The Parables of Jesus (Part 2)
Part 1 of this study examined the parables in the core Synoptic (triple) tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark. We looked primarily at the Kingdom-parables in chapter 4, along with the parable of the Wicked Tenants in 12:1-12. Now we turn to the parables found in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark); some of these parables are unique to each Gospel, while others occur in both (i.e. material commonly designated “Q”). These eschatological and “Kingdom” parables will be examined according to five themes:
- The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
- Vineyard Parables
- Banquet/Feast Parables
- The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
- The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke
1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic Tradition in Mark 4
Matthew 13 clearly draws upon the same tradition as Mark 4—a sequence of Kingdom-parables, according to an established (thematic) arrangement. However, Matthew includes several parables and sayings not found in Mark (nor the corresponding version in Luke [8:4-18])—these are:
The additional parables all illustrate the Kingdom of God (“Kingdom of Heaven“, in Matthew)—vv. 24, 33, 44, 45, 47, and also v. 52. They also serve to enhance the eschatological orientation of the sequence of Kingdom-parables; in particular, the Parables of the Weeds and Net have a clear reference to the end-time Judgment.
The Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43)
The “Parable of the Weeds” is similar in theme and scope to the Synoptic Parable of the Sower (13:3-9 par); both parables include an explanation of the parable by Jesus given to his close disciples (vv. 18-23 par, 36-43; cf. verse 11ff). Many critical commentators express doubt that the explanations come from Jesus himself, but rather reflect early Christian interpretation. It is hard to find clear objective evidence for such a distinction, and the explanations are generally consistent with the language and style of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic tradition. The question, for our study, is especially significant in the case of the Parable of the Weeds, since the explanation of that parable, if coming from Jesus, would reflect his own eschatological understanding.
Unlike the parable of the Sower, the Weeds-parable is marked specifically as a Kingdom parable: “The kingdom of the heavens is (consider)ed to be like a man scattering fine seed in his field” (v. 24). However, in the explanation to the parable of the Sower, Jesus does indicate that it, too, relates to the Kingdom, identifying the seed as “the word/account [lo/go$] of the kingdom”. The context of that parable suggests that the sower is Jesus (proclaiming the message of the Kingdom); while the explanation of the Weeds-parable identifies him as “the Son of Man” (v. 37). This expression, or title, is used frequently by Jesus, often as a self-designation. The eschatological usage, drawn primarily from Daniel 7:13-14, features prominently in the Weeds-parable, and will be discussed in more detail in the study on the “Eschatological Discourse”.
Interestingly, while the seed in the Sower-parable is identified as the message or “word” of the Kingdom, in the Weeds-parable it is the “sons” (ui(oi/, i.e. children) of the Kingdom (v. 38). The reference to “sons”, in terms of the Semitic idiom which Jesus would have understood, has two principal aspects:
- In the literal sense of (royal/aristocratic) sons who will inherit their father’s estate, and
- Indicating those (as a group) who belong to the Kingdom—i.e. members of the Kingdom. The Hebrew /B@ (“son”) is often used in the sense of someone who belongs to a particular group or category, possessing certain attributes or characteristics, etc.
By contrast, the “weeds” (ziza/nia) are identified as “the sons of the evil (one)”. It is possible to translate this expression as “the sons of evil”, but the context suggests a person (or personification)—”the evil one” (i.e. the Satan or ‘Devil’); Jesus’ usage elsewhere would seem to confirm this (cp. in the Lord’s Prayer, 6:13). This sort of stark dualism is less common in the Synoptic sayings of Jesus than in the Johannine discourses, where it features prominently (Jn 3:19-20; 5:29; 8:39-47). First John presents a contrast very close to that of the parable here (3:8-10, “the children of God and the children of the devil”, v. 10). A similar dualistic contrast (“sons of light” and “sons of darkness”) is found in the Qumran texts. The ziza/nion, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, would typically be translated as “weed”, but seems to refer primarily to a type of grass or stalk which resembles the grain itself, but yields no produce.
