NT Gospel Doctrine Lesson 11: Matthew 13 and Parables

NT Gospel Doctrine Lesson 11: Matthew 13 and Parables March 14, 2015

Matthew 13 is a series of long and short parables,  which furnishes us with a good opportunity to talk about parables in general, followed by a few specific comments.

First, a parable represents a particular genre, and knowing the general genre of something tells us how it relates to reality. A newspaper story, an editorial, and a Doonesbury cartoon may all be speaking about the same topic (e.g. war in the middle east), but they are each different genres, with different characteristics. We know what it is, in this case, through explicit genre markers, like a label or by location in the paper. Most often we learn about different genres and their genre markers unconsciously, absorbing them through cultural exposure. We’ve seen enough parables in the New Testament that begin with “now hear this parable…” that the average NT reader can recognize Jesus’ other parables, even when they’re not labeled as such.

It is necessary to recognize genre correctly in  order to read something correctly. Does this matter? Absolutely! Back in 2000, for example, satirical newspaper The Onion ran an article titled “Harry Potter Books Spike Rise in Satanism Among Children.” Misread as journalism instead of satire, this article was passed along in Christian chain mails and even cited in some other online articles as proof. Another example of genre confusion, albeit a simple and humorous one, is the character Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, who is incapable of recognizing metaphor.

To restate, understanding the genre of something creates proper expectations of what and how things should happen, how to process the information presented. We know with science fiction and fantasy to suspend belief, just as we know with a chemistry book or recipe book that the information is “real” and can be applied in certain ways.

Unlike parables, other ancient genres are not so easy to recognize, which leads to genre confusion, like mistaking The Onion for actual journalistic reporting. When it comes to reading scripture, Mormons tend to default to an assumption of “history” as a general genre. Kenton Sparks, himself an Evangelical who supports a version of inerrancy, offers the following observation.

Enlightenment historicism has deeply influenced evangelical [and Mormon!] views of the Bible’s genre. One consequence of this influence is that conservative evangelicals, when making generic assessments of the Bible, are strongly biased in favor of historical narrative and deeply suspicious of fictional genres like allegories, myths, legends , fables, and folktales. For many evangelicals, any hint of fiction in Job, Jonah, Daniel, 1 Kings, Acts, or in any parts of the Pentateuch or Gospels, would be theologically threatening, not only for the biblical book itself but for the Bible as a whole. Even where this angst is not wholly present in evangelicals, they often display a theoretical preference for history over fiction…. We have good biblical grounds for seeing theological value in fictional genres. Although there have been many debates among scholars about the life of Jesus, on this point it would seem that all New Testament scholars agree: Jesus’s favorite teaching genre was the parable. Or to put this more brashly, Jesus’s preferred genre for conveying truth was fiction. How does fiction convey truth? – God’s Word in Human Words- An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (my emphasis)


For the ultimate fun exploration of genre confusion, I highly recommend watching Galaxy Quest, since the whole film is premised on the idea of aliens misreading a Star-Trek-like tv show as “historical documents.”

Parables in the NT tend to be short and have a high degree of verisimilitude; that is, they are plausible, not fantastical or magical. They correspond to real life, in a sense. Nevertheless, the information they convey, the lessons we are to learn, are not premised upon their historical accuracy or their historicity.

“Every form of discourse makes its own truth claims, and the truth value of different discourses must be assessed in terms of the truth claims of each, that is, in terms of what each intends to communicate or accomplish. If parables, for example, are ‘stories designed to teach theological truth without referece to whether or not the events depicted within them actually happened,’ then it is incorrect to try to mine them for historical information and unfair to fault them if they fail to yield such. Parables are not to be read as history, for they imply no historical truth claim.”- v. Phillips Long, Art of Biblical History, 92.

Let’s return to Sparks’ question, “how does fiction convey truth?” Are there times when a fictional story can convey truth or a message better than a non-fictional one? Jesus certainly thought so. Many other authors have thought so as well. I can’t recall the source, but have read that “the stories we make up are the truest, because they reveal the reality we truly desire and our ideals.” (That’s probably garbled a good bit.)

Sparks offers some specific guidance about how a fictional parable might serve Jesus’ purposes more than a historical one.

“The parable of the good Samaritan, for instance, is not about a particular sequence of events in time; but it is certainly about real victims and real crimes, and about those who help— or do not help— their neighbors in distress. Because the parable can describe many times and places rather than a single time and place, its depiction of history is actually better than if it were a genuine historical report….If the story were [a historical report], what would it convey? It would inform us of the impieties of two particular Jews and of a better fellow from Samaria—nothing more, and nothing less. While this might satisfy the historicist thirst for genuine history, it obviously robs the story of its rhetorical import….Since things in our world are not as they ought to be, then we should anticipate that Scripture will include not only historical genres, which tell us what is, but also fictional genres, which depict what should be. The author of Jonah, for example, helps us to understand what our response to the repentance of others should look like—even if the penitents are our cruelest enemies. Presumably, the author could have used an actual historical incident in the story if such an extreme example of national repentance had existed. But with that example lacking in his knowledge of history, fiction came to the author’s rhetorical rescue. “

Jonah is probably intend as a satirical parable (which would fall into the general “fiction” category)  but most of us don’t recognize the ancient genre markers; if it began, “once upon a time, there was a prophet named Jonah…” that would reshape our understanding of the book. Instead, we tend to default to an assumption of  “history” as the genre and spend our time arguing about whales. (I’ve written on Jonah and genre a bit, see here for my OT lesson and links on Jonah.)

