus, but the repentance of the ruling class had not happened, while that of the crowd had turned out to be superficial and temporary.
The kingdom of God could have been inaugurated anyway, on the basis of the 120 disciples who remained until the end with Jesus (Acts 1:15), but a similar choice was made by God with the Flood, after which he promised not to repeat it (Gen 8:21-22).
At the time of the monarchy, when the people of Israel had become totally and irretrievably corrupt, God announced great severity through the prophets, but combined with great compassion. God punished his people, but did not destroy them, and so, after the dispersion of Israel and the destruction of the Temple, came the return and the reconstruction. “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child” (Zec 12:10): a prophecy clearly referring to Jesus (John 19:37; Rev 1:7), but which in the context of the prophets already finds a first application in the love of God the Father for Israel.
At the beginning of chapter 14 of Matthew, through the parables, one can see that Jesus is decidedly taking the path that will lead to the cross, and starting to prepare his disciples in a systematic way. A reference to his crucifixion was made when he said: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (10:38); or when he mentioned the “sign of Jonah” (12:39-40). However, those were like flashes that illuminate and then are forgotten, while in the series of parables Jesus transmits a message that, although somewhat veiled and with some less than explicit aspects, lays a firm foundation for the new perspective, in which the kingdom will not come immediately and fully, but in the form of a ‘seed’ that sprouts and grows, replacing the kingdoms of the world only in a future time, that is “at the end of the age” (13:40, 49).
We will see the series of parables and the death of John in our chapter 22 (13:1 to 14:12). Jesus then resumes and carries forward the ‘usual’ programme: healings and other miracles, new clashes with the Pharisees, teaching the disciples and the crowds (14:13 to 16:20, our chapter 23).
Though continuing in the same way, it is the teachings that become prevalent over miracles. More relevant is that Jesus starts to say and repeat clearly that his death will soon come, followed by the resurrection (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). After remaining a little longer in Galilee, another turning point is given by his moving towards Jerusalem (19:1). Our chapter 24 is dedicated to the period preceding the journey to Jerusalem (16:13 to 18:35).
The last chapter of this Part IV (our chapter 25) is dedicated to the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (19:1 to 20:34).
After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:10), the whole scene is occupied by the clash with the Jewish ruling class and particularly with the Pharisees. This ‘conflict in Jerusalem’ is described in Matthew from 21:1 to 25:46 and we will dedicate Part V to it.
From the beginning of chapter 26 of Matthew, on the contrary, it is as if Jesus now considered his task finished, so he prepares to face the crucifixion and to detach himself from the disciples. This last PART VI will go until the conclusion of the Gospel (26:1 to 28:20).
Summary of how we will divide the rest of the Gospel of Matthew.
PART IV. The kingdom as seed, waiting for a postponed bursting forth (13:1 to 20:34).
Our chap. 22 (13:1 to 14:12). A new perspective on the kingdom and death of John.
Our chap. 23 (14:13 to 16:12). Search for solitude in view of the crucifixion.
Our chap. 24 (16:13 to 18:35). Jesus places his death and resurrection at the centre.
Our chap. 25 (19:1 to 20:34). Deepening, going towards Jerusalem.
PART V. Final clash in Jerusalem with the Jewish leaders (21:1 to 25:46).
PART VI. The path finished in death. Or in the resurrection? (26:1 to 28:20).
3.THE PARABLE OF THE WEEDS DEVELOPS THE ONE OF THE SOWER (13:24-30, 36b-43)
The parable of the weeds clarifies the context in which the “people of the kingdom” will grow and what their final destiny is. First Jesus recounted the parable (13:24-30) and later he explained it to the disciples (13:36b-43). In summary, it again takes as the protagonist a sower who sows good seed, but then finds in the field annoying weeds sprouting, which can only be eliminated at the harvest, because earlier it would damage the wheat. In the end, the weeds will be burned, and the wheat kept in the barn.
Jesus’ explanation of this parable offers a clear and complete picture of the future, so it should be taken as a starting point in the study of the prophecies of the New Testament. Often, however, we do not grasp its relevance.
“The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13:37-43).
If the sower is the Son of Man (that is, Jesus), if the field is the world (that is, this world), if the seed is the people of the kingdom (that is, the faithful disciples), then Jesus has begun his kingdom immediately after being baptized by John. Then the kingdom of Jesus is still present today and it manifests itself IF, WHERE AND WHEN THERE ARE some of his faithful disciples, despite the work of the Devil and the presence of the wicked.
