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 sermon is delivered in parable format, and it is characterized by extensive thematic repetition. Jesus speaks of only two things throughout chapter 13, the Kingdom of Heaven and the reality of a last judgment. The phrase basileia ton ouranon – βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (the kingdom of heaven) – occurs eight times throughout the chapter 13.
This passage is paired in year A with first reading (an alternate first reading for the RCL) from I Kings. The story concerns Solomon. God speaks to Solomon in a dream and says, ask something of me and I will give it to you. Solomon responds, give your servant… an understanding heart... for who is able to govern this vast people of yours. Solomon is remembered as a king of great wisdom, the one who commissioned the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the governor who brought great prosperity to Israel.
Yet Solomon is remembered for something else as well. According to scripture, he had seven hundred wives. Many were from foreign lands, and they turned his heart to follow other Gods. Scripture proceeds to catalog the foreign deities to which Solomon paid lip service, stating that Solomon went so far as to build monuments to these deities, at the request of his wives. Scripture even mentions a cult in 1 Kings 11 that was regarded as heinous and notorious among the people of Israel.
Not even bothering to speak through a prophet, God spoke directly to Solomon. He said,
Since this is what you want, and you have not kept my covenant and the statutes which I enjoined on you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant. But I will not do this during your lifetime, for the sake of David your father; I will tear it away from your son’s hand… (I Kg 11:11-12)
Perhaps we should contrast the priorities of Solomon with those of Jesus. When speaking to the crowd by the sea, Jesus first tells two parables – the parable of the sower, and the parable of the weeds and the wheat. 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 and 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 portrays Jesus as repeating this theme three times (verses 30, 41-42, 49-50).
Theologians and the faithful express different opinions 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 a postulation as to the unthinkable, unimaginable consequence 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’s consistency 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 unimaginable consequence of leading a wicked life… which is the loss of the Kingdom.
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.