Matthew 13 Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Matthew 13
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side.
XIII.

(1, 2) The same day . . . out of the house.—In St. Mark the parable of the Sower follows the appearance of the mother and the brethren, as in St. Matthew, but in St. Luke (Luke 8:4-15; Luke 8:19-21) the order is inverted. In this case the order of the first Gospel seems preferable, as giving a more intelligible sequence of events. The malignant accusation of the Pharisees, the plots against His life, the absence of real support where He might most have looked for it, the opposition roused by the directness of His teaching—this led to His presenting that teaching in a form which was at once more attractive, less open to attack, better as an intellectual and spiritual training for His disciples, better also as a test of character, and therefore an education for the multitude.

That our Lord had been speaking in a house up to this point is implied in the “standing without” of Matthew 12:46. He now turns to the crowd that followed, and lest the pressure should interrupt or might occasion—as the feeling roused by the teaching that immediately preceded made probable enough—some hostile attack, He enters a boat, probably with a few of His disciples, puts a few yards of water between Himself and the crowd, and then begins to speak.

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
(3) He spake many things unto them in parables.—This is the first occurrence of the word in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and it is clear from the question of the disciples in Matthew 13:10 that it was in some sense a new form of teaching to them. There had been illustrations and similitudes before, as in that of the houses built on the sand and on the rock in Matthew 7:24-27, and that of the unclean spirit in Matthew 12:43-45, but now for the first time He speaks to the multitude in a parable, without an explanation. The word, which has passed through its use in the Gospels into most modern European languages (palabras, parôle, parabel), means literally, a comparison. It had been employed by the Greek translators of the Old Testament for the Hebrew word mashed, which we commonly render by “proverb,” and which, like the Greek parabole, has the sense of similitude. Of many, perhaps of most, Eastern proverbs it was true that they were condensed parables, just as many parables are expanded proverbs. (Comp. John 16:25; John 16:29.) In the later and New Testament use of the word, however, the parable takes the fuller form of a narrative embracing facts natural and probable in themselves, and in this respect differs from the fable which (as in those of Æsop and Phædrus, or that of the trees choosing a king in Judges 9:8-15) does not keep within the limits even of possibility. The mode of teaching by parables was familiar enough in the schools of the Rabbis, and the Talmud contains many of great beauty and interest. As used by them, however, they were regarded as belonging to those who were receiving a higher education, and the son of Sirach was expressing the current feeling of the schools when he said of the tillers of the soil and the herdsmen of flocks that they “were not found where parables were spoken” (Ecclesiasticus 38:33). With what purpose our Lord now used this mode of instruction will appear in His answer to the question of the disciples. The prominence given in the first three Gospels to the parable that follows, shows how deep an impression it made on the minds of men, and so far justified the choice of this method of teaching by the divine Master.

(3) A sower.—Literally, the sower—the man whose form and work were so familiar, in the seed-time of the year, to the peasants of Galilee. The outward frame-work of the parable requires us to remember the features in which Eastern tillage differs from our own. The ground less perfectly cleared—the road passing across the field—the rock often cropping out, or lying under an inch or two of soil—the patch of good ground rewarding, by what might be called a lucky chance rather than skill of husbandry, the labour of the husbandman.

And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
(4) The way sidei.e., on the skirts of the broad path that crossed the field. Here the surface was hard and smooth, the grain lay on the surface, the pigeons and other birds that followed the sower reaped an immediate harvest.

Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
(5) Stony places.—Either ground in which stones and pebbles were mingled with the soil, or, more probably, where a thin stratum of earth covered the solid rock. Here, of course, growth was rapid through the very circumstance which was afterwards fatal.

And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
(6) Because they had no root.—Or, as in Luke 8:6, “because they lacked moisture.” The growth had been over-rapid, and the presence of the underlying rock at once made the heat more intense, and deprived the plant of the conditions of resistance.

And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:
(7) Among thorns.—Literally, the thorns, so familiar to the husbandman. These were not visible at the time of sowing. The ground had been so far cleared, but the roots were left below the surface, and their growth and that of the grain went on simultaneously, and ended in the survival, not of the fittest, but of the strongest. The ears shot up, and did not die suddenly, as in the preceding case, but were slowly strangled till they died away.

But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
(8) Into good ground.—Here also the Greek has the definite article, “the good ground.” The different results imply that even here there were different degrees of fertility. The hundredfold return was, perhaps, a somewhat uncommon increase, but the narrative of Isaac’s tillage in Genesis 26:12 shows that it was not unheard of, and had probably helped to make it the standard of a more than usually prosperous harvest.

Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
(9) Who hath ears to hear.—The formula had been used, as we have seen before (comp. Note on Matthew 11:15). It was probably familiar in the schools of the Rabbis, when they were testing the ingenuity or progress of their scholars.

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
(10) The disciples came, and said unto him.—They, it would seem, were with our Lord in the boat. The parable was ended, and then followed a pause, during which, unheard by the multitude on the shore, came their question and our Lord’s answer.

Why speakest thou unto them in parables?—The wonder of the disciples probably included many elements of surprise. Why in parables instead of, as before, the direct announcement of the kingdom of heaven, and the call to prepare for it by repentance? And why to them, when they were not students with intellect sharpened in Rabbinic schools, but plain peasants and fishermen, slow and dull of heart?

He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
(11) It is given.—Better, it has been given, as by the special act of God.

To know the mysteries.—The Greek word, like “parable,” has passed into modern languages, and has suffered some change of meaning in the process. Strictly speaking, it does not mean, as we sometimes use it—when we speak, e.g., of the mystery of the Trinity, a truth which none can understand—something “awfully obscure” (the definition given in Johnson’s Dictionary), but one which, kept a secret from others, has been revealed to the initiated. Interpreted by our Lord’s teaching up to this time, the mysteries of the kingdom may be referred to the new birth of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), the judgment to be exercised hereafter by the Son of Man (John 5:25), the power of the Son of Man to forgive sins (John 9:6), the new ideas (no other word will express the fact so well) which He had proclaimed as to the Sabbath (John 12:8), and fasting, and prayer, and alms (John 6:1-18). Those ideas had been proved occasions of offence, and therefore, for the present, the Teacher falls back upon a method of more exoteric instruction.

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
(12) Whosoever hath, to him shall be given.—The words have the ring of a proverb applicable, in its literal meaning, to the conditions of worldly prosperity. There fortune smiles on the fortunate, and nothing succeeds like success. Something like that law, our Lord tells His disciples, is to be found in the conditions of spiritual growth in wisdom. They had some elements of that wisdom, and therefore, using their knowledge rightly, could pass on to more. The people, including even scribes and Pharisees, were as those that had few or none, and not using even the little that they had, were in danger of losing even that. The faithless Jew was sinking down to the level of a superstitious heathen. The proverb accordingly teaches the same lesson as that which we afterwards find developed in the parables of the Talents and the Pounds.

Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
(13) Because they seeing see not.—As the words stand in St. Matthew, they might mean that our Lord adopted the method of parables as a condescension to their infirmities, feeding them, as babes in knowledge, with milk, and not with meat. In St. Mark and St. Luke the reason given assumes a penal character, “that seeing they might not see;” as though they were not only to be left in their ignorance, but to be plunged deeper in it. And this, it is obvious, is even here the true meaning, for only thus does this clause answer to the conclusion of the proverb of Matthew 13:12, “From him shall be taken away even that which he hath.” In one aspect, then, the parable was a veil hiding the truth from them, because they did not seek the truth, and this was the working of the divine law of retribution. But even here we may venture to trace beneath the penalty an element of mercy. The parable could, at all events, do men no harm. It could not rouse the fierce enmity that had been kindled by truth spoken in its plainness. And it might prepare the way, might set men thinking and questioning, and if so, that was at least one step towards the “having,” though it were but a very little, which might place them among those to whom more shall be given.

And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
(14) In them is fulfilled.—The Greek verb expresses complete fulfilment, but the tense is that of a work still in progress. The prominence given to these words of Isaiah’s in the New Testament is very noticeable. Our Lord quotes them here, St. John in John 12:40. St. Paul cites them in Acts 28:26. The quotation is from the LXX. version. It is as though the words which sounded at the very opening of Isaiah’s prophecy as the knell of the nation’s life, dwelt on the minds of the Master and His disciples, and prepared them for the seeming fruitlessness and hopelessness of their work.

For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
(15) Lest at any time they should see.—The words point to the obstinate, wilful ignorance which refuses to look on the truth, lest the look should lead to conviction, and conviction to conversion—the ignorance of those who love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil (John 3:19).

But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.
(16) Blessed are your eyes.—The words are spoken to the small company of disciples in the boat. They were not as the multitude. They might see but dimly, and be slow of heart to understand, but, at least, they had eyes that looked for light, and ears that were open to the divine voice.

For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.
(17) Many prophets and righteous men.—The prophets of Israel were emphatically “men of desires.” They saw afar off the glory of the kingdom of the latter days. Each stood, as it were, on a Pisgah height, and looked on the vision of a land which he was not to enter. The words “have not seen them” seem to stand in verbal contradiction with those of John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day,” but it is clear that the difference is simply verbal. There is a joy in looking on the distant prospect which does not exclude, yea, rather implies the desire to reach that which even from afar appears so glorious. The feeling thus described is identical with the “searching diligently” of 1Peter 1:10, and with the “desire for a better country” of Hebrews 11:16.

Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower.
(18) Hear ye therefore.—The “ye” is emphatic. The interpretation which is withheld from others is given to you.

When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.
(19) When any one heareth the word.—The explanation has become so familiar to us that it is hard to place ourselves in the position of those to whom it was the unveiling of new truths—the holding up a mirror in which they might see, it might be, their own likeness. Our interest in it may, perhaps, be quickened if we think of it as reflecting what had actually been our Lord’s experience. The classes of hearers who had gathered round Him were represented, roughly and generally, by the four issues of the seed scattered by the sower, and all preachers of the truth, from that day to this, have felt that their own experience has presented analogous phenomena.

The ethical sequence described runs thus: The man hears “the word of the kingdom,” a discourse, say, like the Sermon on the Mount, or that at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). He does not “understand” it (the fault being moral rather than intellectual), does not attend to it or “take it in.” The “wicked one” (note the connection with the clause in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil,” or the evil one) snatches it away even from his memory. At first it seems strange that “the birds of the air” in their multitude should represent the Tempter in his unity; and yet there is a terrible truth in the fact that everything which leads men to forget the truth is, in very deed, doing the work of the great enemy. On the other hand, the birds, in their rapid flight and their gathering flocks, may well represent the light and foolish thoughts that are as the Tempter’s instruments. The “way-side” thus answers to the character, which is hardened by the wear and tear of daily life, what we well call its routine, so that the words of Truth make hardly even the most transient impression on it.

This is he which received seed.—Our translators try, unsuccessfully, to combine the parable with its interpretation. Literally, and far better, here and in the following verses, this man it is that is (the seed) sown by the way side.

But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it;
(20) Anon with joy receiveth it.—The second type of character stands in marked contrast with the first. Rapid change, strong emotion, a quicker show of conversion than in the case where it is more real.—such results, it need hardly be said, come under the notice of every earnest preacher. In proportion to the tendency of any system—such as the revivalist meetings of one school, the mission services of another—to cause excitement, are those results likely to be frequent.

Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.
(21) Yet hath he not root in himself.—The “root” is obviously the conviction which ripens into a purpose and strikes its fibres deep down into reason, conscience, and will.

Tribulation or persecution.—It is hardly necessary, or indeed possible, to draw any sharp line of demarcation between the two. “Persecution” implies, perhaps, a more organised attack, and therefore greater suffering; “tribulation,” the thousand petty annoyances to which every convert to the faith of Christ was exposed in the first age of the Church, and to which, it may be added, even now most men and women who seek to be Christians in deed as well as in name are at some time or other in their lives exposed. The words explain the “time of temptation” in St. Luke’s report (Luke 8:13).

By and by he is offended.—The adverb is the same as the “anon” of Matthew 13:20, and means “immediately.” The rapidity of the renegade matches that of the convert. Such a man finds a “stumbling-block” in the sufferings he is called to endure, and turns into a smoother path.

He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.
(22) He also that received seed among the thorns.—See Note on Matthew 13:19. Here there is no over-rapid growth, and there is some depth of earth. The character is not one that wastes its strength in vague emotions, but has the capacity for sustained effort. The evil here is, that while there is strength of purpose, there is not unity of spirit. The man is double-minded, and would fain serve two masters. The “care of this world” (the word is the root of the verb “take no thought” in Matthew 6:25), the deceitfulness of earthly riches—cheating the soul with its counterfeit shows of good—these choke the “word” in its inner life, and it becomes “unfruitful.” There may be some signs of fruitfulness, perhaps the “blade” and the “ear” of partial reformation and strivings after holiness, but there is no “full corn in the ear.” In St. Luke’s words, such men “bring no fruit to perfection” (Luke 8:14). To the simpler root-forms of evil in St. Matthew, St. Mark adds “the lusts (or desires) about other things”—i.e., the things that are other than the true life—and St. Luke, “the pleasures of life” to which wealth ministers, and for the sake of which, therefore, men pursue it.

But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
(23) He that heareth the word, and under-standeth it.—The process is not merely an intellectual one. He takes it in, discerns its meaning. The phrases in the other Gospels express the same thing, “hear the word and receive it (Mark), “in an honest and good heart” hear and retain it (Luke). Even here, however, there are different degrees of the holiness which is symbolised by “bearing fruit”—“some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”—varying according to men’s capacities and opportunities.

