(Mat 13:1-52; Mar 4:1-34; Luk_8:4-18)
We are once more with Jesus and His disciples by the Lake of Galilee. We love to think that it was in the early morning, when the light laid its golden shadows on the still waters, and the fresh air, untainted by man, was fragrant of earth’s morning sacrifice, when no voice of human discord marred the restfulness of holy silence, nor broke the Ps of Nature’s praise. It was a spring morning too, and of such spring-time as only the East, and chiefly the Galilean Lake, knows – not of mingled sunshine and showers, of warmth and storm, clouds and brightness, when life seems to return slowly and feebly to the palsied limbs of our northern climes, but when at the warm touch it bounds and throbs with the vigour of youth. The imagery of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ indicates that winter’s rain and storms were just past. Under that sky Nature seems to meet the coming of spring by arraying herself in a garb more glorious than Solomon’s royal pomp. Almost suddenly the blood-red anemones, the gay tulips, the spotless narcissus, and the golden ranunculus deck with wondrous richness the grass of the fields – alas! so soon to wither – while all trees put forth their fragrant promise of fruit. As the imagery employed in the Sermon on the Mount confirmed the inference, otherwise derived, that it was spoken during the brief period after the winter rains, when the ‘lilies’ decked the fresh grass, so the scene depicted in the Parables spoken by the Lake of Galilee indicates a more advanced season, when the fields gave first promise of a harvest to be gathered in due time. And as we know that the barley-harvest commenced with the Passover, we cannot be mistaken in supposing that the scene is laid a few weeks before that Feast.
Other evidence of this is not wanting. From the opening verses we infer, that Jesus had gone forth from ‘the house’ with His disciples only, and that, as He sat by the seaside, the gathering multitude had obliged Him to enter a ship, whence He spake unto them many things in Parables. That this parabolic teaching did not follow, far less, was caused by, the fully developed enmity of the Pharisees, will appear more clearly in the sequel. Meantime it should be noticed, that the first series of Parables (those spoken by the Lake of Galilee) bear no distinct reference to it. In this respect we mark an ascending scale in the three series of Parables, spoken respectively at three different periods in the History of Christ, and with reference to three different stages of Pharisaic opposition and popular feeling. The first series is that, when Pharisaic opposition had just devised the explanation that His works were of demoniac agency, and when misled affection would have converted the ties of earthly relationship into bonds to hold the Christ. To this there was only one reply, when the Christ stretched out His Hand over those who had learned, by following Him, to do the Will of His Heavenly Father, and so become His nearest of kin. This was the real answer to the attempt of His mother and brethren; that to the Pharisaic charge of Satanic agency. And it was in this connection that, first to the multitude, then to His disciples, the first series of Parables was spoken, which exhibits the elementary truths concerning the planting of the Kingdom of God, its development, reality, value, and final vindication.
In the second series of Parables we mark a different stage. The fifteen Parables of which it consists were spoken after the Transfiguration, on the descent into the Valley of Humiliation. They also concern the Kingdom of God, but, although the prevailing characteristic is still parenetic, or, rather, Evangelic, they have a controversial aspect also, as against some vital, active opposition to the Kingdom, chiefly on the part of the Pharisees. Accordingly, they appear among ‘the Discourses’ of Christ, and are connected with the climax of Pharisaic opposition as presented in the charge, in its most fully developed form, that Jesus was, so to speak, the Incarnation of Satan, the constant medium and vehicle of his activity. This was the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. All the Parables spoken at that period bear more or less direct reference to it, though, as already stated, as yet in positive rather than negative form, the Evangelic element in them being primary, and the judicial only secondary.
