Readings for July 24. Seventeenth Sunday, including Matthew 13:44-52.
Chapter 13 contains the third of the five great Matthean discourses by Jesus. In Chapter 13, Jesus sits by the shore of the Sea of Galilee and speaks to a great crowd. His talk is delivered in parable, and it is characterized by extensive thematic repetition. Jesus speaks of only two things throughout chapter 13. He speaks directly of the Kingdom of Heaven, and he speaks elliptically of the reality of a last judgment. The phrase βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (kingdom of heaven) occurs eight times throughout the chapter 13.
It is worth emphasizing that the lesson in chapter 13 is devoted entirely to the question of the Kingdom of Heaven. Chapter 13 is not a lesson in good Christian behavior – it is a discourse on the relationship between the person of faith and the Kingdom of Heaven. It is an eschatological chapter, one in which Jesus tells the great crowd to value and to anticipate the coming of the Kingdom.
When speaking to the crowd by the sea, Jesus uses four different story-telling vehicles: the parable of the sower, the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and then two more similes. After that, he gives an expansive explanation as to why he uses parables. In this interlude in verses 10-17, we are told that many prophets longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it (verse 17).
When the crowd disperses, in verse 36, Jesus goes “into the house,” and the disciples ask him to explain the parable of the weeds ands the wheat a second time. Jesus responds more clearly, asserting that “at the end of the age” the wicked shall be “thrown into the furnace of fire” (13:42). Matthew the Evangelist portrays Jesus as repeating this theme three times (verses 30, 41-42, 49-50).
Theologians are divided on the matter as to whether Jesus intends to convey that, at the Last Judgment, God will carry through with the threat to cast the wicked into hell; or whether this is simply an expression of the unthinkable, unimaginable result of what happens when one is completely alienated from God.
Finally, Jesus uses five similies to describe the Kingdom of God: a mustard seed (13:31-32), leaven (13:33), a pearl of great price (13:45-46), treasure hidden in a field (13:44), and a net thrown into the sea (13:47-50).
The simile of the pearl and the treasure are notable because Jesus tells us that they are worth so much that when one finds it, he “goes and sells all that he has” for the Kingdom. In verse 44, Matthew writes that Jesus uses the verb πωλέω (poleo), which means to exchange or barter. In verse 46, Jesus uses the verb πιπράσκω (piprasko), which means to dispose of, to sell, or to get rid of. In either case, Jesus tells us to unload, sell or otherwise dispose of every other thing we possess, in order to gain the Kingdom of Heaven.
We need to credit Matthew for being theologically consistent when he writes his Gospel. Just as Jesus tells the parable of the person who sold everything for the “pearl of great price” in chapter 13, Jesus later speaks of the same topic, in nearly identical words, in Matthew 19:21-23. Except this time, he speaks to a real person:
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The order and consistency in Matthew’s gospel begs the question: did the Sacred Author invent the theology, or did he record what Jesus taught? What we have seen in chapter 13 of Matthew is that Jesus very conscientiously repeats fundamental themes about the Kingdom of Heaven, its enormous value, and the un-imaginable consequence of leading a wicked life… which is the loss of the Kingdom.
As I think Jesus is the better theologian than Matthew, I would argue that Matthew, to his credit, simply understood well the meaning of Jesus’ preaching, and captured the Rabbinic sophistication of Jesus’ preaching. One can make the case that the Gospels of Mark and Luke do not always capture this thematic sophistication. Historical-critical scholars have faulted the “high theology” of Matthew and John, arguing that they simply didn’t report – they also interpreted and re-wrote the record.
I disagree. Matthew and John were witnesses to Jesus’ Galillean ministry. If the apostles John and Matthew are in fact the original, if not the final, authors of those two Gospels, then we should not be surprised that their theology is a little more sophisticated than that of Luke or Mark, who were not close companions of Jesus. John’s and Matthew’s theological “education” (hearing Jesus preach) clearly reveals itself in the orderly structure and lucid content of their Gospels.
Ed. note: When a verb is presented in Greek, the convention is to show the first person singular of the present tense, not the infinitive. For instance, πωλέω (poleo) means “I barter.”