Jesus' Kingdom Parables (preaching resource for 7/30/23, 9th Sunday after Pentecost)

This post exegetes Matthew 13:1-52, providing context for the 7/30/23 RCL Gospel reading. It draws on "Kingdom, Grace, Judgment" by Robert Capon, "New Bible Commentary" by RT France, and "Bible Knowledge Commentary" by Louis Barbieri.


In Matthew 12 Jesus authenticates his kingdom authority through miracles. Then in Matthew 13, because opposition arose, Jesus shifs tactics and uses parables to teach about the kingdom. These parables express two themes: 1) The paradoxical (mysterious) nature and growth of the kingdom (which explains why different people react so differently). 2) The radical trust in Jesus that characterizes his disciples (the citizens of the kingdom). These themes fit Matthew’s purpose in writing his Gospel, namely to exhort and encourage Jewish-Christian churches whose trust in Jesus is waning in the face of opposition. Matthew’s use of these kingdom parables suggests that they (like all of Matthew’s Gospel) apply to the church in all times. Indeed, we all are called to trust in Jesus, following him as his disciples. It is in following Jesus that we deeply experience and thus fully enjoy the presence of the kingdom (and its king, Jesus) in our midst.

Before we proceed, let’s note that parables often are wrongly viewed as mere stories. But the Greek word parabole conveys the sense of mysterious sayings. Parables are sort of like cartoons—they have a deep meaning that lies under the surface, so look deeply, and don’t worry about trying to find meaning in every detail. Because this is so, though the same parable enlightens some, it leaves others in the dark. This theme of enlightenment is key to Chapter 13, particularly in vv10–17, where the enlightenment of the disciples is contrasted with the blindness of the unresponsive crowds. 

"The Sower" by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist's permission)

The parable of the sower 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. When we examine this parable in the light of the gospel, we understand its characters as follows: The farmer who sows the seed is God the Father. The seed that is sown everywhere (in all kinds of soil, representing the entire world) is the kingdom of God now present in the person of Jesus. The point of the parable is thus how people do or do not receive (trust in) Jesus who now is among them, and soon will be “sown” in all the world through his death, resurrection and ascension followed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

This being so, the question/challenge presented in the parable of the sower is this: How will people respond to the presence of the kingdom—to Jesus? Certainly Jesus’ disciples are perplexed that others are responding so negatively. This chapter gives an explanation presented in four ‘scenes’, each showing an important aspect of how the seed (the kingdom in the person of Jesus) does its work. It shows that this work is not something that happens in response to what we do—the plants (representing the kingdom) have sprung up, everywhere, no matter the condition of the soil. And then comes the question of our response. Three types of inadequate responses are addressed: refusing to respond, giving a superficial response, and being unable to respond by being preoccupied with other concerns. 

The disciples should not be surprised or disheartened by these inadequate responses. Instead, they should look for responses of faithof acceptance of what Jesus has done. That acceptance is represented by the good soil, where the seed (the kingdom in the person of Jesus) is allowed to do its amazing, transforming work—the result being the production of fruit (which is Jesus’ own fruit, see John 15), thus yielding a great harvest. However, note that the fruit in this harvest will vary, a hundred, sixty or thirty times. Disciples of Jesus will not come in only one size or shape. Indeed, in the kingdom there will be both the ordinary and the spectacular. This also suggests that productivity will come from unexpected places and in unexpected ways (a phenomenon that these disciples will shortly experience). This is part of the mystery of the kingdom.

Note that this parable distinguishes between  merely hearing the word and actually understanding it (Matt. 13:19, 23). This prepares us for vv10–17, where a sharp distinction is drawn between hearers who do not understand and those who are in possession of the ‘secret’ which unlocks their meaning. It is thus, in a sense, a parable about parables. It is appropriate, therefore, that it concludes in v9 with an appeal to us all to take notice, for how we hear (which is a metaphor for trusting in Jesus who is the Word), will determine whether or not our discipleship is fruitful. One additional note: the contrast between the privacy of the house (v1 and see v36) and the large audience gathered by the lake, symbolizes the distinction, which is carefully drawn throughout this chapter, between the crowds whom Jesus taught only in parables and his disciples to whom he gave private (though often perplexing) further explanation.