This order is reversed in the third series, consisting of eight Parables. Here the controversial has not only the ascendancy over the Evangelic element, but the tone has become judicial, and the Evangelic element appears chiefly in the form of certain predictions connected with the coming end. The Kingdom of God is presented in its final stage of ingathering, separation, reward and loss, as, indeed, we might expect in the teaching of the Lord immediately before His final rejection by Israel and betrayal into the hands of the Gentiles. This internal connection between the Parables and the History of Christ best explains their meaning. Their artificial grouping (as by mostly all modern critics) is too ingenious to be true. One thing, however, is common to all the Parables, and forms a point of connection between them. They are all occasioned by some unreceptiveness on the part of the hearers, and that, even when the hearers are professing disciples. This seems indicated in the reason assigned by Christ to the disciples for His use of parabolic teaching: that unto them it was ‘given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables.’ And this may lead up to such general remarks on the Parables as are necessary for their understanding. Little information is to be gained from discussing the etymology of the word Parable. The verb from which it is derived means to project; and the term itself, the placing of one thing by the side of another. Perhaps no other mode of teaching was so common among the Jews as that by Parables. Only in their case, they were almost entirely illustrations of what had been said or taught; while, in the case of Christ, they served as the foundation for His teaching. In the one case, the light of earth was cast heavenwards, in the other, that of heaven earthwards; in the one case, it was intended to make spiritual teaching appear Jewish and national, in the other to convey spiritual teaching in a form adapted to the standpoint of the hearers. This distinction will be found to hold true, even in instances where there seems the closest parallelism between a Rabbinic and an Evangelic Parable. On further examination, the difference between them will appear not merely one of degree, but of kind, or rather of standpoint. This may be illustrated by the Parable of the woman who made anxious search for her lost coin, to which there is an almost literal Jewish parallel. But, whereas in the Jewish Parable the moral is, that a man ought to take much greater pains in the study of the Torah than in the search for coin, since the former procures an eternal reward, while the coin would, if found, at most only procure temporary enjoyment, the Parable of Christ is intended to set forth, not the merit of study or of works, but the compassion of the Saviour in seeking the lost, and the joy of Heaven in his recovery. It need scarcely be said, that comparison between such Parables, as regards their spirit, is scarcely possible, except by way of contrast.
But, to return. In Jewish writings a Parable (mimshal mashal maṯla) is introduced by some such formula as this: ‘I will tell thee a parable’ (אמשוּל לך משל). ‘To what is the thing like? To one,’ etc. Often it begins more briefly, thus: ‘A Parable. To what is the thing like?’ or else, simply: ‘To what is the thing like?’ Sometimes even this is emitted, and the Parable is indicated by the preposition ‘to’ at the beginning of the illustrative story. Jewish writers extol Parables, as placing the meaning of the Law within range of the comprehension of all men. The ‘wise King’ had introduced this method, the usefulness of which is illustrated by the Parable of a great palace which had many doors, so that people lost their way in it, till one came who fastened a ball of thread at the chief entrance, when all could readily find their way in and out. Even this will illustrate what has been said of the difference between Rabbinic Parables and those employed by our Lord.
The general distinction between a Parable and a Proverb, Fable and Allegory, cannot here be discussed at length. It will sufficiently appear from the character and the characteristics of the Parables of our Lord. That designation is, indeed, sometimes applied to what are not Parables, in the strictest sense; while it is wanting where we might have expected it. Thus, in the Synoptic Gospels illustrations, and even proverbial sayings, such as ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ or that about the blind leading the blind, are designated Parables. Again, the term ‘Parable,’ although used in our Authorised Version, does not occur in the original of John’s Gospel; and this, although not a few illustrations used in that Gospel on superficial examination, appear to be Parables. The term must, therefore, be here restricted to special conditions. The first of these is, that all Parables bear reference to well-known scenes, such is those of daily life; or to events, either real, or such as every one would expect in given circumstances, or as would be in accordance with prevailing notions.
Such pictures, familiar to the popular mind, are in the Parable connected with corresponding spiritual realities. Yet, here also, there is that which distinguishes the Parable from the mere illustration. The latter conveys no more than – perhaps not so much as – that which was to be illustrated while the Parable conveys this and a great deal beyond it to those, who can follow up its shadows to the light by which they have been cast. In truth, Parables are the outlined shadows – large, perhaps, and dim – as the light of heavenly things falls on well-known scenes, which correspond to, and have their higher counterpart in spiritual realities. For, earth and heaven are twin-parts of His works. And, as the same law, so the same order, prevails in them; and they form a grand unity in their relation to the Living God Who reigneth. And, just as there is ultimately but one Law, one Force, one Life, which, variously working, effects and affects all the Phenomenal in the material universe, however diverse it may seem, so is there but one Law and Life as regards the intellectual, moral – nay, and the spiritual. One Law, Force, and Life, binding the earthly and the heavenly into a Grand Unity – the outcome of the Divine Unity, of which it is the manifestation. Thus things in earth and heaven are kindred, and the one may become to us Parables of the other. And so, if the place of our resting be Bethel, they become Jacob’s ladder, by which those from heaven come down to earth, and those from earth ascend to heaven.
