When it comes to the Three Parables of Matthew 13:44–50, great must be taken to not run these parables outside of Jesus’ own meaning in giving them. Jesus speaks several parables in Matthew 13, and they are all connected together in some way. This interconnectedness will help us discern the meaning of Matthew 13:44–50, and thus we will be able to answer just like the Twelve, when Jesus asked them, “Have you understood all these things?” (Matt. 13:51) They responded simply with “yes” (Matt. 13:51).
The parables in Matthew 13 are “Kingdom” parables. They all begin in the same way, viz., “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” (Matt. 13:24) or “the kingdom of heaven is like” (Matt. 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47). There is an exception to this, however, namely, the Parable of the Sower. Jesus begins this parable without any sort of introduction. He just starts, “A sower went out to sow” (Matt. 13:3). Jesus does, however, connect this to the kingdom parables. When Jesus explains this parable to His disciples, He begins the explanation by saying, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 13:11). While this answer is about His parables in general, Jesus, directly in the explanation of the Parable of the Sower, says “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:19). With both of these sayings Jesus ties all of the parables together, and they are all speaking about “the kingdom of heaven.”
B. THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
What exactly is that kingdom? At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptizer preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). John is the forerunner. He’s sent to prepare people for Christ. Christ also preaches this once He’s active in His ministry, i.e., after His Baptism and temptation. Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). The Twelve are sent out to preach the same thing, “‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:7). John preaches the one who is to come. Jesus preaches Himself, and sends the Twelve to do the same, i.e., preach Jesus who is come: “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities” (Matt. 11:1).
This can more easily be understood when βασιλεία, “kingdom”, is understood not as a static entity with borders. The primary definition of βασιλεία is “the act of ruling” and “kingship, royal power, royal rule.” (cf., BDAG) The idea is much more dynamic. “The kingdom of heaven” is God’s active reigning on earth to rescue sinners and to restore creation. This definitely happens in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus Himself says when questioned by John the Baptizer if Jesus was, in fact, the promised one. John is in essence asking, “Is the kingdom of heaven at hand or not?” Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:4–6).
C. MATTHEW 13
The parables of Matthew 13, as noted above, are all about the “kingdom of heaven.” When Jesus teaches in these parables, He is teaching about Himself. For the the two main parables of the chapter 13, viz., “The Parable of the Sower” (Matt. 13:3–9) and “The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds/Tares” (Matt. 13:24–30) explaining them is easy because Jesus Himself explains them (Matt. 13:18–23 and Matt. 13:37–43 respectively). The intervening parables of “The Mustard Seed” and “Leven” are clearly a unit between the “Wheat and the Weeds” and its explanation. The final three parables are also a unit. J. Gibbs, has plenty of commentary on how the first two, viz., “Treasure in the Field” and the “Pearl of Great Price,” relate to one another (cf. Gibbs, J.A., Matthew 11:2–20:34, 711–721). The following will be a look at the text itself and the interrelatedness of these three parables and where they stand in relation to the other parables of Matthew 13.
C.1. THE TEXT (ESV)
44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
C.2. COMMON METAPHOR
There is a common theme between the three parables: gathering in. This gathering takes place either by purchase (treasure and pearl) or by catching (fish). Moreover, this bringing in is always done by the Lord Himself. This is how the third parable, i.e., “The Catch of Fish”, illumines the first two. Jesus explains this third parable in order to give this point of comparison. It might be argued that this is not the case since it is the angels who gather in the fish from the nets. This is not a problem, however, because of where these parables occur. Jesus speaks these parables right after He explain the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The same “ingathering” idea is used, and the angels are sent by the Son of Man, Jesus, to gather “from His kingdom all scandals and workers of lawlessness, and they will cast them into the furnace of first. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:41–42). This is the backdrop for Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the catch of fish, and Jesus even uses similar and the same language to describe it: “Thus it will be at the consummation of the age: The angels will come and gather the wicked from the midst of the righteous, and they will cast them into the furnace of fire. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:49–50, emphasis added). The “from the mist of” (ἐκ μέσου τῶν δικαίων) is exactly what takes place with the wheat and the weeds—they grew together.
C.2. INTER-TEXTUAL CLARIFICATIONS
Besides the common metaphor, the “Wheat and the Weeds” helps to clarify these three parables. Jesus explains that “the field is the world” (Matt. 13:38). Now, using another parable to help interpret another can be a dangerous one because the point of comparison could have changed. This is what happens between the “Parable of the Sower” and the “Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.” This change is why the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field” (Matt. 13:36). This, however, does not take place at the end of these three parables, in fact, they confess that they understand them, as noted above (Matt. 13:51).
There is, however, something within the parables themselves that helps us to see that the field is, in fact, the world. In the “Parable of the Catch of Fish” Jesus says that, “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind” (Matt. 13:47). The “sea” here is clearly the world, since that is where people are gathered from by the angels (Matt. 13:49). Thus, the field from which the treasure is gathered would be the world just as the sea from which fish are gathered is the world, and this also just as the wheat and weeds are gathered from the field, which is the world. If one wishes to step beyond the text, which is truly a dangerous exercise that can lead to many problems (cf. Dan. 2:33, 41), you can see that this is the case with the “Parable of the Pearl” as well.
The man in the second parable is described, literally, as “a merchant man” (ἀνθρώπῳ ἐμπόρῳ). This man, this merchant, would have been searching in the market for such pearls. The market, then, could be viewed as “the world” out of which the pearl is gathered/purchased. While this is assuming something in the text, it is not too far afield because he is not simply a man, but a “merchant” (ἔμπορος).
C.3. THEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS
The implications of this interpretation could be in the realm of Objective Justification, Subjective Justification, and Final Judgment. Objective Justification, that Christ’s death is an atonement for the sins of the whole world, is seen in the “Parable of the Treasure” because Christ purchases the whole field (Objective Justification), but there is only the treasure, i.e., the one who ultimately has faith in such purchasing (Subjective Justification). The “Parable of the Pearl” focusses more specifically on Subjective Justification, namely, that a person is justified by their faith that Christ truly has died for them. The merchant does not buy the whole market in order to purchase the one pearl. Finally, the net “draws together all kinds” (ἐκ παντὸς γένους συναγαγούσῃ) (Objective Justification), and, “when it is full” (i.e., “the consummation of the age) (Final Judgment), the good (Subjective Justification) are placed into baskets while the bad are thrown into the fire (Final Judgment).
When it comes to these dense theological topics, there is not necessarily an exact one to one correlation in the parables. To press the parables too far could lead one to believe limited atonement. These parables don’t necessarily fit nicely into strict and dense theological categories.
C.4. OTHER PASSAGES
- “Treasure hidden in the field”—“For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Dt. 7:6).
- “In His joy”—“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
- “Sold all that he had”—“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8).
- “bought that field”/“bought it”—“…you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).
- “sorted the good into baskets”—“In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).