How parables work 

Matthew 13:10–17. Here we are shown that the presence of the kingdom in the person of Jesus meets with different responses depending on the receptivity of the hearer. By explaining his parables to his disciples, Jesus opens to them the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom has a logic all its own—one which human reason cannot penetrate. This truth must be revealed. To be a disciple of Jesus is thus to be in the school of revelation. Jesus is quoting Isa 6:9-10, a passage that vividly predicts the results of not receiving this revelation. Such people never get beyond a superficial hearing of God’s word, and thus it does them little good. But Jesus’ disciples “get it”—they are given a privilege greater than that enjoyed by the greatest of God’s people in the past (prophets and righteous men), who had a preliminary inkling of the kingdom of heaven, but did not yet know its reality. 

Jesus’ point here is not that his parables are designed to conceal truth (and thus keep people out of the kingdom), but that as a matter of fact not everyone has the ability to penetrate their meaning. That ability is given to Jesus’ disciples, rather than being the result of human cleverness. The inference then is that if the disciples (quite ordinary people) can be so enlightened, then so can others, if they will trust Jesus. But as we’ve already seen, the “seed” (the kingdom in the person of Jesus) falls on all sorts of soils. Jesus’ parables will continue to reveal this division as the mysterious growth of the kingdom continues.

The parable of the weeds 

Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43. Note that the seed is sown everywhere (in the whole field). Because of God’s work in Jesus, the kingdom is everywhere present, doing its mysterious, fruit-bearing work. But it appears to Jesus’ disciples that something has gone wrong. An enemy of the farmer (Jesus, who is both the sower and the seed here) has come and sown weeds among the wheat. But as Jesus notes in his interpretation, these weeds will not harm the wheat (the kingdom’s fruit). However, the weeds do inconvenience the farmer’s servants (harvest workers, representing Jesus’ disciples). Their inclination is to take action! 

But Jesus’ tactic is quite different – he counsels noninterference, at least for now: Let both grow together (v30). The word let (Greek=aphete) in its various forms is used in the New Testament to mean send away or remit (forgive; as in “forgive [aphes] us our debts” in the Lord’s prayer). Thus when the farmer says “let both grow together,” Jesus’ disciples (and Matthew’s original readers), would likely have taken this to mean that the evil in the world is not to be dealt with by attacking it, but by ‘letting it be’, by ‘forgiving’ it—by suffering with it—all these ideas rolled into one. 

So Jesus is noting that until the great harvest at the end of the age, the kingdom will exist side-by-side with evil. And his disciples are to react, not by going on a crusade to reform the world, but to bring to the world forgiveness, and to focus on reaping the harvest which the Lord if producing thereby. Jesus, the king of the kingdom, will in his good time, remove the evil (evil, by the way, which he has decisively conquered through his life, death and resurrection; yet he allows to remain for a time). 

And note another point that Jesus makes about these weeds (evil in the world). It’s often difficult to distinguish between the wheat and the weeds. The type of weeds Jesus is referring to in this parable are probably darnel, which looks like wheat in the early stages of growth and after that is so closely entangled with it that it cannot be removed without damaging the wheat. What looks to us like a weed, might actually be wheat; and the reverse is true as well. And so judgment is reserved for Jesus alone, who will act decisively to separate the two at the end of the age. But not now.

One more thing, note in v41 that in referring to ‘the kingdom of heaven’ as the kingdom of the Son of Man, Jesus is making the remarkable claim about his authority as king of the kingdom (also see 16:28; 19:28; 25:31–46).

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast 

Matthew 13:31-35. Both of these parables speak of small (and thus hidden) beginnings and of inevitable growth. Mustard seed is proverbial for being tiny (see 17:20), yet yielding huge plants (upwards of ten feet!). A very small amount of yeast combined with even a large amount of flour has a powerful impact. And so it is that the kingdom of heaven (typed by the seed in the ground and the yeast intermingled with the flour), though not highly visible at first, is actively at work—advancing and growing in the midst of all the world. Eventually, this ever-present kingdom will be seen and thus experienced by all. In the meantime, the disciples must be patient and not use human standards in evaluating progress (or trying to force progress). In the economy of God, little becomes great—how that is so is part of the mystery of the kingdom. Our calling as disciples of Jesus is to trust in that, to rely on the king of the kingdom, and follow along with him on his journey of advancing the kingdom.