Another characteristic of the Parables, in the stricter sense, is that in them the whole picture or narrative is used in illustration of some heavenly teaching, and not merely one feature or phase of it, as in some of the parabolic illustrations and proverbs of the Synoptists, or the parabolic narratives of the Fourth Gospel. Thus, in the parabolic illustrations about the new piece of cloth on the old garment, about the blind leading the blind, about the forth-putting of leaves on the fig-tree; or in the parabolic proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself;’ or in such parabolic narratives of John, as about the Good Shepherd, or the Vine – in each case, only one part is selected as parabolic. On the other hand, even in the shortest Parables, such as those of the seed growing secretly, the leaven in the meal, and the pearl of great price, the picture is complete, and has not only in one feature, but in its whole bearing, a counterpart in spiritual realities. But, as shown in the Parable of the seed growing secretly, it is not necessary that the Parable should always contain some narrative, provided that not only one feature, but the whole thing related, have its spiritual application.
In view of what has been explained, the arrangement of the Parables into symbolical and typical can only apply to their form, not their substance. In the first of these classes a scene from nature or from life serves as basis for exhibiting the corresponding spiritual reality. In the latter, what is related serves as type (τύπος), not in the ordinary sense of that term, but in that not unfrequent in Scripture: as example – whether for imitation, or in warning. In the typical Parables the illustration lies, so to speak, on the outside; in the symbolical, within the narrative or scene. The former are to be applied; the latter must be explained.
It is here that the characteristic difference between the various classes of hearers lay. All the Parables, indeed, implied some background of opposition, or else of unreceptiveness. In the record of this first series of them, the fact that Jesus spake to the people in Parables, and only in Parables, is strongly marked. It appears, therefore, to have been the first time that this mode of popular teaching was adopted by him. Accordingly, the disciples not only expressed their astonishment, but inquired the reason of this novel method. The answer of the Lord makes a distinction between those to whom it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom, and those to whom all things were done in Parables. But, evidently, this method of teaching could not have been adopted for the people, in contradistinction to the disciples, and as a judicial measure, since even in the first series of Parables three were addressed to the disciples, after the people had been dismissed. On the other hand, in answer to the disciples, the Lord specially marks this as the difference between the teaching vouchsafed to them and the Parables spoken to the people, that the designed effect of the latter was judicial: to complete that hardening which, in its commencement, had been caused by their voluntary rejection of what they had heard. But, as not only the people, but the disciples also, were taught by Parables, the hardening effect must not be ascribed to the parabolic mode of teaching, now for the first time adopted by Christ. Nor is it a sufficient answer to the question, by what this darkening effect, and hence hardening influence, of the Parable on the people was caused, that the first series, addressed to the multitude, consisted of a cumulation of Parables, without any hint as to their meaning or interpretation. For, irrespective of other considerations, these Parables were at least as easily understood as those spoken immediately afterwards to the disciples, on which, similarly, no comment was given by Jesus. On the other hand, to us at least, it seems clear, that the ground of the different effect of the Parables on the unbelieving multitude and on the believing disciples was not objective, or caused by the substance or form of these Parables, but subjective, being caused by the different standpoint of the two classes of hearers toward the Kingdom of God.
This explanation removes what otherwise would be a serious difficulty. For, it seems impossible to believe, that Jesus had adopted a special mode of teaching for the purpose of concealing the truth, which might have saved those who heard Him. His words, indeed, indicate that such was the effect of the Parables. But they also indicate, with at least equal clearness, that the cause of this hardening lay, not in the parabolic method of teaching, but in the state of spiritual insensibility at which, by their own guilt, they had previously arrived. Through this, what might, and, in other circumstances, would, have conveyed spiritual instruction, necessarily became that which still further and fatally darkened and dulled their minds and hearts. Thus, their own hardening merged into the judgment of hardening.
We are now in some measure able to understand, why Christ now for the first time adopted parabolic teaching. Its reason lay in the altered circumstances of the case. All his former teaching had been plain, although initial. In it He had set forth by Word, and exhibited by fact (in miracles), that Kingdom of God which He had come to open to all believers. The hearers had now ranged themselves into two parties. Those who, whether temporarily or permanently (as the result would show), had admitted these premises, so far as they understood them, were His professing disciples. On the other hand, the Pharisaic party had now devised a consistent theory, according to which the acts, and hence also the teaching, of Jesus, were of Satanic origin. Christ must still preach the Kingdom; for that purpose had he come into the world. Only, the presentation of that Kingdom must now be for decision. It must separate the two classes, leading the one to clearer understanding of the mysteries of the Kingdom – of what not only seems, but to our limited thinking really is, mysterious; while the other class of hearers would now regard these mysteries as wholly unintelligible, incredible, and to be rejected. And the ground of this lay in the respective positions of these two classes towards the Kingdom. ‘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.’ And the mysterious manner in which they were presented in Parables was alike suited to, and corresponded with, the character of these ‘mysteries of the Kingdom,’ now set forth, not for initial instruction, but for final decision. As the light from heaven falls on earthly objects, the shadows are cast. But our perception of them, and its mode, depend on the position which we occupy relatively to that Light.