Moving on.

What is a parable?

While the Greek etymology of “parable,” parabolē, is initially illustrative, the term itself is applied rather broadly. From para (“beside”) and bolē (from ballō, “to cast”), the etymological image is of something cast beside something else, thus a juxtaposition functioning as an illustrative comparison. This is the sense that the term bears already in its Attic usage in Plato and Aristotle (e.g., Aristotle, Pol. 1254b; Rhet. 2:20, where parabolē is classed with but distinguished from “fable”). – Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd Ed. “Parable.”

Parables were known in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ Judaic and Greco-Roman environment… but nowhere near the extent that Jesus himself seems to have used them. The closest OT example is

The most famous and most analogous to the story parables of Jesus is the story of the ewe lamb. Through this parable the intrepid prophet Nathan confronts a guilty King David (2 Sam 12:1–4), an instructive example, evincing features that would also be characteristic of the parables of Jesus. In the first place, the story accomplishes its work by cloaking its ultimate referents in the figures of a rich man, a poor man and a ewe lamb. The story functions to draw David into an empathic identification by which he commits himself to a judgment—as it turns out, a harsh judgment against himself, the story’s “rich man.” This demonstrates a second feature: the story requires its hearer-readers to make certain simple identifications of figures internal to the story with persons outside, identifications on which the story depends for its effect. At the same time, to call the story an “allegory” would be to overstate the degree of figurative correspondence. There is, for example, nothing in David’s tryst with Bathsheba that corresponds to a traveler in need of hospitality (2 Sam 12:4). By the same token, the tender treatment of the ewe lamb in 2 Samuel 12:3 presumably intends no direct correspondence to Uriah’s relationship to Bathsheba other than to evoke a picture of deep affection. -Ibid.

As Julie Smith points out, you can push a parable too far. Like any metaphor, it breaks down at some point.

Something interesting in the Gospels is the distribution of parables. John, for example, is almost completely devoid of parables. Mark has a few. Matthew and Luke both contain most of Mark’s and their own unique parables. Does this distribution say anything about how Matthew, Mark, Luke or John wished to portray Jesus?

Matthew and Luke also share a set of parables not found in Mark. Scholars long hypothesized that Matthew and Luke shared a source independent of Mark, which contained parable-like sayings of Jesus. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas, discovered in the 1945 in Egypt, was just such a “gospel,” containing very little in the way of narrative. Significantly, several of its sayings and parables matched those that Matthew and Luke share, which are not found in Mark. I’ve put together some older articles on the Gospel of Thomas here, with the caveat that like all such writings, “There are many things contained therein that are true, and…There are many things contained therein that are not true” (D&C 91)

Now, some very short commentary on today’s parables.

Matthew 13:22- “cares of this world”- This sounds very, well, “worldly” but can also be translated as the “anxieties of the time.” What are the anxieties of our time that distract or prevent full discipleship in the Church?

Matthew 13: 25- The “tares” or “weeds” here are not simply generic weeds. Growing up, we had to go out and weed our garden. It was not hard to distinguish weeds from the other plants. However, the weed here is a specific plant called darnell, “a troublesome weed since it is very similar to wheat and can only be easily identified when ripe; if harvested and ground together the flour is spoiled. The plant also is host to a poisonous fungus. This annual grass-like weed, which grows to a height of 4 feet, is still widespread in the Near East.”-Anchor Bible Dictionary.

“Sowing darnel in a field for purposes of revenge (cf. Mt. 13:25f.) was a crime under Roman legislation. The necessity for a law on the subject suggests that the action was not infrequent.”-New Bible Dictionary

In other words, it was and is impossible to tell the weeds from the wheat until the very end. Trying to weed the field early might well result in, as Jesus says in v. 29, uprooting the wheat right along with them. I suppose there are several constructive things we could derive from that, but let’s push right beyond the boundaries of the parable right now. People are not wheat. Nor are people tares. Unlike plants, people make choices. Following President Uchtdorf’s “Is It I?” theme, instead of eyeing our neighbor’s stalk, we might ask ourselves, what am I choosing to become? What am I becoming through my choices? Am I growing into productive wheat? We must be on guard against too-quick judgment, since both we and others can change. Which Saul are we? The one that started well and ended badly (i.e. King Saul), or the one that started badly and ended well, (i.e. Paul)?

I close with a thought from Alexander Solzhenitzen.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

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