It is allowable to fill up the outline-sketch of interpretation which thus formed the first lesson in this method in the great Master’s school. (1.) It may seem strange at first that the disciples were not told who in the work of the kingdom answered to “the Sower” of the parable. The interpretation is given in the parable of the Tares (“the Sower of the good seed is the Son of Man”), and, in part, it may be said that this was the one point on which the disciples were not likely to misunderstand Him; but in part also, we may believe, this explanation was not given, because, though the parable was true in the first instance of Him and of His work, He meant them to learn wisdom from it for their own work. True, they were reaping what they had not sown (John 4:38), yet they too were in their turn to be sowers as well as reapers. (2.) It is obviously one important lesson of the parable that it teaches us to recognise the possible existence of “an honest and good heart” (the first word meaning “noble,” “generous,” rather than “honest” in our modern sense) prior to the preaching of the word. Such characters were to be found in those living under the Law, or without the Law (Romans 2:14), and it was the work of the preacher to look out for them, and win them to something yet higher. What made the ground good, is a question which the parable was perhaps meant to suggest, but does not answer. Theologians may speak of “prevenient grace.” The language of John 4:37-38 leads us to think of the work of “the Light that lighteth every man.” Here also the law holds good that “to him that hath shall more be given.” (3.) It lies in the nature of such a parable that it represents the phenomena of the spiritual life only partially. It brings before us four classes of hearers, and seems to assume that their characters are fixed, incapable of change, issuing in results which might have been foreseen. But if so, then the work of the “word” thus preached would seem to be limited to order and progress, and the idea of “conversion”—the change of character—would almost be excluded. We must therefore supplement the parable in its practical application. The soil may be improved; the way-side and the stony places and that which contained the thorns may become as the good ground. It is the work of every preacher and teacher to prepare the soil as well as to sow the seed. In the words of an old prophet, which might almost seem to have suggested the parable itself, they are to “break up the fallow ground and sow not among thorns” (Jeremiah 4:3).

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
(24) Another parable.—The explanation of the parable of the Sower had been given apparently in the boat in which our Lord sat with His disciples. Then, again addressing Himself to the multitude on the shore, He spake the parables of the Tares, the Mustard Seed, and the Leaven; then, dismissing the multitude (Matthew 13:36), He landed with His disciples, and went into the house which was for a time their home.

But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
(25, 26) His enemy came and sowed tares.—The act described was then—and still is—a common form of Eastern malice or revenge. It easily escaped detection. It inflicted both loss and trouble. The “enemy” had the satisfaction of brooding for weeks or months over the prospect of the injury he had inflicted, and the vexation it would cause when discovered. The tares, known to botanists as the Lolium temulentum, or darnel, grew up at first with stalk and blade like the wheat; and it was not till fructification began that the difference was easily detected. It adds to the point of the parable to remember that the seeds of the tares were not merely useless as food, but were positively noxious.

But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
(29) But he said, Nay.—Prior to the interpretation the householder of the parable is clearly intended to be a pattern of patient wisdom. He knows that he can defeat the malice of his foe, but he will choose his own time and plan. While both wheat and tares were green, men might mistake between the two; or, in the act of rooting up the one, tear up the other. When harvest came, and the stalks were dry, and the difference of aspect greater, it would be comparatively easy to gather the tares and leave the wheat.

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:
(31) The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed.—The two parables that follow are left without an explanation, as though to train the disciples in the art of interpreting for themselves. And, so far as we can judge, they seem to have been equal to the task. They ask for the meaning of the Tares, but we read of no question about these.

It is scarcely necessary to discuss at any length the botany of the parable. What we call mustard (Sinapis nigra) does not grow in the East, any more than with us, into anything that can be called a tree. Probably, however, the name was used widely for any plant that had the pungent flavour of mustard, and botanists have suggested the Salvadora persica as answering to the description. (See Bible Educator, I. 119.)

The interpretation of the parable lies almost on the surface. Here again the sower is the Son of Man; but the seed in this case is not so much the “word,” as the Christian society, the Church, which forms, so to speak, the firstfruits of the word. As it then was, even as it was on the day of Pentecost, it was smaller than any sect or party in Palestine or Greece or Italy. It was sown in God’s field of the world, but it was to grow till it became greater than any sect or school, a tree among the trees of the forest, a kingdom among other kingdoms (comp. the imagery of Ezekiel 31:3; Daniel 4:10), a great organised society; and the “birds of the air” (no longer, as before, the emblems of evil)—i.e., the systems of thought, institutions, and the like, of other races—were to find refuge under its protection. History has witnessed many fulfilments of the prophecy implied in the parable, and those who believe that the life of Christendom is an abiding life will look for yet more.

Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
(32) The least of all seeds.—The description is, of course, popular, and need not be pressed with micro scopical exactness.

The greatest among herbs.—More literally, greater than the herbsi.e., belonging to a higher order of vegetation.

Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
(33) The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven.—The parable sets forth the working of the Church of Christ on the world, but not in the same way as that of the Mustard Seed. There the growth was outward, measured by the extension of the Church, dependent on its missionary efforts. Here the working is from within. The “leaven”—commonly, as in the Passover ritual, the symbol of malice and wickedness (1Corinthians 5:8)—causing an action in the flour with which it is mingled that is of the nature of decay and tends to actual putrescence, here becomes, in the mode of teaching which does not confine itself within the limits of a traditional and conventional symbolism, the type of influence for good as well as evil. It can turn the flour into human food—this symbolism is traceable in the leavened loaves that were offered on the day of Pentecost (Leviticus 23:17)—can permeate the manners, feelings, and opinions of non-Christian societies until they become blessings and not curses to mankind. In the new feelings, gradually diffused, of Christendom as to slavery, prostitution, gladiatorial games—in the new reverence for childhood and womanhood, for poverty and sickness—we may trace the working of the leaven.

Descending to the details of the parable, it is at least open to us (as an application of it, if not as an interpretation) to see in the woman, as in the parable of the Lost Piece of Money (Luke 15:8), the representative of the divine Wisdom as working in the history of the world, or of the Church of Christ as embodying that wisdom. The three measures of meal admit, in like manner, of many references, of which we cannot say with certainty that one is more likely to have been intended than another. The descendants of the three sons of Noah, or the Jew, the Greek, the Barbarian, as representing the whole race of mankind, or body, soul, and spirit, as the three parts of man’s nature, which the new truth is to permeate and purify, are all in this sense equally legitimate applications.

All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them:
(34) Without a parable spake he not unto them.—The words are, of course, limited by the context to this occasion, but it is noticeable from this time forward that parables are the dominant element in His teaching to the multitude, and that the mysteries of the kingdom are reserved for the more esoteric instruction of the disciples.

That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.
(35) I will open my mouth in parables.—The quotation illustrates, much in the same way as those in 8:17, 12:17, St. Matthew’s peculiar way of dealing with the prophetic language of the Old Testament. He found the word “parable” at the opening of a Psalm (Psalm 78:2). The Psalm itself was in no sense predictive, but simply an historical survey of God’s dealings with Israel from the days of the Exodus to those of David. But the occurrence of the word was enough for him. Here was One whose form of teaching answered to that which the Psalmist had described, who might claim the Psalmist’s words as His own; and excluding, as he did, the idea of chance from all such coincidences, he could use even here the familiar formula, “that it might be fulfilled.”

A remarkable various-reading gives, “by Esaias the prophet.” It is found in the Sinaitic MS., and had been used before the time of Jerome by a heathen writer (Porphyry) as a proof of St. Matthew’s ignorance. Old as it is, however, there is no reason for receiving it as the original reading. The mistake was probably that of a transcriber, misled by the word “prophet,” and writing the name after the precedent of Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:17. If the mistake had been St. Matthew’s, it would stand on the same footing as the substitution of Jeremiah for Zechariah in Matthew 27:9. The Psalm is assigned by the superscription to the authorship of Asaph.

Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.
(36) Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.—The question was asked privately, probably in the house of Peter, to which our Lord had retired with the disciples after the listening crowd upon the beach had been dismissed. It implies that the disciples had thought over the parable, and had found it harder to understand than those of the Mustard-seed and the Leaven.

He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;
(37) He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man.—Primarily, we must remember that the parable refers to the kingdom of heaven—i.e., to that new order of things which the Christ came to establish, and which is conveniently described as the Church which owns Him as its Lord. It offers, accordingly, an explanation of the presence of evil in that Church, and only by inference and analogy does it bear upon the wider problem of the origin of the evil in the world at large. That analogy, however, is not likely to mislead us. If the Son of Man has been “the Light that lighteth every man” (John 1:9), then He had been a sower of the good seed in the wider region of the world from the beginning, and then also all who followed after righteousness had been children of the kingdom.

The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
(38) The tares are the children of the wicked one.—It was, perhaps, natural that theologians, who saw in heresy the greatest of all evils, should identify the tares with heretics. So far as heresy rises from the spirit of self-will, or antagonism to righteousness, we may admit that they are included in the class, but the true definition is that given in Matthew 13:41, “all things that offend, and them which do iniquity.”