And so it was not only best, but most merciful, that these mysteries of substance should now, also, be presented as mysteries of form in Parables. Here each would see according to his standpoint towards the Kingdom. And this was in turn determined by previous acceptance or rejection of that truth, which had formerly been set forth in a plain form in the teaching and acting of the Christ. Thus, while to the opened eyes and hearing ears of the one class would be disclosed that, which prophets and righteous men of old had desired but not attained, to them who had voluntarily cast aside what they had, would only come, in their seeing and hearing, the final judgment of hardening. So would it be to each according to his standpoint. To the one would come the grace of final revelation, to the other the final judgment which, in the first place, had been of their own choice, in but which, as they voluntarily occupied their position relatively to Christ, had grown into the fulfilment of the terrible prediction of Esaias concerning the final hardening of Israel.
Thus much in general explanation. The record of the first series of Parables contains three separate accounts: that of the Parables spoken to the people; that of the reason for the use of parabolic teaching, and the explanation of the first Parables (both addressed to the disciples); and, finally, another series of Parables spoken to the disciples. To each of these we must briefly address ourselves.
On that bright spring morning, when Jesus spoke from ‘the ship’ to the multitude that crowded the shore, He addressed to them these four Parables: concerning Him Who sowed, concerning the Wheat and the Tares, concerning the Mustard-Seed, and concerning the Leaven. The first, or perhaps the two first of these, must be supplemented by what may be designated as a fifth Parable, that of the Seed growing unobservedly. This is the only Parable of which Mark alone has preserved the record. All these Parables refer, as is expressly stated, to the Kingdom of God; that is, not to any special phase or characteristic of it, but to the Kingdom itself, or, in other words, to its history. They are all such as befit an open-air address at that season of the year, in that locality, and to those hearers. And yet there is such gradation and development in them as might well point upwards and onwards.
The first Parable is that of Him Who sowed. We can almost picture to ourselves the Saviour seated in the prow of the boat, as He points His hearers to the rich plain over against Him, where the young corn, still in the first green of its growing, is giving promise of harvest. Like this is the Kingdom of Heaven which He has come to proclaim. Like what? Not yet like that harvest, which is still in the future, but like that field over there. The Sower has gone forth to sow the Good Seed. If we bear in mind a mode of sowing peculiar (if we are not mistaken) to those times, the Parable gains in vividness. According to Jewish authorities there was twofold sowing, as the seed was either cast by the hand (מפולת יד) or by means of cattle (מפולת שוורים). In the latter case, a sack with holes was filled with corn and laid on the back of the animal, so that, as it moved onwards, the seed was thickly scattered. Thus it might well be, that it would fall indiscriminately on beaten roadway, on stony places but thinly covered with soil, or where the thorns had not been cleared away, or undergrowth from the thorn-hedge crept into the field, as well as on good ground. The result in each case need not here be repeated. But what meaning would all this convey to the Jewish hearers of Jesus? How could this sowing and growing be like the Kingdom of God? Certainly not in the sense in which they expected it. To them it was only a rich harvest, when all Israel would bear plenteous fruit. Again, what was the Seed, and who the Sower? or what could be meant by the various kinds of soil and their unproductiveness?
To us, as explained by the Lord, all this seems plain. But to them there could be no possibility of understanding, but much occasion for misunderstanding it, unless, indeed, they stood in right relationship to the ‘Kingdom of God.’ The initial condition requisite was to believe that Jesus was the Divine Sower, and His Word the Seed of the Kingdom: no other Sower than He, no other Seed of the Kingdom than His Word. If this were admitted, they had at least the right premises for understanding ‘this mystery of the Kingdom.’ According to Jewish view the Messiah was to appear in outward pomp, and by display of power to establish the Kingdom. But this was the very idea of the Kingdom, with which Satan had tempted Jesus at the outset of His Ministry. In opposition to it was this ‘mystery of the Kingdom,’ according to which it consisted in reception of the Seed of the Word. That reception would depend on the nature of the soil, that is, on the mind and heart of the hearers. The Kingdom of God was within: it came neither by a display of power, nor even by this, that Israel, or else the Gospel-hearers, were the field on which the Seed of the Kingdom was sown. He had brought the Kingdom: the Sower had gone forth to sow. This was of free grace – the Gospel. But the seed might fall on the roadside, and so perish without even springing up. Or it might fall on rocky soil, and so spring up rapidly, but wither before it showed promise of fruit. Or it might fall where thorns grew along with, and more rapidly than, it. And so it would, indeed, show promise of fruit; the corn might appear in the ear; but that fruit would not come to ripeness (‘bring no fruit to perfection), because the thorns growing more rapidly would choke the corn. Lastly, to this threefold faultiness of soil, through which the seed did not spring up at all, or merely sprung up, or just reached the promise, but not the perfection of fruit, corresponded a threefold degree of fruit-bearing in the soil, according to which it brought forth thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or an hundredfold, in the varying measure of its capacity.