The teaching in v34 about Jesus’ use of parables reinforces the teaching of vv10–17. Then in v35 Matthew offers another formula-quotation, drawn this time from Psa 78:2, to show how in this method of teaching, Jesus was fulfilling a pattern laid down in the Old Testament.

The parables of the treasure, the pearl, and the net 

Matthew 13:44-50. The key feature of the parables of the treasure and of the pearl is the issue of the mysterious (hidden) nature of the kingdom at work in all the world. Though not understood by the “wise and learned” it is understood by “little children” (11:25)—those who, in humility, have ‘ears to hear” and ‘eyes to see’ the treasure hidden in a field. Here the field represents the world (13:45). But who is the man?  There are a couple of possibilities:

1) The man represents the disciples of Jesus (and thus the church), sent into all the world (Mat 28:16-20). Unsure exactly where the treasure might be hidden in this field, he buys the entire field. Here we see the whole-hearted, generous and joy-filled response which the kingdom of heaven engenders in the followers of Jesus. But why does the man who found the treasure, hide it again (v44)? He does so in order that it not be found by others until he has purchased the field. Perhaps this is a reminder to the church to be circumspect in how it shares the good news in all the world-don’t be a ‘fool who rushes in.’ Surely the church has often erred in this respect, using tactics that did more to conceal Christ than to reveal him.

2) The man represents seekers who are not yet followers of Jesus. He comes across the treasure (the kingdom, in the person of Jesus—who, through the Spirit, is everywhere present). His response is, with joy, to ‘buy the field’ so that he may possess this great treasure. Again, the issue is our response to Jesus.

In similar fashion, Jesus then teaches that the kingdom is like a pearl of great value (vv45-46). The appropriate response, like that in the previous parable, is to give everything to obtain it. Again, this is a freely given response—one of joy, not of begrudging obligation.

The parable of the net (vv41-50) is closely related to that of the weeds (compare vv49–50 with v 40–42). It is a parable about final judgment. The net is a dragnet—one dragged through the water indiscriminately gathering everything in its path. The point is that the kingdom, which is everywhere present, impacts everything and everyone. As Jesus says in John 12:32, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men [lit. all things] to myself.” Just as the dragnet sweeps up everything in its path, so too the kingdom impacts all things—the entire created order.  Everything is included in the sweep of God’s kingdom. We don’t currently see this (it’s mysterious and hidden) yet it’s happening, and in the final judgment it will be seen by all, and at that time everything gets sorted out. In the meantime, we need not worry about making distinctions. Here is how Robert Capon says it: “If the kingdom works like a dragnet, gathering every kind, the church…should avoid the temptation to act like a sport fisherman who is interested only in speckled trout and hand-tied flies. In particular, it should not get itself into the habit of rejecting as junk the flotsam and jetsam of the world” (p127).

In the final sorting out at the end of the age, the good fish are distinguished from the bad. This happens as all people (in a general resurrection, see John 5:28), stand before Christ. Not a single one of these people will be able to claim “goodness” based on their own works or personal merit. But all will be included in what Jesus has done already to reconcile all things to the Father. The question then for each person is this: Do you accept this reconciliation? God forces in on no one, but it has been accomplished for all. Those who embrace it stand in Jesus’ righteousness; those who reject it stand on their own merits, which places them, by their own choice, among the wicked. The consequence of this choice to repudiate Christ is devastating, potentially forever.


Matthew 13:51-52. As Jesus promised (v11), the disciples understand the meaning of these parables (see vv13, 14, 15, 19, 23 for the importance of ‘understanding’). Like the scribes who taught Israel, Jesus through these parables teaches the way of God—which is the way of the kingdom. The closing parable of the house-owner (v52b) thus challenges the disciples to fulfill their responsibility to be teachers of the kingdom. The truths, revealed in these parables, which they are to teach others, include both the new treasures of Jesus’ kingdom teaching and the old truths taught by the scribes, which Jesus is now fulfilling (Matt 5:17) and thus illuminating.