I went back and forth on these parables, to cover them individually or as a whole. They are all similar in that they begin with the words, “The Kingdom of God is like…” and then offer a comparison to something familiar to the people. Because of how they begin, and how similar they are, I decided it is best to cover them as a whole.
- “The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the smallest of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest of shrubs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32).
- “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and mixed in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33-35).
- “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field; which a man found and covered up, then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
- “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls: who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46)
- “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net, which was thrown into the sea, and gathered fish of every kind: when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels, but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and thrown them into the furnace of fire: there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 13:47-50).
The first thing to notice about these statements is that they all occur one right after the other at the end of chapter 13 of Matthew. Jesus meant for them to be taken together, and to teach the people about what the Kingdom of God is like. At the end of these short parables Jesus asks the disciples if they understood these, to which they respond, yes, so no explanation of them is given. This tells us that either they were too embarrassed to say no, or they we so simple as to require no explanation. Let’s assume, for sake of discussion, the latter. So, what is he saying?
The first four are comparisons telling the people how great is heaven, especially compared to what they experience here. Think about Jesus’ primary audience throughout his ministry, these are the everyday people, hard working, poor, with nothing to look forward to at the end of the day but another hard day tomorrow. Saturday was the only day of rest, and work continued until their deaths. No vacations, no retirement, no sabbaticals. Life was hard as well, no power tools, no washing machines, everything done by hand, starting with the light of day, ending with the setting of the sun. Even today’s farmers don’t have it as hard as the land workers of Jesus’ time. Unlike today’s Christians, not everyone believed in the concept of heaven for everyone, heaven was a place the patriarch’s went, not the average man. There was the concept of an afterlife, but it was not very clear (was Sheol a place to go, or just the grave?), and the Sadducee rejected any hope of a salvation; the afterlife was simply a place of shadows and darkness. Now comes Jesus.
These comparisons show heaven as not a place of dull, continued existence, but a place of true wonder. Let’s look at each comparison:
Mustard seed. The comparison shows that, like the tiny mustard seed that becomes a very large tree, heaven is unending. But, more than that, and what is often missed, is what the tree and heaven have in common: they provide a place of rest. Just as the birds land in the tree and make nests that are hidden and protected from their enemies, so the people of God can find safety and rest from the hardships and dangers of this life, in the protective and comforting embrace of a loving God.
Leaven. Leavening is what gives bread its rise, makes it soft and desirable. Unleavened bread is a cracker, flat, hard, with little taste and texture to it. Modern crackers have flavorings added to make it palatable – butter, sugar, cinnamon – without which it is barely edible. Jesus tells us that heaven isn’t like this, it is wonderful, delicious, desirable, something to be sought after and anticipated, something you work hard to attain.
Treasure and pearls. The final comparison is between a treasure found in a field and a valuable pearl. In both cases the individual sells everything they have to purchase this treasure. To spend eternity in heaven is such a great prize that Jesus says we should do everything possible to assure our entry into it. Nothing is too much to ask. But, to attain this fantastic reward must surely be out of the reach of the common man. It must be something only attainable by patriarchs, pharisees, saints. Right?
Jesus must have known this was on their minds, and so he presents the last parable of this set: the fishermen. Here Jesus tells us that in the end God will send his angels to cast their nets into the sea of humanity, gathering everyone: sinners and righteous, workers and masters, Jew and Gentile. All of humanity will be caught up into their nets, then the angels will begin the arduous task of separating the evil from the righteous. Jesus doesn’t stipulate only the saints, only the holy, but the righteous. Now, the Greek word used is δικαίων, which is not so restrictive as to mean only the holy, but can be interpreted as upright, good, just, honest, fair. This is not so high a bar as it cannot be reached, nor so low that it can be easily stepped over, but one that requires some effort on our part, a desire to attain this pearl, but the reward at the end is desirable of the work.