The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
(39) The enemy that sowed them is the devil.—Here, as in the parable of the Sower, there is the most distinct recognition of a personal power of evil, the enemy of God thwarting His work. It will be noticed that our Lord, as if training His disciples gradually in the art of the interpreter, gives rather the heads of an explanation of the parable than one that enters fully into details; and it is therefore open to us, as it was to them, to pause and ask what was taught by that which seems almost the most striking and most important part of the parable. Who were the servants? What was meant by their question, and the answer of the householder? The answers under these heads supply, it will be seen, a solution of many problems in the history and policy of the Church of Christ. (1.) The enemy sowed the tares “while men slept.” The time of danger for the Church is one of apparent security. Men cease to watch. Errors grow up and develop into heresies, carelessness passes into license, and offences abound. (2.) The “servants” are obviously distinct from the “reapers.” and represent the zealous pastors of the Church. Their first impulse is to clear the kingdom from evil by extirpating the doers of the evil. But the householder in the parable is at once more patient and more discerning than they. To seek for the ideal of a perfect Church in that way may lead to worse evils than those it attempts to remedy. True wisdom is found, for the most part, in what might seem the policy of indifference, “Let both grow together until the harvest.” That is the broad, salient lesson of the parable. At first it may seem at variance with what enters into our primary conceptions, alike of ecclesiastical discipline and of the duty of civil rulers. Is it not the work of both to root out the tares, to punish evil-doers? The solution of the difficulty is found, as it were, in reading “between the lines” of the parable. Doubtless, evil is to be checked and punished alike in the Church and in civil society, but it is not the work of the rulers of either to extirpate the doers. Below the surface there lies the latent truth that, by a spiritual transmutation which was not possible in the natural framework of the parable, the tares may become the wheat. There is no absolute line of demarcation separating one from the other till the time of harvest. What the parable condemns, therefore, is the over-hasty endeavour to attain an ideal perfection, the zeal of the founders of religious orders, of Puritanism in its many forms. It would have been well if those who identify the tares with heretics had been more mindful of the lesson which that identification suggests.

The harvest is the end of the world.—Strictly speaking, the end of the agei.e., of the period that precedes the “coming” of the Son of Man as Judge, which is to usher in the “world,” or the “age,” to come.

The reapers are the angels.—What will be the actual work of the ministry of angels in the final judgment it is not easy to define, but their presence is implied in all our Lord’s greater prophetic utterances about it (Matthew 25:31). That ministry had been brought prominently before men in the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Daniel, in which for the first time the name of the Son of Man is identified with the future Christ (Matthew 7:13), and the Messianic kingdom itself brought into new distinctness in connection with a final judgment. Our Lord’s teaching does but expand the hints of the “thousand times ten thousand” that ministered before the Ancient of Days when the books were opened (Daniel 7:9-10), and of Michael the prince as connected with the resurrection of “many that sleep in the dust of the earth” (Daniel 12:1-2).

The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
(41) His angels . . . his kingdom.—The vision of One who stood before men outwardly as the carpenter’s son stretches forward to the far future, and sees that the angels of God and the kingdom are alike His.

All things that offend.—Literally, all stumbling-blocks; the word being explained by the clause that follows as including all that work iniquity. It lies in the nature of the case that the interpretation should recognise only the great broad divisions of good and evil, leaving the apportionment of rewards and punishments, according to the varying degrees of each, to be filled into the outline afterwards.

And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
(42) Into a furnace of fire.—Better, the furnacei.e., that of Gehenna, in which there will be “the wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (See Notes on Matthew 8:12.)

Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
(43) Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun.—The imagery is so natural that we hardly need to look for any reference to older teaching, yet we can hardly help remembering the path of the just that “shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18), and yet more, as connected more closely with the judgment to come, those “that shall shine as the brightness of the firmament and as the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). Yet the promise here has one crowning and supreme blessing: the kingdom in which the righteous shall thus shine forth is the kingdom of their Father.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.
(44) The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field.—Probably no parable in the whole series came more home to the imagination of the disciples than this. Every village had its story of men who had become suddenly rich by finding some hidden hoard that had been hastily concealed in time of war or tumult. Then, as now, there were men who lived in the expectation of finding such treasures, and every traveller who was seen searching in the ruins of an ancient town was supposed to be hunting after them. As far back as the days of Solomon such a search had become a parable for the eager pursuit of wisdom (Proverbs 2:4). Now they were told to find that which answered to it in their own experience. The conduct of the man who finds the treasure, in concealing the fact of his discovery from the owner of the field, hardly corresponds with our notions of integrity, but parables—as in the case of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1) and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:2)—do not concern themselves with these questions, and it is enough if they bring out the salient points—in this case, the eagerness of the man to obtain the treasure, and the sacrifice he is ready to make for it. Jewish casuistry, in such matters, applied the maxim, Caveat emptor, to the seller rather than the buyer, and the minds of the disciples would hardly be shocked at what would seem to them a natural stroke of sharpness.