If even the disciples failed to comprehend the whole bearing of this ‘Mystery of the Kingdom,’ we can believe how utterly strange and un-Jewish such a Parable of the Messianic Kingdom must have sounded to them, who had been influenced by the Pharisaic representations of the Person and Teaching of Christ. And yet the while these very hearers were, unconsciously to themselves, fulfilling what Jesus was speaking to them in the Parable!
Whether or not the Parable recorded by Mark alone, concerning the Seed growing unobservedly, was spoken afterwards in private to the disciples, or, as seems more likely, at the first, and to the people by the sea-shore, this appears the fittest place for inserting it. If the first Parable, concerning the Sower and the Field of Sowing, would prove to all who were outside the pale of discipleship a ‘mystery,’ while to those within it would unfold knowledge of the very mysteries of the Kingdom, this would even more fully be the case in regard to this second or supplementary Parable. In it we are only viewing that portion of the field, which the former Parable had described as good soil. ‘So is the Kingdom of God, as if a man had cast the seed on the earth, and slept and rose, night and day, and the seed sprang up and grew: how, he knows not himself. Automatous [self-acting] the earth beareth fruit: first blade, then ear, then full wheat in the ear! But when the fruit presents itself, immediately he sendeth forth the sickle, because the harvest is come.’ The meaning of all this seems plain. As the Sower, after the seed has been cast into the ground, can do no more; he goes to sleep at night, and rises by day, the seed the meanwhile growing, the Sower knows not how, and as his activity ceases till the time that the fruit is ripe, when immediately he thrusts in the sickle – so is the Kingdom of God. The seed is sown; but its growth goes on, dependent on the law inherent in seed and soil, dependent also on Heaven’s blessing of sunshine and showers, till the moment of ripeness, when the harvest-time is come. We can only go about our daily work, or lie down to rest, as day and night alternate; we see, but know not the how of the growth of the seed. Yet, assuredly it will ripen, and when that moment has arrived, immediately the sickle is thrust in, for the harvest is come. And so also with the Sower. His outward activity on earth was in the sowing, and it will be in the harvesting. What lies between them is of that other Dispensation of the Spirit, till He again send forth His reapers into His field. But all this must have been to those ‘without’ a great mystery, in no wise compatible with Jewish notions; while to them ‘within’ it proved a yet greater, and very needful unfolding of the mysteries of the Kingdom, with very wide application of them.
The ‘mystery’ is made still further, mysterious, or else it is still further unfolded in the next Parable concerning the Tares sown among the Wheat. According to the common view, these Tares represent what is botanically known as the ‘bearded Darnel’ (Lolium temulentum), a poisonous rye-grass, very common in the East, ‘entirely like wheat until the ear appears,’ or else (according to some), the ‘creeping wheat’ or ‘couch-grass’ (Triticum repens), of which the roots creep underground and become intertwined with those of the wheat. But the Parable gains in meaning if we bear in mind that, according to ancient Jewish (and, indeed, modern Eastern) ideas, the Tares were not of different seed, but only a degenerate kind of wheat. Whether in legend or symbol, Rabbinism has it that even the ground had been guilty of fornication before the judgment of the Flood, so that when wheat was sown tares sprang up. The Jewish hearers of Jesus would, therefore, think of these tares as degenerate kind of wheat, originally sprung at the time of the Flood, through the corruptness of the earth, but now, alas! so common in their fields; wholly undistinguishable from the wheat, till the fruit appeared: noxious, poisonous, and requiring to be separated from the wheat, if the latter was not to become useless.
