After seven parables describing the kingdom of God, Jesus concludes by calling his own disciples scribes of the kingdom. This enigmatic phrase is key to understanding Matthew’s view of discipleship. Disciples of Jesus are like scribes of the kingdom who bring out both old and new treasures for people to see.
He asks his disciples a question: “do you finally understand all this?” (13:51). After the series of parables, Jesus asks the disciples if they understand what has been said. They answer that they do, which might be a surprise since they have not understood in 13:13-15, 19. After Jesus has explained the parable of the Sower and the Weeds, the true disciples now are able to understand the parables without further explanation.
Is this an eighth parable in Matthew 13? Mark Bailey, for example, calls it an eighth parable (“The Parables of the Dragnet and of the Householder,” 282. Wilkins, Matthew, 489). On the one hand, “seven parables of the kingdom” has a certain biblical ring to it, but Matthew had eight beatitudes, so an eighth parable fits his own preference for eight examples.
If point of the Sower parable is that the true disciple produce fruit, that the disciples now understand the parables signal they are in fact true disciples. As with the Parable of the Sower, the seed is good, but the preparation of the soil determines whether the seed will bear fruit.
In response, Jesus describes the scribe of the kingdom (13:52). A scribe (ESV, γραμματεύς; translated “teacher of the law” in the NIV) is a person who is devoted to studying the Torah and searching out wisdom (Sirach 39:2-3). But his is a new kind of scribe, one that has been instructed (aorist passive participle, μαθητεύω) in the Kingdom of Heaven.
These new scribes have been instructed by Jesus in the series of parables in Matthew 13. Since Jesus described these parables as the mysteries of the kingdom of God (13:11), the new scribes have a “new teaching” to study.
This new kind of scribe is like a household owner that takes things out of his storeroom, old and new (13:52). This is structurally parallel to the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven. The “mystery” is something that has not been previously revealed, Jesus is revealing something new about the nature of the kingdom to his disciples. This short saying explains to the disciples they have a new responsibility as new scribes in the kingdom of God to pass their understanding of the kingdom on to others (Wilkins, Matthew, 491).
The master of the house “brings out” (ἐκβάλλω) treasures. This verb does not mean, “bring out to display his treasures for others to see,” but more like “throw out” the new and old treasures so that other people can possess them. “This scribe is a discipling disciple: the treasure he has gained he passes out to others” (Nolland, Matthew, 571).
There is a combination of “old and new” in the mysteries of the kingdom in that the kingdom will happen, but not in the way that the Jews thought that it might. Jesus is weaving the messianic expectations of the first century together with a new understanding of the kingdom as beginning humbly, growing slowing, etc.
This may apply to the Sermon on the Mount as well. There is some old, since Jesus begins with and affirms the Law, but then extends the Law beyond what was written (do not kill, now includes do not be angry). The Sermon on the Mount Jesus claims to be teaching his disciples “something new.” In Matthew 9:17 Jesus described his teaching as “new wineskins for new wine” in contrast to the old wineskins of the Pharisees and the “old” teachers of the Law.
In the context of the previous three short parables, the true disciple must be willing to give everything he has to obtain this kingdom, because in the final day there will be a judgment that separates the true disciple from the false ones, everyone will be rewarded justly for their discipleship.
The parable of the dragnet is the third harvest metaphor in Matthew 13 (The Sower and The Weeds). In this case the harvest is fish from the sea. This parable is “paired” with the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30.
Like the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, the image is of a harvest, although this time the story of the parable is of a fisherman using a dragnet. We know that the harvest is a stock metaphor for the day of Judgment, but what about fishing? It is not as common a metaphor for judgment as it is for the giving of the Gospel – “I will make you fishers of men.” There is perhaps an implicit judgment in the “fisher of men” image, since not everyone that is caught in the net will be found in the kingdom of God!
Does This Parable Allude to Ezekiel 47:6-10?
In the prophet’s description of the future Temple water will flow out of the Temple and flood the Arabah, making the Dead Sea into freshwater sea which will yield “fish of many kinds.” Ezekiel’s “fish of many kinds” is often interpreted as gentiles who become part of the millennial kingdom, and then that meaning is imported into the dragnet parable. Bailey suggests “Jesus was clarifying that now no one, regardless of his or her background, was to be excluded from the offer or message of the kingdom” (Mark Bailey, “The Parables of the Dragnet and of the Householder,” 283).
