Thursday, October 18, 2012

Variations: Three Parables of the Kingdom - Matthew 13:24-43

Tares Among Wheat
24 Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
25 "Buit while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.
26 "But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also.
27 "The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then does it have tares?'
28 "And he said to them, 'An enemy has done this!'  The slaves said to him, 'Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?'
29 "But he said, 'No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them.
30 'Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say ot the reapers, "First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn."'"
36 Then He left the crowds and went into the house.  And His disciples came to Him and said, "Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field."
37 And He said, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man,
38 and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one;
39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels.
40 "So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age.
41 "The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness,
42 and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
43 "Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father.  He who has ears, let him hear."
Don't you just love how Jesus explicitly explained what every single symbol in this parable represents?  That makes interpretation so much easier for us! ;-)  It doesn't mean that there's not still plenty for us to talk about, however...
Let's start with the tares.  We know they are "the sons of the evil one," but does that mean non-Christians in general, or specifically false believers hiding among the Church to stir up trouble?  In this case, I think it's both.  The proclamation about the final judgment is clearly referencing all non-believers based on what we see throughout the New Testament, but then there's that line in verse 41 about how He'll remove "all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness."  If "stumbling blocks" refers to people instead of temptations, as it indeed seems to from the larger context, then these stumbling blocks are presumably "false brethren," that is, people who claim to be Christians but stir up trouble.  This can include teachers and prophets, but also those among the laity.  Here are a few great verses that speak to this:
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.  For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Jesus Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.
- Romans 16:17-18
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.  Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
- 2 Peter 2:1-3
Also tying into this is the fact that until the wheat sprouts and bears grain, we won't be able to tell what kind of seed there is.  These false brethren are in our churches, and we will fellowship with them, and they may even become our close personal friends, before the truth about them becomes clear.  We need to keep a very wary eye out people who seem to be trying to cause division and the church, and for those who hold to anti-Biblical doctrines that they are specifically trying to convince others to buy into, too.  The sooner we catch a "wolf in sheep's clothing," the easier it will be to handle the situation, and (most importantly), the less time they will have to try and snare other believers in their web of lies.
Alright, so why exactly did the sower have to wait until the harvest time to remove the tares so as to avoid uprooting the wheat?  I've come up with three theories.  I feel they are all reasonable and Biblically-based, but I'm not sure if any of them fit with the precise meaning here in this parable.  I'll let you be the judge of that. :-)  (1) God is having compassion on mankind by giving them more time to transform from tares to wheat - more time to repent and turn to Him.  2 Peter 3:9 tells us, "The Lord is not slow about His promise [to return], as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance."  (2) It is possible that without evil in the world, we believers would forget how horrible evil really is, and it would start to look appealing to us again.  Sound far-fetched?  Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or consider how quickly we all seem to slip back into sin after a weekend retreat or revival.  Simply put, we prettymuch need constant, powerful reminders of the consequences of sin to keep us in check.  So, in this sense, if the tares were removed, some of the wheat might end up turning away from God, too.  (3) God is certainly not bound by physics or medicine or the rules that govern the way the "real world" operates (evidenced by all His miracles), but He does seem to like to operate under them most of the time - after all, He did invent all those systems of operation.  So, if we look at it from that "realistic" standpoint, the logistics of removing the tares from the earth would create utter chaos in the world.  Just sayin'.
Just one final comment before we move on to the other parables: Notice in verse 30 that the tares are gathered up before the wheat is.  This is an interesting verse to grapple with when you're trying to figure out what you believe about the End Times, because it seems to directly contradict the notion of a pre-tribulation rapture, and support the post-trib view.  Now, I am absolutely not trying to start some End Times doctrine debate here - trust me, we will dive deep into that topic in chapter 24.  I'm just pointing this out as we go along since, when I say verse-by-verse Bible study, I mean it - not skipping over anything because it's confusing or controversial.  So anyway, it's a tiny thing to keep in mind as we eventually progress toward delving into that topic later on.
The Mustard Seed
31 He presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field,
32 and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES."
You can also look at this parable two different ways - but in this case, they are totally opposite of each other.  The nicey-nice meaning it seems to have at first glance is that Christianity would start out very, very small (indeed, it did!) but eventually grow huge (and indeed, it has spread throughout the world).  Going along with this interpretation, it seems comforting - a place of rest.  And, if you look up the Old Testament verses Jesus is referring to here (Psalm 104:12, Ezekiel 17:23 and 31:6, and Daniel 4:12), they all seem perfectly pleasant.  BUT...
There are a lot of problems with that interpretation.  First, Christianity is not the largest of all plants (religions) - remember Matthew 7:13-14, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it."  Second, mustard plants are never supposed to grow very big - they're bush sized.  When they grow bigger than that, it's because of some genetic deformity - that is, something is catastrophically wrong with the plant.  Because mustard plants were highly prevalent in Israel at this time, the crowd Jesus was speaking to would have understood this.  Third, we just heard Jesus use birds as a symbol for the devil's work in our last study.  I'm mentioned being cautious transferring symbols from parables to parables before - but in this case, it's in the same conversation!
What's the point of the parable, then?  That the kingdom of God will be falsely bigger than it really is - that there will be "fluff" of false believers, whether the intentional disrupters we just talked about, or the lukewarm who think they are believers but really aren't - and that this puffery is caused by the devil.  This fits precisely with what we just talked about in the parable of the Tares Among Wheat - that there will be false Christians among us that cause trouble.
The Leaven
33 He spoke a parable to them, "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened."

Perhaps the only Biblical symbol most Christians are aware of is that leaven = sin or hypocrisy.  We get this from Jesus's teaching on the "leaven of the Pharisees" in Matthew 16:6-12, Mark 8:15, and Luke 12:1, as well as the famous verses in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, "Your boasting is not good.  Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?  Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened.  For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.  Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." (this is quoted again in Galatians 5:9).
So, this parable is saying the exact same thing as the other two!  God's kingdom is the hunk of dough, but there's leaven (yeast) mixed in with it, and I mean mixed.  Even though the leaven and the dough are separate, the leaven completely pervades the mixture, and it is utterly impossible to separate the two - just like so many false brethren are mixed in with the true Church.  Furthermore, leaven puffs up the bread with air so it ends up taking up much more space than the actual cooked dough - exactly like the mustard plant being larger than a true mustard plant.
In Summation
So again, all three of these parables warn us of the exact same thing.
They reminded me about that famous quote how we believers have to be in the world, but we are not to be of the world.  Let's all let our light shine this week amidst so many who still need to meet Jesus.
Let's Make It a Conversation!
What reasons can you think of why the sower had to put off the harvest to avoid uprooting the wheat?
Any other comments?  Things that stuck out to you, things you think I missed or messed up on...?
Or any questions about things I can clarify? :-)
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Giving Credit Where It's Due
Image Number One: Woman harvesting wheat, Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh, India; by Ggia and Yann.  Wikipedia.  Used by permission.
Image Number Two:  Indian mustard flower; by Indian Poet.  Wikipedia.  Used by permission.
Image Number Three:  Preparation of Chapati; by Alena.  Wikipedia.  Used by permission.

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