With these thoughts in mind, let us now try to realise the scene pictured. Once more we see the field on which the corn is growing – we know not how. The sowing time is past. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is become like to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But in the time that men sleep came his enemy and over-sowed tares in (upon) the midst of the wheat, and went away.’ Thus far the picture is true to nature, since such deeds of enmity were, and still are, common in the East. And so matters would go on unobserved, since, whatever kind of ‘tares’ may be meant, it would, from their likeness, be for some time impossible to distinguish them from the wheat. ‘But when the herbage grew and made fruit, then appeared (became manifest) also the tares.’ What follows is equally true to fact, since, according to the testimony of travellers, most strenuous efforts are always made in the East to weed out the tares. Similarly, in the parable, the servants of the householder are introduced as inquiring whence these tares had come; and on the reply: ‘A hostile person has done this,’ they further ask: ‘Wilt thou then that we go (straightway) and gather them together?’ The absence of any reference to the rooting up or burning the tares, is intended to indicate, that the only object which the servants had in view was to keep the wheat pure and unmixed for the harvest. But this their final object would have been frustrated by the procedure, which their inconsiderate zeal suggested. It would, indeed, have been quite possible to distinguish the tares from the wheat – and the Parable proceeds on this very assumption – for, by their fruit they would be known. But in the present instance separation would have been impossible, without, at the same time, uprooting some of the wheat. For, the tares had been sown right into the midst, and not merely by the side, of the wheat; and their roots and blades must have become intertwined. And so they must grow together to the harvest. Then such danger would no longer exist, for the period of growing was past, and the wheat had to be gathered into the barn. Then would be the right time to bid the reapers first gather the tares into bundles for burning, that afterwards the wheat, pure and unmixed, might be stored in the garner.
True to life as the picture is, yet the Parable was, of all others, perhaps the most un-Jewish, and therefore mysterious and unintelligible. Hence the disciples specially asked explanation of this only, which from its main subject they rightly designated as the Parable ‘of the Tares.’ Yet this was also perhaps the most important for them to understand. For already ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is become like’ this, although the appearance of fruit has not yet made it manifest, that tares have been sown right into the midst of the wheat. But they would soon have to learn it in bitter experience and as a grievous temptation, and not only as regarded the impressionable, fickle multitude, nor even the narrower circle of professing followers of Jesus, but that, alas! in their very midst there was a traitor. And they would have to learn it more and more in the time to come, as we have to learn it to all ages, till the ‘Age-’ or ‘Aeon-completion.’ Most needful, yet most mysterious also, is this other lesson, as the experience of the Church has shown, since almost every period of her history has witnessed, not only the recurrence of the proposal to make the wheat unmixed, while growing, by gathering out the tares, but actual attempts towards it. All such have proved failures, because the field is the wide ‘world,’ not a narrow sect; because the tares have been sown into the midst of the wheat, and by the enemy; and because, if such gathering were to take place, the roots and blades of tares and wheat would be found so intertwined, that harm would come to the wheat. But why try to gather the tares together, unless from undiscerning zeal? Or what have we, who are only the owner’s servants, to do with it, since we are not bidden of Him? The ‘Aeon-completion’ will witness the harvest, when the separation of tares and wheat may not only be accomplished with safety, but shall become necessary. For the wheat must be garnered in the heavenly storehouse, and the tares bound in bundles to be burned. Then the harvesters shall be the Angels of Christ, the gathered tares ‘all the stumbling-blocks and those who do the lawlessness,’ and their burning the casting of them ‘into the oven of the fire.’
More mysterious still, and, if possible, even more needful, was the instruction that the Enemy who sowed the tares was the Devil. To the Jews, nay, to us all, it may seem a mystery, that in ‘the Messianic Kingdom of Heaven’ there should be a mixture of tares with the wheat, the more mysterious, that the Baptist had predicted that the coming Messiah would thoroughly purge His floor. But to those who were capable of receiving it, it would be explained by the fact that the Devil was ‘the Enemy’ of Christ, and of His Kingdom, and that he had sowed those tares. This would, at the same time, be the most effective answer to the Pharisaic charge, that Jesus was the Incarnation of Satan, and the vehicle of his influence. And once instructed in this, they would have further to learn the lessons of faith and patience, connected with the fact that the good seed of the Kingdom grew in the field of the world, and hence that, by the very conditions of its existence, separation by the hand of man was impossible so long as the wheat was still growing. Yet that separation would surely be made in the great harvest, to certain, terrible loss of the children of the wicked one, and to the ‘sun-like forthshining’ in glory of the righteous in the Kingdom prepared by their Father.
The first Parables were intended to present the mysteries of the Kingdom as illustrated by the sowing, growing, and intermixture of the Seed. The concluding two Parables set forth another equally mysterious characteristic of the Kingdom: that of its development and power, as contrasted with its small and weak beginnings. In the Parable of the Mustard-seed this is shown as regards the relation of the Kingdom to the outer world; in that of the Leaven, in reference to the world within us. The one exhibits the extensiveness, the other the intensiveness, of its power; in both cases at first hidden, almost imperceptible, and seemingly wholly inadequate to the final result. Once more we say it, that such Parables must have been utterly unintelligible to all who did not see in the humble, despised, Nazarene, and in His teaching, the Kingdom. But to those whose eyes, ears and hearts had been opened, they would carry most needed instruction and most precious comfort and assurance. Accordingly, we do not find that the disciples either asked or received an interpretation of these Parables.