Jesus’s parable is focused on the judgment when the kingdom is established, the separation of the wheat from the weeds or the sheep from the goats, not on the gentile inclusion (or not) in the future kingdom.
A Net Catches All Kinds of Fish
A “dragnet” is a net held in place by floats; weights would sink part of the net to snare any fish that happen to swim into it. The fisherman would take up the net, return to shore and “sort” the fish.
In the parable there are two categories, good fish and bad fish. It is possible the difference between the good and the bad is what the fisherman can sell (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 399). A fisherman might throw back a small fish since he would have more money on a larger fish.
On the other hand, the good fish may refer to which are edible, according to the law, the bad fish are those that are inedible according to the law (Lev 11:9-12; Deut 14:9). The clean fish are those with scales, therefore shellfish, shark, or other “swarming creatures” are forbidden. Most of the forbidden fish are not native to the Sea of Galilee, the most common fish in the Sea is tilapia, but there are sfamnun, an African catfish. Since it has no scales, it is not to be eaten according to the Law. Since the sfamnun is a long skinny fish it is sometimes mistaken for a snake.
Jesus draws an analogy to the end of the age. As with the Parable of the Weeds, angels will separate the evil from the righteous and put the evil into a fiery furnace. Why would the fisherman destroy the “bad” fish if they are simply forbidden as food for Jews? Could he not sell the catfish to Gentiles? Why destroy them? To throw them back would counterproductive, next time you let down the nets you might very well catch the same unclean fish. Better to get rid of the bad so it doesn’t reduce your take the next time!
In the parable the fisherman is the Son of Man at the end of the age sorting out those that are prepared for the kingdom, so the image is of a fisherman who would not use the fish unlawfully.
There is a brief interpretation of this parable in 13:49-50 which is virtually identical to the words of 13:41-42. There is a repetition of theme of separation at the end of the age and the angels gathering out those that are unworthy and throwing them to the “furnace of fire” to destroy them, the place “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The word ἔμπορος, merchant, refers to “one who travels by ship for business reasons” (literally, someone who boards a boat; BDAG), a wholesale dealer who travels and finds sources for goods to resell. This is not necessarily a shop-owner, more like someone who owns an import/export business.
The point is the man is on the lookout for valuable things he can purchase and make some profit from. By analogy, occasionally I will find a book in a used bookshop that I know is more valuable than the asking price. I might buy the book knowing that I can “flip it” in Amazon or eBay for some profit (which I usually use to buy more books).
How Valuable Were Pearls in the Ancient World?
Pearls were highly valued in the ancient world, in some cases more valuable than gold; Noland suggests we could change the image to diamonds (Nolland, Matthew, 566). But it is unlikely the merchant would sell everything in order to obtain an extremely fine one. This is another example of hyperbole in this parable. Pearls (μαργαρίτης) are listed along with precious stones (Rev 17:4, 18:12, 16) and with gold (1 Tim 2:9).
Pliny the Elder said pearls have the “first place” among valuable items, the “topmost rank among things of price” (Natural History 9.106). “Among the Indians worth 3 times as much as pure gold: Arrian, Ind. 8, 13 and always in great demand: ibid. 8, 9)” (BDAG). Pearls from India were introduced into the Mediterranean area at the time of Alexander the Great and are not mentioned in the literature of Egypt or the Old Testament prior to that time.
Sell Everything to Gain the Kingdom
When the merchant finds the ultimate valuable pearl, he sells everything to purchase it. Since he is a businessman, this means something like “he liquidates his assets.”
Like the Hidden Treasure, the parable of the Pearl of Great Price is also about the cost of discipleship. Here is no need to allegorize this pearl to make it the church (Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come, 105) or Christ (Pentecost, The Parables of Jesus, 60). If anyone wants to follow Jesus, no price is too great to pay. ““the glorious character of the kingdom brought by Jesus, which justifies the cost of absolute discipleship (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 396).”