This is confirmed by the fact that, at the end of the present age, the Son of Man will eliminate FROM HIS KINGDOM (evidently present) “everything that causes sin and all who do evil”, who will co-exist with the kingdom of Jesus until the end of the present age, but will then be excluded from the kingdom of God the Father, which will come at the end and will be reserved only for the righteous. Introducing this distinction between the kingdom of Jesus and that of the Father evidently arises another series of questions, which are not clarified in the Gospel. According to our rule, we should leave them on hold, but here we make an exception, quoting without any comments a passage from the apostle Paul and pointing out the related passages from Revelation.
“In Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. […] When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all” (1Cor 15:22-28). Revelation also clearly distinguishes between the kingdom of the Messiah Jesus (Rev 20:4) and that of the Father, in a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1-8).
We conclude by again pointing out that Jesus did not put before his disciples the perspective of going to a Paradise placed in the sky, but he envisaged returning to Earth to eliminate the wicked, not to take away his followers. These issues, however, will be coming up several times later in the Gospel and then it will be possible to check better whether this understanding of ours is confirmed and enriched, or disavowed.
4.FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS WITH THE PARABLES OF THE MUSTARD SEED AND OF THE YEAST (13:31-35)
PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED (13:31-32).
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed […] Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows it […] becomes a tree” (13:31-32).
The concept of the kingdom of heaven as ‘development’ and no longer as ‘bursting forth’, in this parable is unequivocal, as it is also in the following one, which takes the yeast as a symbol. In the Acts of the Apostles, we find a first part of it realized, because when Jesus ascended he left 120 disciples; that is almost zero compared to the inhabitants of the Earth, but after a few years they had already ‘turned the world upside down’ (Acts 1:15; 17:6).
PARABLE OF THE YEAST (13:33).
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough” (13:33).
This parable and the previous one resemble each other, because they both describe growth, but you can also see a difference. The mustard seed represents a growth in space and suggests the establishment of a first nucleus of believers among ‘all nations’, as Jesus himself will say more clearly (24:14; cf. 28:19). But in this parable the yeast acts after it has already permeated the whole mass and is growing within it, making us think of the increase in numbers of believers in various places.
This interpretation is in harmony with the strategy put into action by Paul and which we see in Acts. Paul, in fact, passed quickly from place to place, with the aim of constituting a first nucleus of believers, then each group would be rooted and developed in its own place.
5.HIDDEN MEANING OF THE PARABLES AND CLOSING OF THE FIRST SERIES (13:34-36 a)
“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world’” (13:34-35).
In vv. 11-15 the parables had been considered as an application of “do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (7:6), that is, to avoid teaching those who are unable to understand or have a hostile attitude. At the end of the first four parables, that is in v. 35, a more positive aspect can instead be discerned, seeing them as a means for the people to understand intuitively what is difficult to explain.
Both aspects of the parables, however, are supported by quotations from the Old Testament: in 13:14-15 Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted, while in 13:35 the verse of a Psalm focused on other matters is taken (Psa 78:2). It was regarding Ezekiel, even before Jesus, that they said: “Isn’t he just telling parables?” (Eze 20:49); Ezekiel, like Jesus, did not lack radical opponents (2:3-6), together with the many who willingly listened to him, but without then putting his teachings into practice (33:30-32). However, to avoid going into questionable parallels, we limit ourselves to once again noting how much the Gospel of Matthew immerses itself in the Old Testament.
“Then he left the crowd and went into the house” (13:36 a).
Before the parable of the sower, Matthew had reported the exit of Jesus from his house (13:1) and now he records his return, after which Jesus will dedicate himself to giving explanations to the disciples (13:36b-43). This separates the first series of four parables from the next four (13:44-52).
We have seen that the first four form a single and coherent framework; the next four parables, rather than adding other elements, take up what has already been said with the first ones, following the usual pattern of a subsequent cycle that builds on the previous one. It is also indicative that, of the four parables of the first series, only that of the weeds is exclusive to Matthew, while the other three are also reported in other Gospels: that of the sower in Mark 4:1-20 and in Luke 8:4-15, that of the mustard seed in Mark 4:30-32 and in Luke 13:18-19, that of the yeast in Luke 13:20-21 only. However, none of the four parables of the second series is reported in other Gospels, and that is because, reiterating concepts present in the first series, they do not give new information and therefore are not essential.
All this makes it likely that the second series of the four parables was told by Jesus in circumstances other than the first series.