The “field” (a)gro/$) in the parable is said to be the sower’s own field (“his field”, v. 24), while in the explanation it is identified as o( ko/smo$ (“the world-order”, v. 38a), i.e. creation, the created order. This emphasizes the cosmic aspect of the parable, and also indicates that the Son of Man, as God’s heavenly/divine representative, has authority and control over the world. Here ko/smo$ is used in a neutral sense—i.e. the world and all the people in it—much as in the parable of the Sower, where there are different types of soil, representing different responses of people to the message of the Kingdom. A different sort of illustration, but along similar lines, is presented in this parable: the Son of Man sows the good seed, while the enemy (e)xqro/$, the ‘devil’, dia/bolo$) sowed in the weeds (the false seed) secretly, at night. The explanation suggests two levels at which this may be interpreted:
- True and false disciples of Jesus, both part of the same group of people identifying themselves as his followers. This certainly would have been the immediate understanding of the parable by early Christians.
- The “weeds” as intrusive attempts to stifle the spread and growth of the Kingdom—this would include both people (false believers, persecutors), and other sorts of obstacles, temptations to sin, etc (v. 41)
The crux of the parable is its eschatological orientation—the harvest motif (vv. 28-30) used in parable, with the explanation in verses 39ff. The climactic statement of the parable would have immediately evoked the idea of the end-time judgment, as seen from the words of the Baptist in 3:12 par, echoed here:
“Release [i.e. allow] both to grow together until the reaping [o( qerismo/$], and in the time of the reaping I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the weeds and bind them into bundles toward the burning down (of) them, but bring together the grain into my building where (the grain is) put away!'” (v. 30)
In the explanation, there is no doubt left as to what Jesus means:
“The reaping [i.e. harvest] is the completion (all)together of th(is) Age, and the reapers are the (heavenly) Messengers” (v. 39b)
He is referring to the end of the current Age, and the idea, expressed elsewhere in the Gospel tradition, of the role of the Angels (assisting the Son of Man) in the end-time Judgment (Mk 8:38; 13:27 par; Matt 16:27; 25:31, etc). Verses 40-41f drive this home emphatically:
“…so it will be in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Son of Man will set forth his Messengers, and they will gather together out of his kingdom all the (thing)s tripping (people) up, and the (one)s doing (things) without law, and he will cast them into the burning chamber [i.e. furnace] of fire…”
The kingdom of the Son of Man (“his kingdom”, par “his field”) involves: (a) the proclamation of the message of the Kingdom in the world, and (b) those who belong to the Kingdom and respond to this message (i.e. the true disciples of Jesus). All that does not belong to the Kingdom, or which hinders its proclamation and establishment on earth, will be burned up at the end-time Judgment. The divine/heavenly dimension of the end-time Kingdom is made clear in the concluding words of the parable (v. 43, cf. Daniel 12:3):
“Then the just/righteous (one)s will give out (rays of) light as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
The Parable of the Net (Matt 13:47-50)
The parable of the Fish-Net is much shorter and simpler, but has essentially the same theme as the parable of the Weeds. Instead of seed cast into a field, it uses the image of a fishing-net cast into the sea (v. 47). Fundamentally, it is the end-time Judgment which is in view here; first in the parable—
“…and when it was filled, they stepped it up upon the shore, and, sitting (down), they gathered together the fine (fish) into containers, but the rotten (one)s they threw away” (v. 48)
and then in the explanation (v. 49):
“So it will in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Messengers will come out and will mark off the evil (one)s out of the midst of the just/righteous (one)s.”
The dualistic contrast here is simpler, drawing upon the traditional religious-ethical distinction of good/bad, righteous/wicked. Jesus’ statement in John 5:29 reflects the same traditional language:
“…and they will (all) travel out [i.e. from the dead]—the (ones hav)ing done good into a standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of life, but the (ones hav)ing acted foul(ly) into a standing-up of judgment.”
2. Vineyard Parables
Jesus appears to have regularly used the image of workers in a vineyard in his teaching. Many in his audience likely would have identified themselves with the servants, laborers, and tenants of these parables. The illustrations seem to play especially upon the idea of the absentee landowner—a man who travels away or lives elsewhere while the land itself is worked by hired laborers and tenant farmers. This proved useful for instruction on the theme of responsible discipleship—working faithfully while God is ‘away’ (in Heaven). The same storyline and setting could easily be applied—both in the authentic tradition, and in early Christian interpretation—to the idea of Jesus as the master who goes away (i.e., his death, resurrection, and departure to the Father). In several of the parables with an eschatological emphasis, this latter setting seems to be in view.
We have already looked at the (Synoptic) parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12; par Matt 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19). It remains to examine two other parables found in the Gospel of Matthew, both of which occur in the general context of (end-time) reward and judgment—cf. 19:13-30; 20:20-28; 21:33ff.