A few remarks will set the special meaning of these Parables more clearly before us. Here also the illustrations used may have been at hand. Close by the fields, covered with the fresh green or growing corn, to which Jesus had pointed, may have been the garden with its growing herbs, bushes and plants, and the home of the householder, whose wife may at that moment have been in sight, busy preparing the weekly provision of bread. At any rate, it is necessary to keep in mind the homeliness of these illustrations. The very idea of Parables implies, not strict scientific accuracy, but popular pictorialness. It is characteristic of them to present vivid sketches that appeal to the popular mind, and exhibit such analogies of higher truths as can be readily perceived by all. Those addressed were not to weigh every detail, either logically or scientifically, but at once to recognise the aptness of the illustration as presented to the popular mind. Thus, as regards the first of these two Parables, the seed of the mustard-plant passed in popular parlance as the smallest of seeds. In fact, the expression, ‘small as a mustard-seed,’ had become proverbial, and was used, not only by our Lord, but frequently by the Rabbis, to indicate the smallest amount, such as the least drop of blood, the least defilement, or the smallest remnant of sun-glow in the sky. ‘But when it is grown, it is greater than the garden-herbs.’ Indeed, it looks no longer like a large garden-herb or shrub, but ‘becomes,’ or rather, appears like, ‘a tree’ – as Luke puts it, ‘a great tree,’ of course, not in comparison with other trees, but with garden-shrubs. Such growth of the mustard seed was also a fact well known at the time, and, indeed, still observed in the East.
This is the first and main point in the Parable. The other, concerning the birds which are attracted to its branches and ‘lodge’ literally, ‘make tents’ – there, or else under the shadow of it, is, subsidiary. Pictorial, of course, this trait would be, and we can the more readily understand that birds would be attracted to the branches or the shadow of the mustard-plant, when we know that mustard was in Palestine mixed with, or used as food for pigeons, and presumably would be sought by other birds. And the general meaning would the more easily be apprehended, that a tree, whose wide-spreading branches afforded lodgment to the birds of heaven, was a familiar Old Testament figure for a mighty kingdom that gave shelter to the nations. Indeed, it is specifically used as an illustration of the Messianic Kingdom. Thus the Parable would point to this, so full of mystery to the Jews, so explanatory of the mystery to the disciples: that the Kingdom of Heaven, planted in-the field of the world as the smallest seed, in the most humble and unpromising manner, would grow till it far outstripped all other similar plants, and gave shelter to all nations under heaven.
To this extensive power of the Kingdom corresponded its intensive character, whether in the world at large or in the individual. This formed the subject of the last of the Parables addressed at this time to the people – that of the Leaven. We need not here resort to ingenious methods of explaining ‘the three measures,’ or seahs, of meal in which the leaven was hid. Three seahs were an Ephah, of which the exact capacity differed in various districts. According to the so-called ‘wilderness,’ or original Biblical, measurement, it was supposed to be a space holding 432 eggs, while the Jerusalem ephah was one-fifth, and the Sepphoris (or Galilean) ephah two-fifths, or, according to another authority, one-half larger. To mix ‘three measures’ of meal was common in Biblical, as well as in later times. Nothing further was therefore conveyed than the common process of ordinary, everyday life. And in this, indeed, lies the very point of the Parable, that the Kingdom of God, when received within, would seem like leaven hid, but would gradually pervade, assimilate, and transform the whole of our common life.
With this most un-Jewish, and, to the unbelieving multitude, most mysterious characterisation of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Saviour dismissed the people. Enough had been said to them and for them, if they had but ears to hear. And now He was again alone with the disciples ‘in the house’ at Capernaum, to which they had returned. Many new and deeper thoughts of the Kingdom had come to them. But why had He so spoken to the multitude, in a manner so different, as regarded not only the form, but even the substance of His teaching? And did they quite understand its solemn meaning themselves? More especially, who was the enemy whose activity would threaten the safety of the harvest? Of harvest they had already heard on the way through Samaria. And what were those ‘tares,’ which were to continue in their very midst till the judicial separation of the end? To these questions Jesus now made answer. His statement of the reason for adopting in the present instance the parabolic mode of teaching would, at the same time, give them farther insight into those very mysteries of the Kingdom which it had been the object of these Parables to set forth. His unsolicited explanation of the details of the first Parable would call attention to points that might readily have escaped their notice, but which, for warning and instruction, it most behoved them to keep in view.
