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This Sunday's readings: 9th Sunday after Trinity

02 November 2006


Genesis 29.15-28 or
1 Kings 3.5-12
Romans 8.26-end
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

At the heart of the Jewish scriptures are the five books of the Pentateuch. It is no coincidence that Matthew presents the ministry of Jesus in five blocks; in each case, a narrative is followed by teaching.

Mark had launched the teaching of Jesus with the parables of Mark 4. Mark’s Jesus gives a strange explanation of their use. They form a riddling mystery from which many are excluded – and which bemuses even the disciples. Matthew’s Jesus, by contrast, is first found preaching to his disciples in the forthright Sermon on the Mount. The parables are made into the third and central section of his teaching. Mark’s point has been abandoned; the emphasis now is on the disciples’ genuine sight and understanding.

In this week’s parables, Jesus speaks in hyperbole. Mustard plants can grow up to ten feet tall, and in a single season; but they are hardly trees. A great tree was well-known as an image for a kingdom. King Nebuchadnezzar had dreamt of such a tree, and “the beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the air dwelt in its branches” (Daniel 4.12). This tree, Daniel told the king, was his kingdom, which like the tree in the dream was about to be hewn down. Matthew – and even Jesus himself – may well have seen in the birds the gentiles who will take shelter in the kingdom of God.

Matthew’s Jesus tells seven parables in Matthew 13. First we hear of two farmers who sow the seed: in the Parables of the Sower (Matthew 13.3-9) and of the Tares (Matthew 13.24-30). Both stories look forward to harvest. Then Jesus tells of the mustard seed and its spectacular growth. Next comes the parable of the leaven (Mathew 13.33). Once more Jesus thinks on a vast scale. Three s?ta or measures of flour weighed about 50 lbs, and would make bread for 100 people. A scene from ordinary life has become the preparation for a banquet.

Now Matthew’s Jesus, in the presence of the disciples alone, reverts to the Parable of the Tares, to explain it (13.36-43); for Matthew is ready to round off these stories of growth and harvest. He is about to turn his attention to his own listeners and the demands that such parables make of them. So we hear of the treasure hidden in a field and of the pearl of great price (13.44-46).

The discovery of the kingdom overturns all other priorities. Jesus’s audience will have been shocked by the man who finds treasure in another’s field. The discovery must have been underhand; and the purchase of the field is within a whisker of theft. The man is not deterred; for nothing matters, by comparison with the treasure he has found.

The merchant of pearls is rash in a different way. (Pearls were as highly valued then as diamonds are today; in the gnostic Hymn of the Pearl the pearl guarded by the serpent  represents the most precious thing of all: the soul entrapped by Satan.) The merchant invests in a single pearl which, it seems, he loves too much to sell. The kingdom is enough, in these wild stories of Jesus, to make a person bad or mad.

So Mathew’s Jesus brings us back to the end of the age and the ingathering of good fish and of bad (13.47-50). He is ready to conclude this whole section of his gospel. Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” They reply, “Yes.” “Because of this,” says Jesus, “every scribe who has been made a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who draws out from his treasure things new and old” (Matthew 13.51-52). Our evangelist himself was surely such a scribe: a member of a school of scribes in a synagogue many of whose members acknowledged Jesus.

Mathew stood in a grand tradition. Moses himself was regarded by many as the archetypal scribe. Several apocalypses were said to have been written by scribes: such as Enoch, Ezra and Baruch. Their texts – like Matthew’s – include accounts, warnings and promises about the end of the age. It is tempting to ask, just how much is our evangelist revealing here about himself? His Jesus speaks of everyone who has been made a disciple – math?t?s – of the kingdom. Perhaps we should simply look, to see a model math?t?s, at Mattthaios.



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