The Parables of Jesus

The Gospel of Matthew is divided into seven sections: The introductory Infancy Narrative (ch 1-2), then five 'books,' and finally the Passion Narrative (ch 26-28). Each of the five books begins with a narrative (for example, ch 3-4), followed by a discourse (ch 5-7). The discourses typically end with, "And when Jesus finished these sayings..." (Mt 7:28). Most Christians know that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish readership; the division into five books invokes an image of the five books of Moses – the Gospel is a new Torah.

More subtle, though, is a basic dividing line in Matthew. It takes place during the narrative in chapter 12. Something of historical significance happened: the Temple priesthood, who in Jesus’ day were members of the Pharisee sect, met God face to face in the Person of Jesus – and they mistook him for the Devil.

22 Then a blind and dumb demoniac was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the dumb man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, "Can this be the Son of David?" 24 But when the Pharisees heard it they said, "It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons." 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; 26 and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Mt 12:22-32)

We should remember that the Temple priesthood was established by God; these men were to represent Him. Jesus came because these men, His shepherds, had gone far astray and the prophecy of Ez 34 had now come to pass (look it up). Here God and His shepherds met face to face and instead of recognizing the spirit of God in Jesus, they saw the spirit of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. That is, they confused the Holy Spirit for the spirit of the Devil – that is how far astray they had gone! Jesus then judged them; it was a terrible judgement – they had blasphemed against the Holy Spirit, calling Him a demon. It is a sin that will not be forgiven. They have been judged; and damned.

This is a dividing line in Matthew. Before this event, Jesus preached clearly. The Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7) was wonderfully clear. Likewise, the mission of the Apostles (ch 10) was explained without difficulty. Then came the Beelzebub event. The next discourse after this event begins in chapter 13 with the first of Jesus’ parables. Immediately afterwards, Jesus explained why He spoke in parables: a parable presents theology in a riddle form - it symbolizes an inability to understand truth. In this case, it symbolized that the Pharisees no longer had a right to the truth. They were the guardians of truth, but that guardianship was taken away from them and given to the Apostles.

Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" 11 And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: 'You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. 15 For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.' (Mt 13:10-15)

Notice Jesus spoke in parables to “them.” Who were “them?” Clearly they were the Pharisees, the religious leaders. The entire paradigm has shifted; from then on, the Apostles would be the shepherds of God’s people.

This makes for an interesting consideration of parables. They are not the folksy, home-wisdom stories we perhaps think they are; they are not theology for the masses. They are the symbols of God’s judgement and wrath. To hear the Lord preach in parables is not something we want to hear. There are a few examples of parables in the Old Testament, and their negative element is clear. Consider the sin of King David, who lusted after Bathsheba and had her husband cruelly killed to hide his adultery with her. He was then subject to a parable through the prophet Nathan:

And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him." 5 Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." 7 Nathan said to David, "You are the man. Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul; 8 and I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.' 11 Thus says the LORD, 'Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.'" 13 David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." And Nathan said to David, "The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die." (2 Sam 12:1-14)

David and his dynasty was judged and suffered God’s wrath. The harbinger of God’s wrath was this quaint parable of Nathan, about a lamb. Interestingly, it is clear by David’s response that he did not understand the parable – he had no idea it referred to himself. The nature of the parable is that the person judged cannot understand its meaning. So it was with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day; His teaching was no longer for them.

What happened to the Temple priests as a result? In about the year 40 A.D. (within the same generation as Jesus), the Roman army under Titus attacked Jerusalem and ultimately leveled the city. The Temple was razed, never to be rebuilt. The age of animal sacrifices came to an end, as did the Levitical priesthood. For Christians, this was a watershed moment in the life of the Church: the Old Covenant had come to a dramatic end, due to the evil of its priests. It was presumed to be the work of God, Who now worked through His Spirit directly in each person’s life. As in Ez 34:23-31, no longer will God work through the mediation of human shepherds, as He Himself will be our shepherd. (The clerical shepherds of the Christian Church are not mediators; rather, they act in the person of Christ, the true Shepherd.)

What, then were the parables of Jesus in Matthew, after His break with the Pharisee priests? Here they are listed in order:

The Sower (Mt 13:1-23)
The Weeds among the Wheat (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43)
The Mustard Seed (Mt 13:31-32)
The Yeast (Mt 13:33)
The Hidden Treasure in the Field (Mt 13:44)
The Pearl of Great Price (Mt 13:45-46)
The Net which Gathered Many Fish (Mt 13:47-50)
The Lost Sheep (Mt 18:10-14)
The Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:23-35)
The Laborers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16)
The Two Sons (Mt 21:28-32)
The Wicked Tenants (Mt 21:33-46)
The Wedding Banquet (Mt 22:1-14)
The Ten Bridesmaids (Mt 25:1-13)
The Talents (Mt 25:14-30)
The Sheep and the Goats (Mt 25:31-46)

There are other parables in the other Gospels, but only Matthew used them to clearly identify the judgment on the Pharisees. All of the parables have a common theme: in varying ways, they refer to God’s judgment on the Temple priests and the transference of their role to the Church.

”He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mt 13:9)