The parable section of Matthew 13 covers 52 verses. Of those, 23 verses relate to the first parable. The significance of the large percentage devoted to the first parable may not be that this is the most important (as first thought may suggest). Rather, the length is at least partially due to the fact that God uses this first parable section also to teach why Christ has decided to speak in parables. And that explanation comes by way of the disciples’ question in verse 10.
They have just heard Jesus tell the people the Parable of the Sower. Possibly because they are a bit confused about its meaning, they approach Christ and ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” The answer Jesus gives might at first sound as confusing to them as did the parable. He tells them that he speaks in parables so that the disciples can understand what he teaches but also so that the people won’t understand. Why would Jesus plan his teaching ministry in such a way?! He intentionally preaches to prevent people from understanding? What?
We must understand Christ’s point based on the pattern of God’s revelatory practice. God always works according to his revelatory/response principle. God provides revelation and then looks for the faith response of those who hear and see. For those responding in faith, God offers additional enlightenment. For those who reject his revelation, he withholds additional revelation. We see this principle explained in Romans 1 where Paul indicates that the faithless response to God’s revelation of his existence is met by God’s withdrawal. God reveals (Romans 1:19) so that people “knew God” (Romans 1:21), but because “they did not honor him as God” (Romans 1:21), God “gave them up” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28) or moved away (did not draw near with additional enlightenment), resulting in their further darkness in sin. This is the same message in alternate perspective that we see explained in James 4:8: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” The old covenant is a perfect example. God’s grace in revelation through the old covenant was met by unbelief whereby God rejected them through his moving away or giving them up as 1 Corinthians 3:14 makes clear: “But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.”
Furthermore, we saw this revelation/response principle in Matthew 12 concerning the unpardonable sin. The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is a response by individuals in which they declare as evil God’s working. This results in God permanently moving away from them, unalterably leaving them dead in their sins. We also discussed how the revelation/response principle works in salvation. God moves first in revelation and enlightenment. It is by a person’s faith response that God applies accomplished redemption.
So far in Matthew, Christ has provided revelation through his teaching (Sermon on the Mount, etc.) and his miracles. But how does Christ now inhibit those who responded in rejection, while still providing additional enlightenment to those who responded in faith? After all, he is preaching to a crowd made up of both groups! Jesus accomplishes his goal by continuing his teaching in parables. Those who responded in faith (like the disciples) are “given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [those who did not respond in faith] it has not been given” (13:11). Thus, Christ “said nothing to them without a parable” (13:34). This is the point that Matthew intends to highlight in this chapter of parables by linking them to the previous chapter’s display of an unfaithful response: “That same day Jesus…told them many things in parables…” (13:1,3, emphasis added).
The first parable concerns a sower, seed, and types of ground. As Jesus explains to the disciples in verses 18 through 23, the seed is the gospel word of the kingdom. The ground types represent types of people who hear the message. Of course, the good ground in which the seed grows and thrives relates to those who accept by faith the word of the kingdom. All three other types of ground demonstrate different forms of rejection. The seed on the path that is carried away represents those who simply refuse the gospel. God enlightens, but they reject. It is not that the Devil or his demons remove the seed before they have a chance to consider it; rather, the seed lies dormant on the path—still dead and without growth. Because it lies there without being received by the hard soil of the path (stubborn, rebellious hearts), the birds have opportunity (as do the demons) to ensure that the seed will not find root by taking it away (deceiving, lying, countering with other attractions, and other work of demons).
The rocky and thorny soils also depict those who do not respond in true faith. The message of the gospel of the kingdom (as Christ has explained so far in Matthew) is to give up yourself, trusting God’s control through Christ’s lordship. Those who like the idea of a savior protecting them from disaster, but haven’t really given themselves in faith to God are in the rocky soil. When recognizing that the idea of the gospel will not protect them from all persecution that interferes with their desire for personal ease and comfort, they reject the gospel (having never given themselves over to Christ in faith). Those who like the idea of the kingdom because they see themselves gaining from it (those in the thorny soil) are also not true believers because their focus (like the rocky soil) is on themselves. They want the glories of the kingdom, but still have not given themselves over for the glory of God. Thus, when life dims their glory concerning the Christian idea (in other words, when they believe other attractions would offer more glory), they quickly leave the gospel to continue their focus on themselves. Only the good ground depicts those who give up themselves—place full faith and trust in Christ and his kingdom message.
The next parable provides similar imagery, but the symbols mean something different. In this parable, the soil is ignored and the plants are the subject of focus. The wheat represents God’s people of faith. The weeds are the rejecters of the gospel. The points of this parable are that (1) we cannot seek to do away with the weeds because their side-by-side growth fits God’s plan, (2) we should not seek to find our own section of the field since God’s intent for us is to grow alongside the weeds, and (3) we must surely know and proclaim that a judgment is coming.
Two very short parables follow. The mustard seed shows the growth of the kingdom as slow but sure until those of faith would fill the earth. The second short parable seems at first to give the same lesson—the little bit of leaven slowly and surely spreads throughout the flour. However, this parable may be emphasizing an internal aspect of the kingdom. What starts out as seemingly hidden within the lives of Christians, grows (through the sanctification process) in affecting and being reflected by every part of the Christian’s life.
After these parables, Christ leaves the crowds and enters a house. In this house he speaks privately to his disciples. First, he explains the wheat and weeds parable. Next, he offers them two other short parables. These both emphasize the value of the kingdom of heaven. In the first of these, a man digging in a field (with presumably good reason) finds a treasure hidden. This was probably not an odd occurrence. Banks and safes did not exist, and so many people would put their valuables in the safest place they could find—an unmarked hole in the ground. The man, wanting to do right (and not just walk away with this treasure), covers it back up and goes to purchase the land. He must sell everything he owns to purchase the land. But he gladly gives up all he has for the value of the treasure. Thus again Christ teaches that the way to the kingdom is through giving up of oneself and giving all to Christ.
The second short parable appears very similar. A man searching for a great pearl, finds one surpassing every other pearl in value. He too sells all he has to purchase this pearl. The difference in this parable is that the man is searching for this treasure rather than accidentally finding it. This difference emphasizes that the kingdom is not only valuable, but there is nothing else more valuable.
Finally, Jesus tells a parable about a net that fisherman use to gather fish. Once they have dragged it to shore, they separate out from the catch the good fish from the bad fish. The lesson here appears to be exactly the same as that of the wheat and the weeds. But notice two things. First, the parable of the wheat and weeds was given to the crowds, but explained privately to the disciples. That parable was about farming. Since the disciples had to have it explained to them, Jesus goes another step to ensure their understanding by repeating the lesson but using imagery that they (mostly fishermen) would understand better. And when he finishes, he makes a point to ask them whether they understand. Since they do understand, Jesus tells them that as a master of a house has the responsibility to share of his treasure for the needs of the household, so do they have the responsibility of sharing this understanding with others. The “new and old” of the master’s treasure probably relates to the new and old covenants, for both speak of Christ.
The chapter ends with a trip to Nazareth, Jesus’ home town. After preaching there, the people respond mostly in rejection. They know Jesus and his family and have difficulty accepting that he has the wisdom to speak the word of God. We are told that Christ did not perform many mighty works there because of their unbelief. It is not that since they had little faith, Christ could not perform the miracles. Remember that the faithful response of the people who had heard him in other areas was to come to him for healing. In Nazareth, the response is without faith, and therefore they do not come to him. Thus, the few miracles of healing performed, were not because Jesus tried but the people couldn’t muster up enough faith. It was because the people in their disbelief would not come to him in the first place.