Chopping and changing: what the lectionary does to the parables of Matthew

This is the third week that the Revised Common Lectionary has provided us with parables, chosen from chapter 13 in Matthew’s book of origins. This chapter is the third of five “blocks of teaching” in this account of Jesus—blocks where originally disparate elements are brought together on a thematic basis, to form the “five discourses of Jesus” (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 23-25). Many interpreters repeat the claim that these five discourses stand as an intentional complement to the “five Books of Moses” in Hebrew Scripture.

This particular chapter, I believe, was based on the earlier collection of parables found in chapter 4 of Mark’s “beginning of the good news about Jesus”, the key source for the works that Matthew and also Luke utilised (along with other hypothetical sources). There are three parables in Mark’s chapter: the seeds and the sower (4:3-9), the seed sown in secret (4:26-29), and the mustard seed (4:30-32). Of those, the first and the third are picked up by Matthew. The second, some interpreters believe, has been explicitly modified by Matthew to form the parable of the wheat and the weeds (about which see and also

Matthew has expanded this source of three parables, to seven parables, adding parables about the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). What each of these parables have in common are their opening phrases “the kingdom of heaven is like …”, and their simplicity of form. All five of them are short and succinct, making their point without any expansion or extrapolation.

We see, week after week, that Matthew edits the sources that he uses. We can see this quite evidently with regard to Mark, where we have the source material to compare with Matthew’s redactional enterprise. If we compare the places where Luke includes material in common with Matthew (the Q material), we can explore hypotheses about what one, or the other, of these editors seems to have done with that common material. (We have no point of comparison for the other material, drawn form the “special M” source, as we have no specific evidence that it existed, let alone any wording of that hypothetical source.)

Comparing Mark’s beginning of the good news with Matthew’s book of origins, we find the editorial impact of Matthew to be strong. Material is expanded, contracted, revised, put into a different order, sometimes modified almost beyond recognition. (The parable of the wheat and the weeds, compared with the parable of the seed sown secretly, might be such an instance.)

In relation to the parables, we see that Matthew expands Mark in significant ways—possibly modifying Mark’s second parable (13:24-30), adding three parables (13:33, 44, 45-46) to the third in Mark’s collection, and offering a concluding commentary on the significance of these parables (13:52). As a trade-off, he has omitted the brief lecture found in Mark 4:21-25, concerning the lamp under the bushel or on the lampstand—a teaching that may itself have elements of a parabolic form.

However, Matthew deliberately keeps the discussion of the relationship between the parables being offered, and the Hebrew Scriptures. Mark had Jesus reflect on this (4:10-12) and explicitly relate parables to the prophecy of Isaiah, that to outsiders who look, they will not perceive, or listen, but not understand (Isa 6:9-10). This prophetic “explanation” appears to justify the drawing of a strict boundary between insiders who understand, and outsiders who are destined not to comprehend. A difficult theological claim, but one that is central to Mark.

Matthew retains this (13:13-15) and strengthens the sense of insider/outsider, both in the assertions that come before (13:10-12) and in the blessing that follows (13:16-17). This remains important for Matthew. And he undergirds it with a distinctive blessing of the disciples with whom has is speaking (13:16).

But—and here is the curiosity—the Revised Common Lectionary does not include any of these verses. They are omitted from the Gospel selection in that lectionary. So, two weeks ago, following the directives of the lectionary, readers of the Gospel would jump from the parable (13:1-9) straight to the interpretation (13:18-23), omitting the intervening verses (13:10-17) that, as we have just noted, were so significant for Matthew—and for Mark, his source at this point.

And last week, the same thing happened, as readers of the Gospel who followed the lectionary prescriptions would jump from the parable (13:24-30) to its interpretation (13:36-43), leapfrogging the second consideration of the purpose of parables, which Matthew alone includes in his account (13:34-35).

And this explanatory section, like the earlier one, reaches back into Hebrew Scripture to provide another explanation of the purpose of parables (Psalm 78:2). According to this scripture, parables enable Jesus to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (13:35).

Today, the same thing occurs. The lectionary offers us five parables, all quite short, and none with a separate interpretation: the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). And once again, we jump over a block of text (in this case, the interpretation of the wheat and the weeds, 13:36-43).

So for the third week in a row, the lectionary has edited the text for reading, recasting it by removing it from the narrative context in which Matthew places it. I think we need a “hermeneutic of suspicion” with regard to the lectionary, at this point (and, indeed, at many other points throughout the three year cycle of texts).

Each one of these five parables is short and to the point. Each one is offered without interpretation. What do we make of each parable, heard in its own right, without any editorial gloss? That, at least, is the gift that the lectionary offers us this week.

To the parable of the mustard seed, a story about the potency of a tiny, seemingly insignificant, item, there is added the parable of the yeast; also a small, almost invisible, element, which when added into flour performs an amazingly powerful task, transforming the flour into a risen dough fit for baking.

And then, after the second scripture citation, two more short parables are offered, this time focusing on the great value, the immense significance, of two tiny and perhaps quite hidden elements: some treasure hidden in a field, and a pearl of great value nestling amongst many other commonplace pearls.

This is what the kingdom is like: small yet amazingly potent, hidden yet incredibly valuable.

Finally, to the parable of the wheat and the weeds, a story which points to the inexorable nature of God’s exercise of justice, there is added a final short parable which also underlines this message of divine judgement. The net is used to draw up baskets full of fish; but the task of the person fishing is to discriminate between the good fish and the bad fish—just as the person reaping the harvest must discriminate between good wheat and bad weeds.

So the focus is clear. The kingdom, valuable and powerful, will be the reason for sifting between good and bad. The good will enjoy “the kingdom of their Father” (13:43). The bad will be condemned to “the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:43, 50; see also 22:13, 24:51, 25:30).

“Have you understood all this?”, Jesus asked the disciples after he had related all seven of these parables (13:51). They replied, with confidence, “Yes”. But did they???