Matthew 20:1-16: Payment of Laborers in the Vineyard
This is marked specifically as another Kingdom-parable:
“For the kingdom of the heavens is like a man (who is) master of a house(hold), who went out before (daytime) [i.e. in the early morning] to arrange (for) workers in his vineyard (to work) for wages…” (v. 1)
The eschatological aspect of this parable has to be inferred from the fundamental idea of the work in the vineyard being done over the course of an entire day (these being day-laborers, with a harvesting context implied). At the end of the day (v. 8), i.e. at the end-time (end of the current Age), the agreed-upon wage (misqo/$) for each worker is paid. There is an obvious parallel here to the idea of heavenly reward for the faithful/righteous ones at the end-time Judgment, being implicit in the parable (vv. 9ff). Early Christians certainly would have understood the workers in the vineyard as faithful disciples of Jesus, who came to be disciples at different points in time. For all such disciples the payment/reward is the same, which is the primary theme of the parable—believers do their work in common, as disciples of Jesus, without expecting any special priority or status based on when or how long one has been a disciple. This is emphasized by the concluding, paradoxical words in verse 16, which may have originated as a separate saying: “So will the first be last, and the last first”. The saying could easily be interpreted a different way, according the reversal-of-fortune motif found in a number of Jesus’ sayings. Here, by contrast, an egalitarian principle is established, one which softens or re-works the traditional eschatological language of the Judgment (cf. above). However, since it is disciples of Jesus (i.e. believers) who are the subject of the parable (not the wicked), this emphasis is more appropriate.
Matthew 21:28-32: The Two Sons
The contrast between righteous and wicked—true and false disciple—is expressed more clearly in the “Two Sons” parable. Here it is a Father (i.e. God) who asks each of his two sons to work in the vineyard (v. 28). As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this word from the Master (vv. 29-30, note the interesting textual variants of wording and order found in the manuscripts). While not designated specifically as a Kingdom-parable, the Kingdom (of God) is clearly in view, when Jesus essentially gives an explanation of the parable to the religious leaders who were questioning his authority (vv. 23-27):
“…Amen, I relate to you that the toll-collectors and the prostitutes lead (the way) before you into the kingdom of God!” (v. 31b)
This is effectively an application of the statement in 20:16 (above), according to the reversal-of-fortune motif: sinners in the present age will enter the Kingdom, while the ‘righteous’ (according to traditional religious and morality) may not. A more precise application would follow the Vineyard-laborer parable—the religious leaders may still enter the Kingdom, but only after the lowly/wretched sinners have done so!
There is not an obvious eschatological aspect to this parable, other than what can be inferred from its basic setting, along with the narrative context—much of Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem (chapters 21-25) is eschatological in orientation.
3. Banquet/Feast Parables
There are three such parables to consider, the first two of which may derive from the same line of tradition (the so-called “Q” material). They draw upon the older traditional motif of the heavenly/eschatological banquet, inspired by passages such as Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14; cf. 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:4, etc (Fitzmyer, p. 1026). It is alluded to at several points in the book of Revelation (3:20; 19:9). At times this banquet/feast is specifically associated with the Messiah (and/or a “Messianic Age”). Jesus applies the idea to himself, and his closest disciples, in Luke 22:16ff, 29-30 par.
Matthew and Luke appear to be dealing with a common parable by Jesus (“Q” material), though the differences are significant enough that one must allow for the possibility of ‘separate’ parables coming from two distinct lines of tradition. However, the basic outline is the same—that of a (wealthy/prominent) man who invites people to a great feast. As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this message, but initially they are all negative—everyone invited declines to attend, offering various reasons to be excused. These reasons all relate to the business of daily life, and would seem to parallel the the third soil-type in the parable of the sower and “the concerns/distractions of the world” (Mark 4:19, Jesus’ explanation). As a result, the man extends his invitation further afield, reaching to the poorer segments of society. This aspect echoes the parable of the Two Sons (cf. above), and the contrast between the repentant sinners/outcasts and the ‘righteous’ who fail to respond to Jesus’ message. In what appears to be the core parable, the invitation goes out to the streets of the city (Matt 22:8 / Lk 14:22); however, in Luke’s version, this is further extended to the crowded narrow lanes (where the poor and disabled are commonly found), and even further out into the roadways and fenced-off lands. This latter detail allows for (Lukan) application in terms of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles.
Both versions treat this as a Kingdom-parable, though in different ways:
- In Matthew, it is so designated by Jesus (“the kingdom of the heavens is [to be] considered like a man…”, 22:2). Moreover, the man is specifically referred to as a king, and the feast identified as a wedding banquet for his son (further giving the parable a Messianic dimension). The people being invited are thus members of his kingdom.
