Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Parables revealing the character of God’s reign flow freely throughout this lection from Matthew. Five parables open with the tag “heaven’s realm is like” (my translation), and the point of comparison in each case is very down-to-earth (and sea). What do a mustard seed, yeast, buried treasure, a pearl, and a net full of fish have in common? Each shows us something of what it means that God is sovereign, and what it means for us who would participate in God’s domain. Jesus addresses the first two (mustard seed and yeast) to the crowd, along with the disciples. He tells the last three (treasure, pearl, and fish) just to the disciples.
The mustard plant known to Jesus’ listeners grew rapidly, to a height of a dozen feet or so, yet its seed was proverbially small. The rendition in Mark 4:31-32 culminates in a bird-sheltering bush, while Luke 13:19 with exaggeration pictures a mustard tree. Matthew fuses the two images, offering “the greatest of shrubs” that “becomes a tree” (13:32). Maybe not a tree, but it certainly functions like one, as it provides shelter and residence for birds—this in addition to the curative properties of mustard, not named in the story.1 Matthew is fond of intertextual links to the Hebrew Bible, and the image of a tree hosting birds recalls passages like Ezekiel 31:6 and Daniel 4:12, where the image symbolizes empire.
So this is an empire too—but what an improbable one! God’s reign starts small, and even in its effective operation it is no majestic, towering tree. Yet it gets the job done, bringing life and help and hope to all manner of people. The church, whatever its size and resources, is still given this world-transforming mission.
Speaking of transformation, that lies at the heart—or rather, in the dough—of the next parable about God’s reign. Jesus offers a woman baking bread as an image of the reigning presence of God in the world (13:33). She “hid” (enekrypsen) yeast in three measures of flour, an amount sufficient to bake forty or more loaves.2 The New Revised Standard Version says the woman mixes the yeast with the flour, but the image of concealment is important here. Hidden and unseen within the bread lies the source of its inevitable transformation.
To be sure, yeast or leaven was sometimes a negative symbol (for example, 1 Corinthians 5:6-7), but that does not seem to be the point here. As with the mustard seed, a small amount of yeast produces dramatic, transformational change. If it is not evident at first, the change is nevertheless coming. The parable intimates that the world is being re-made, God’s reign at work, even when it doesn’t appear to be so. It is up to the church today to bear witness to that work of God, and itself to embody the transformation in its own life and practices.
With the three parables about God’s reign in verses 44-50, Jesus pivots from large crowds to speak directly to the disciples. What does their commitment as participants in God’s reigning presence in the world mean?
Now inside the house with his followers, Jesus picks up the image of hiddenness from the yeast parable. God’s reign is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone finds and then hides again so as to lay claim to the parcel of land and thus also the treasure (verse 44). The details are obscure: who buried the treasure, and why? Is there something wrong about the actions taken by the finder? This brief story, like the buried treasure itself, conceals much. If we are to hear the parable’s message, it is wise to notice what it tells us and not place emphasis on what it does not say.
The plot unfolds swiftly: unexpected discovery, concealment, joy, total divestment of resources, and purchase of the field. The story’s protagonist does something radical and extreme. He sells everything to take the risk of possessing a treasure he never expected to find. Can it be that the reigning presence of God in the world is like that? Is it worth everything? The parable challenges listeners to embrace whole-hearted commitment to this cause. As with the following parable (pearl), the question posed to listeners is not an easy one: Are you all in? Where does your ultimate concern lie?3
The images of finding and then selling all to possess something of great value reappear in the parable about a merchant and a pearl (verses 45-46). This merchant is on the lookout for beautiful pearls and chances upon an extraordinary one. Intent on obtaining that pearl, the merchant sells everything he has so that he can purchase the one-of-a-kind pearl. Like disciples who left their fishing business to become Jesus’ companions, this merchant abandons his business—and everything else!—to lay claim to a beautiful object. This is an impractical life choice: the pearl may be beautiful and expensive, but how useful is it? As with the field treasure, the exaggerated plot delivers the punch line: if the reigning presence of God in the world is like this, are you all in? What is your ultimate concern?
The imagery in the final parable in Matthew 13 returns the imagination of listening disciples to the lakeshore (see also 13:1-2). The details differ, but the point of the fish net is much the same as in the parable about wheat and weeds. (See the discussion of that parable at Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.) Field and sea alike—the whole earth—hold the good and the bad all mixed up together. The reign of God is pressing into the world, laying claim to it, transforming it, though it takes bold and imaginative vision to see it. Jesus and the disciples carry out their mission in a world that includes a whole lot of bad. Yet even though God’s reigning presence will not swiftly cancel and eliminate the brutality of Roman armies (to name one example), people of faith can trust the future to the holy justice of God. The parable in 13:47-50 summons readers today to the same courageous trust.
- Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 181.
- Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 407.
- Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 139-64.