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Jesus Teaches in Parables

Matthew 13 contains 7 parables. This post will not be an exhaustive study of any of them. Rather, I will look briefly at the parables in this chapter with some suggestive thoughts – as the parables themselves are narratives rather than systematic theology.

What Is A Parable

Many have said a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. That is true of the parables in the Bible, though it is not the entire truth. The word parable has a similar root to the word parallel. There are parallels between the elements of a parable and a spiritual lesson Jesus wants us to learn.

Yet, the lessons are not always obvious to the casual listener. When His disciples asked why He taught in parables, Jesus said:

Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore, I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:

Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.”

But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. – Matthew 13:11-17

So parables not only reveal, they also conceal. The difference is in the heart of the hearers. When hearts are hard and made gross by bad attitudes, the parables are indeed a mystery. When someone loves the Lord and is seeking Him, the parables become an open book that keeps on giving greater insights as time goes by.

The Heart That Hears

The first parable in this chapter is the Parable of the Sower or the Parable of the Soils, which ever you prefer. The issue in this parable is the heart of the hearer of the Word of God. This applies to all of God’s Word, not just the parables – but it is also very true of the parables.

The Word does not penetrate the hard heart – and Satan cooperates with that heart by removing the Word, lest the person later open his heart to it and believe (cf. Luke 8:12). Other hearts believe – but do not persevere in persecution or difficulties. Many hearts are distracted by other things, and so are unfruitful. However, other hearers are good and honest. These understand the word, believe it, and it bears fruit of varying amounts. These hearts hear with comprehension, perseverance, and dedication. They are fruitful. In another place, Jesus said that it is those whose will is to do the will of the Father who will know His teaching (John 7:17). This parable illustrates that principle.

Language of the Parables

Sometimes a parable uses language similar to other passages of Scripture. For example, the parable of the leaven in three measures of dough speaks of leaven, which Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians 5:7. There, leaven is to be purged out lest it contaminate the entire church.

Similarly, in the parable the mustard seed grows into a large bush where the birds nest. The parable of the sower also had birds that represented Satan who took away the Word of God.

I have heard each of these parables interpreted in a way that warns of what frequently happens in the kingdom of heaven. As it grows, it can harbor people, practices, and culture that becomes destructive of kingdom ideals. We need to remove the leaven and keep the birds from destroying what we have in the kingdom. It is interesting, in this way of reading those parables, that they follow immediately after the parable of the tares – which has to do with judgment and things that offend and are lawless.

I do not follow this interpretation of the leaven and the birds. I believe that each parable normally stands on its own. Yet, the concept is interesting – and presents a valid way of looking at these parables.

Many say that parables teach only one lesson. I wonder though if this is always true. The lesson from the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven understood in the traditional way of speaking of the growth of the kingdom is a valid lesson. The kingdom is small in the beginning, but it grows and spreads into every crevice of a man’s soul – and into all of the world. Yet, the lessons from understanding the birds and the leaven in the alternate way also seem to have some validity. Is there room for varied understanding of the parables? Or must we all come to the same lessons from them?

Who Keeps the Kingdom Pure?

Two of the parables in this chapter definitely talk about the kingdom of heaven containing (or at least appearing to contain) individuals that are not really of heaven’s kingdom. The devil sowed the tares. The net gathered every kind, both the wicked and the just. The angels separate these at the last day.

Is there a place for us on earth to purge out evil, wicked elements from the kingdom? This question causes many to struggle with the teaching of these two parables. Do they mean what they seem to mean? If so, how do we deal with those who flagrantly reject the morality of the kingdom of heaven? After all, in 1 Corinthians 5 (just before he said we need to purge the leaven from the lump), Paul said to withdraw yourselves from the brother who had his father’s wife! In Titus 3:9-11, he said we are to reject a divisive man after the second admonition. In 2 John 9-10, John says we are not to receive anyone who does not bring the doctrine of Christ. How can we reconcile these clear statements with the apparent teaching of the two parables?

The Value of the Kingdom

If the parable of the soils shows the danger of distraction from the things of the kingdom, the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price show us why we need to pay attention to kingdom matters. The kingdom is of greater worth and value than any thing else we may possess.

Counting the cost (cf. Luke 14:28 & context) must also include the cost of not following Jesus. Often our focus is on what we give up without also looking at what we gain. In these two parables, the focus was on the pearl and on the hidden treasure. These were of such great value that those who discovered them were ready to sell everything to be able to posses these valuable items.


  1. Why did Jesus teach in parables? How do parables conceal? How do they reveal (and keep on revealing) His message to those who have good hearts?
  2. Describe the good and honest heart that bears fruit. Can you describe your heart as good and honest?
  3. Do you see any validity in interpreting the parables in terms of other scriptures that use similar language? For example, do you see value in looking at the parables of the leaven and mustard seed as parables of warning instead of as a promise of kingdom growth? Explain your answer.
  4. How would you reconcile the parables of the tares and the dragnet with passages that speak of withdrawal of fellowship?
  5. Why is the kingdom of heaven so valuable we should be willing to give up all we have to possess it?

NEXT: When Stress Strikes – Matthew 14

PREVIOUS: Jesus & the Pharisees – Matthew 12

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