- Luke introduces the parable in the narrative context of a feast Jesus is attending (14:15), at which a man declares to him: “Happy the (one) who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This is similar to Jesus’ own words to his disciples at the Last Supper, where he speaks of drinking from “the produce of the vine” (i.e. wine) in the Kingdom of God (Mark 14:25 par). These motifs of eating/drinking should not taken too concretely; they are simply idioms referring to partaking in a meal. However, these references are eschatological, and relate to the feast/banquet motif mentioned above. As we see often in the Gospels, Jesus redirects his audience away from a simple traditional understanding (without entirely rejecting it), and points them toward a deeper meaning.
In Luke’s version, the poor and outcast take the place of the ‘righteous’ who refuse to attend, just as Jesus states in the Two Sons parable. Matthew’s version presents this quite differently, according to more traditional imagery associated with the end-time Judgment (cf. the chap. 13 parables above). Instead of the poor and afflicted, the call goes out to all people in the city, and a crowd comes to the feast—good and evil alike (22:10). This is very much akin to the parable of the Net, where good and bad fish are gathered up together in the net, to be separated out at the end-time Judgment. That is very much what the parable describes here in vv. 11-12, though in a most distinctive and memorable way, isolating on a single individual.
The Matthean version is thus more complex than the Lukan, and seems to be describing more distinct stages:
- The well-to-do members of the kingdom (i.e. religious Israelites/Jews) who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and/or fail to respond to his message
- The disciples of Jesus who respond to his message, coming from all segments of the city—though not all are true, faithful disciples
- At the end of the Age, at the time of the great feast, it is then that the true and false disciples will be separated
Finally, it is also worth mentioning a third version of this parable, in the Gospel of Thomas (saying/section 64); some critical commentators consider the Thomas version to be the more primitive, original form of the parable (Fitzmyer, pp. 1050-2).
Luke 13:23-30 (esp. verses 28-30)
There is a brief parable or illustration in the Gospel of Luke which is part of a block of teaching with an eschatological orientation. The section may be outlined as follows:
- Narrative introduction (v. 22)
- Question by someone (disciple?) in the crowd (v. 23):
“(is it that) the (one)s being saved (are only) a few?”
- Illustration of the Narrow Door (v. 24)
- Illustration of the Master of House standing at the Door (vv. 25-27)
- Illustration of the Kingdom Feast (vv. 28-29)
- Concluding saying (v. 30):
“see, there are the last who will be first, and the first who will be last” (cp. Matt 20:16, above)
The setting in vv. 22-23 introduces the eschatological context of these illustrations. For the association with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cf. on Luke 19:11 below (Part 3); the context of question in verse 23 relates salvation to entering/inheriting the Kingdom at the end-time. In contrast to the belief expressed in Jewish tradition, that “all Israelites have a share in the world to come” (m. Sanhedrin 10:1; Fitzmyer, p. 1022), a number of Jesus’ sayings seem to suggest that only a small percentage of the people (i.e. those accepting and following him) will be saved. The two Door parables (compare with Matt 7:13-14, 21-23) seem to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ (eschatological) message:
- Entering the kingdom requires struggle (a)gw/n), due to the narrowness (ste/no$) of the door or gate, the result of the many obstacles which surround it (cf. the Parable of the Weeds above). Jesus declared and emphasized on numerous occasions to his disciples (and would-be disciples) that considerable hardship was involved in following him—a lifestyle which demanded an ethic even more stringent than that of the Pharisees (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, etc); and also a faith/trust in God which is rare indeed among people (cf. on Luke 18:8 below [Part 3]).
- Moreover, the door is open only for a (short) period; at some point (the end-time) the Master of the house/kingdom, will decide to close the door. It will be impossible for anyone to enter at that point, regardless of the claims or petitions they may make (i.e. that they were followers of Jesus, etc).
This leads into the Feast parable of vv. 28-29—entering the Kingdom at the end-time means joining in this great feast, at which all the righteous attend (the Patriarchs and Prophets of Israel, etc). There are two components to this illustration:
Given the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, it is not surprising that the Lukan parables and teachings of Jesus emphasis this more inclusive aspect—allowing even for the inclusion of Gentiles (through the early Christian mission) into the Kingdom.
(to be continued in Part 3)
References marked “Fitzmyer” above are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB] 28A (1985)