The understanding of the first Parable seems to have shown them, how much hidden meaning this teaching conveyed, and to have stimulated their desire for comprehending what the presence and machinations of the hostile Pharisees might, in some measure, lead them to perceive in dim outline. Yet it was not to the Pharisees that the Lord referred. The Enemy was the Devil; the field, the world; the good seed, the children of the Kingdom; the tares, the children of the Wicked One. And most markedly did the Lord, in this instance, not explain the Parable, as the first one, in its details, but only indicate, so to speak, the stepping-stones for its understanding. This, not only to train the disciples, but because – unlike the first Parable – that of the Tares would only in the future and increasingly unfold its meaning.
But even this was not all. The disciples had now knowledge concerning the mysteries of the Kingdom. But that Kingdom was not matter of the understanding only, but of personal apprehension. This implied discovery of its value, personal acquisition of it, and surrender of all to its possession. And this mystery of the Kingdom was next conveyed to the disciples in those Parables specially addressed to, and suited only for, them.
Kindred, or rather closely connected, as are the two Parables of the Treasure hid in the Field and of the Pearl of Great Price – now spoken to the disciples – their differences are sufficiently marked. In the first, one who must probably be regarded as intending to buy a, if not this, field, discovers a treasure hidden there, and in his joy parts with all else to become owner of the field and of the hidden treasure which he had so unexpectedly found. Some difficulty has been expressed in regard to the morality of such a transaction. In reply it may be observed, that it was, at least, in entire accordance with Jewish law. If a man had found a treasure in loose coins among the corn, it would certainly be his, if he bought the corn. If he had found it on the ground, or in the soil, it would equally certainly belong to him, if he could claim ownership of the soil, and even if the field were not his own, unless others could prove their right to it. The law went so far as to adjudge to the purchaser of fruits anything found among these fruits. This will suffice to vindicate a question of detail, which, in any case, should not be too closely pressed in a parabolic history.
But to resume our analysis. In the second Parable we have a wise merchantman who travels in search of pearls, and when he finds one which in value exceeds all else, he returns and sells all that he has, in order to buy this unique gem. The supreme value of the Kingdom, the consequent desire to appropriate it, and the necessity of parting with all else for this purpose, are the points common to this and the previous Parable. But in the one case, it is marked that this treasure is hid from common view in the field, and the finder makes unexpected discovery of it, which fills him with joy. In the other case, the merchantman is, indeed, in search of pearls, but he has the wisdom to discover the transcendent value of this one gem, and the yet greater wisdom to give up all further search and to acquire it at the surrender of everything else. Thus, two different aspects of the Kingdom, and two different conditions on the part of those who, for its sake, equally part with all, are here set before the disciples.
Nor was the closing Parable of the Draw-net less needful. Assuredly it became, and would more and more become, them to know, that mere discipleship – mere inclusion in the Gospel-net – was not sufficient. That net let down into the sea of this world would include much which, when the net was at last drawn to shore, would prove worthless or even hurtful. To be a disciple, then, was not enough. Even here there would be separation. Not only the tares, which the Enemy had designedly sown into the midst of the wheat, but even much that the Gospel-net, cast into the sea, had inclosed, would, when brought to land, prove fit only to be cast away, into ‘the oven of the fire where there is the wailing and the gnashing of teeth.’
So ended that spring-day of first teaching in Parables, to the people by the Lake, and in the house at Capernaum to the disciples. Dim, shadowy outlines, growing larger and more faint in their tracings to the people; shadowy outlines, growing brighter and clearer to all who were disciples. Most wondrous instruction to all, and in all aspects of it; which even negative critics admit to have really formed part of Christ’s own original teaching. But if this be the case, we have two questions of decisive character to ask. Undoubtedly, these Parables were un-Jewish. This appears, not only from a comparison with the Jewish views of the Kingdom, but from the fact that their meaning was unintelligible to the hearers of Jesus, and from this, that, rich as Jewish teaching is in Parables, none in the least parallel to them can be adduced. Our first question, therefore, is: Whence this un-Jewish and anti-Jewish teaching concerning the Kingdom on the part of Jesus of Nazareth?
Our second question goes still farther. For, if Jesus was not a Prophet – and, if a Prophet, then also the Son of God – yet no more strangely unexpected prophecy, minutely true in all its details, could be conceived, than that concerning His Kingdom which His parabolic description of it conveyed. Has not History, in the strange, unexpected fulfilling of that which no human ingenuity at the time could have forecast, and no pen have described with more minute accuracy of detail, proved Him to be more than a mere man – One sent from God, the Divine King of the Divine Kingdom, in all the vicissitudes which such a Divine Kingdom must experience when set up upon earth?