In the interpretation of the parable, the case described is that of a man who, not having started in the pursuit of holiness or truth, is brought by the seeming accidents of life—a chance meeting, a word spoken in season, the example of a living holiness—to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, i.e., to Christ Himself, and who, finding in Him a peace and joy above all earthly treasure, is ready to sacrifice the lower wealth in order to obtain the higher. Such, we may well believe, had been the history of the publicans and the fishermen who made up the company of the Twelve. The parable had its fulfilment in them when they, at the bidding of their Lord, “forsook all and followed Him.” Such, it need hardly be said, has been the story of thousands of the saints of God in every age of the Church’s life from that day to this.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
(45) Like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls.—Here again the illustration would commend itself to the thoughts of the fishermen of Galilee. The caprices of luxury in the Roman empire had given a prominence to pearls, as an article of commerce, which they had never had before, and have probably never had since. They, rather than emeralds and sapphires, were the typical instance of all costliest adornments (Matthew 7:6; 1Timothy 2:9). The story of Cleopatra, the fact that the opening of a new pearl market was one of the alleged motives which led the Emperor Claudius to invade Britain, are indications of the value that was then set on the “goodly pearls” of the parable. Such a merchant seeking them, either on the shores of the Mediterranean, or as brought by caravans to other traders from the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean, must have been a familiar presence to the fishermen of Capernaum. The parable in its spiritual bearing, has, of course, much that is common with the preceding. But there is this marked and suggestive difference. The “search” is presupposed, The man has been seeking the “goodly pearls” of wisdom, holiness, and truth, and has found them in at least some of their lower forms. Then he is led to the higher knowledge of communion with the life of Christ, and for that is content to resign all that he had before prized most highly. Such, in the records of the New Testament, was the history of St. Paul when he counted “all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Such, in after days, was the history of Justin Martyr and Augustine. Such, in our own time, has been that of many noble and true-hearted seekers after truth and holiness. Such will evermore be the history of those who are faithful in a very little, and who, “willing to do the will of God, shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God” (John 7:17).

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind:
(47) The kingdom of heaven is like unto a net.—The net in this case is not the hand-net of Matthew 4:18, but the sagenè, or great drag-net, which drew in a larger haul of fishes. The day’s teaching in the method of parables ends, as it were, in an easy lesson, which the former experience of the disciples would enable them to understand. Still, as in the parable of the Tares, the main thoughts are, (1) the mingling of the evil with the good in the visible kingdom of Christ on earth, and (2) the ultimate separation of the two, that each may receive according to the divine law of retribution. Here, as there, the parable perforce passes over the fact that in the actual work of the kingdom the very casting of the net may change, and is meant to change, the nature of the fish that are taken in its meshes, and, therefore, that those that remain “bad” are so in the end by the result of their own will.

Jesus saith unto them, Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea, Lord.
(51) Have ye understood all these things?—The verb is the same as that used in the parable of the Sower. An intellectual apprehension of the truth, which is also spiritual, is the condition of the growth in wisdom which enables the disciple to become in due course a teacher. There was doubtless in the answer of the disciples a grateful consciousness of a rapid increase in knowledge and insight. There was also a certain child-like naïveté in the readiness with which they declared their conviction that they had mastered all the mysteries of the kingdom which had been veiled beneath the symbolism of these earthly similitudes.

Then said he unto them, Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.
(52) Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven.—The verse is interesting as one of the very few passages in which our Lord compares His own work and that of the Apostles after Him to that of the scribes of the Jewish schools. That He was so regarded during His ministry—that men thought of Him as a Rabbi, no less than as a Prophet, or as the Christ—is clear from the facts that He was called by that name (or its equivalent, Master, or Teacher) both by His disciples and by others; that He assumed the office of a scribe, as interpreting the scriptures in the Sabbath services (Luke 4:16); that He questioned with the scribes after their own manner (“Have ye never read?” Matthew 12:3; Matthew 19:4; Matthew 21:16, et al.) and as one of their order. And now He was training the disciples, “unlearned” as they were, to be His successors in that office. They too were sitting at the feet of a Gamaliel—of One greater than Gamaliel. But His method of training was altogether of another kind than that of the Masters of the Schools. It consisted, not in minute comments on the words of the Law, not in the subtleties of an intricate and often revolting casuistry, not in puerile and fantastic legends, but rather in the eternal laws of His Father’s kingdom, and the manifold parables of those laws in the visible universe; in this way it was that He was educating them to be scribes of the kingdom of heaven.

Things new and old.—Our Lord’s own teaching was, of course, the highest example of this union. There were the old eternal laws of righteousness, the proclamation of the true meaning of all that every true teacher had included in the idea of duty and religion, but there were also new truths, such as His own mission as the Head of the divine kingdom and the future Judge of all men, and the work of the Spirit as regenerating and sanctifying. As the years passed, and new facts, such as the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, supplied the ground-work for new doctrines, these also took their place in the store-house of the well-instructed scribe. But the words applied also to the manner no less than to the substance of the teaching. Now the old familiar words of Lawgiver and Psalmist, now the gracious words such as man had never heard till then, now illustrations freely drawn, in proverbs or parable, from the world of nature or of men—these too were part of the treasure of the scribe. In that union the scribe of later times, every true teacher of the minds and hearts of men, may find the secret at once of reverence for the past and of courage for the future. So long as they bring forth out of their treasures “things new and old,” we may hope that religious conservatism will be more than the “froward retention” of a custom or a formula, and religious progress more than a reckless love of novelty for the sake of its newness.

And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works?
(54) When he was come into his own country.—The visit to Nazareth, here recorded in almost-identical terms with Mark 6:1-6, has so many points of resemblance with the narrative of Luke 4:16-31 that many critics have supposed it to be a less complete account of the same fact. On this assumption, the narrative must be misplaced in its relation to other facts in one or other of the Gospels. A dislocation of some kind must indeed be admitted in any case, as St. Mark places it after the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter, and makes that event follow the cure of the Gadarene demoniac, and places that on the next day after the first use of parables. We are compelled to admit, as before in the Notes on Matthew 8:1, the almost entire absence of any trustworthy notes of chronological sequence, beyond the grouping, in some cases, of a few conspicuous facts. In comparing, however, St. Matthew and St. Mark with St. Luke, there seems no sufficient ground for hastily assuming identity. The third Gospel places the visit which it narrates, at the very beginning of our Lord’s work, and as giving the reason of His removal to Capernaum. Here, there is no outburst of violent enmity such as we find there, but simple amazement. It seems, therefore, more probable that we have here a short account (short and imperfect, it may be, because our Lord went without His disciples) of another effort to bring the men of Nazareth to acknowledge Him, if not as the Christ, at least as a Prophet. The circumstances of the case in St. Matthew’s record suggest another motive as, at least, possible. He had recently, as in Matthew 12:48, when His mother and His brethren had come in their eager anxiety to interrupt His work, spoken in words that seemed to repel them to a distance from Him. What if this visit were meant to show that, though as a Prophet He could not brook that interruption, home affections were not dead in Him, that His heart still yearned over His brethren and His townsmen, and that He sought to raise them to a higher life? On comparing the account here with that in St. Luke, it would seem almost certain that there was now a less direct assertion of His claims as the Christ than there had been before—a proclamation of the laws of the kingdom rather than of His own position in it. And so the impression is one of wonder at His wisdom, not of anger or scorn at what He claims to be.

Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?
(55) Is not this the carpenter’s son?—In St. Mark, the question appears in the form, “Is not this the carpenter?” and it is, of course, in the nature of things probable that He both helped in the workshop during Joseph’s life, and assisted the “brethren” to carry on the work after his death. Justin Martyr (Dial. c. Tryph. c. 88) relates that in his time articles said to have been made by Him, such as rakes and harrows, were in demand as relics. The apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy, after its manner, makes Him instruct Joseph when he was bungling at his work.

And his brethren.—See Note on Matthew 12:46.

Joses.—The authority of MSS. is in favour of the reading, “Joseph.” It was, of course, probable that the name of the father should be borne by one of those who were in some sense his children. Joses. however, was probably but a softened form of the same name.

And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.
(57) They were offended in him.—The word is used in the same sense as in Matthew 11:6. They could not reconcile the new wisdom and the claim which the teaching implied with the obscurity and commonness of the earlier life, and so they did not believe.

A prophet is not without honour . . . The words in St. Mark include “among his kindred.” The proverb seems to have been one often on our Lord’s lips, and obviously tells of a prolonged experience of indifference and unbelief in all their many forms. In John 4:44, it appears, in a context which presents some difficulty, as giving the reason why our Lord, on leaving Judæa, went into Galilee.

And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.
(58) He did not many mighty works there.—In St. Mark the language is stronger, “He could do no mighty works there.” The wonder-working power was not absolute and unconditioned, but depended on the faith of those who came to Him. Without that, the will and the power were alike thwarted. St. Mark adds, with more precision, that He “laid His hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.”

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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