There are some disciples of Jesus who were genuinely searching for the kingdom and found it in Jesus. Perhaps these are the disciples of John the Baptist or some Pharisees who responded to Jesus (Nicodemus, for example).
The Hidden Treasure described the disciples who unexpectedly find the Kingdom of God in Jesus’s ministry, The Pearl of great price described a disciple who was diligently searching for the Kingdom and also finds it in Jesus’s ministry. In both cases, the finder has something far more valuable than they could possibly imagine.
As in the case of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast, the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price are linked thematically. In the previous two sayings, the smallness and hiddenness of the Kingdom was the main point. In these two parables, the kingdom is hidden and ultimately valuable are the main idea. In each parable, something valuable is discovered, then the discover sells everything he has in order to purchase the item of great value.
Are these “insider parables”?
The final three parables in Matthew 13 are addressed only to the disciples, followed by Jesus asking his disciples if the disciples have understood “all these things” (13:51-52). In Matthew 11:25 Jesus thanks the Father because he has “hidden these things form the wise and revealed them to little children.” Matthew 12 is the decisive break with the Pharisees. It is not difficult to understand the “wise” as the Pharisees and teachers of the law and the “little children” as the disciples. The hidden things Jesus revealed to the disciples is the nature of the Kingdom of God, which is a mystery (Matthew 13) hidden from the religious teachers, aristocratic priests and other elites in Second Temple Judaism.
Most commentators draw a parallel between the hidden treasure and the pearl. But there is a contrast between the two seekers. One finds the treasure by accident; the other was searching for valuable pearls. Both find the treasure, and both sell everything in order to obtain it. If the point is merely “the kingdom is very valuable” then the parables say the same thing. The difference is the one who finds the kingdom; a difference which is present among Jesus’s disciples.
Hiding and Finding
It is not unusual for someone to hide treasure in the ground, especially prior to modern banking systems this was rather common (“stuffing money in your mattress”). There were no salvage laws with respect to finding treasure (basically “finders keepers,” see m. Baba Batra 4:8). Presumably the original owner of the field is not known, but the legality of the man’s actions is not really the point of the story.
Josephus reports that the Romans discovered all kinds of gold and silver buried by the Jews in anticipation of the invasion by Rome (JW 7.5.2). The Copper Scroll (3Q15) from Qumran lists a number of buried treasures although the scroll has never been deciphered and no actual treasure has been found.
In the wisdom literature there is a comparison drawn between finding wisdom and finding a hidden treasure (Proverbs 2:1-4; Sirach 20:30).
The man who finds the treasure sells everything he has to purchase the field. It is easy enough to get side-tracked on the legality of the action of the man in the story, but that is not the point. There is nothing in the Old Testament law that specifically deals with this situation, and given the fact that people buried their savings somewhat more commonly than today, it is possible that occasionally the situation being described could actually happen. Jesus is not commenting on the legally or morality of the action. The important thing is a hidden treasure has been found, one that is worth risking everything for.
Does re-hiding the hidden treasure mean anything? Some commentators have allegorized this part of the story to refer to the delay of the kingdom, but it is just part of the story, the “finder’s desperate effort to own the treasure” (Bailey, “The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and of the Pearl Merchant,” 179). The man sells all that he has “in his joy” and buys the field so that he can take possession of the hidden treasure.
What Does the Parable Teach?
The point is the Kingdom is so valuable it is worth “selling out” in every way in order to obtain the kingdom. The man was not looking for a treasure but found it unexpectedly. It is ironic that the Pharisees sought the treasure (the kingdom of God), but they have not found it because it is hidden in Jesus’s ministry.
The man in the parable is a disciple so Jesus who has left everything behind to follow Jesus (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 279). The disciples have more or less done this already. They left their homes and families to follow Jesus. The encouragement to future generations of disciples is to realize the value of what they are seeking.
Another aspect of the mystery of the kingdom in the parable of the hidden treasure is that the kingdom is discovered. In this case it is discovered by one who is not seeking it. It comes suddenly, in a way that is not expected. There is not only a joy in the discovery, but the immediately realization that it is worth more than life itself.
For many of Jesus’s disciples, they found the kingdom even though they were not looking for it. They left their homes and family and have followed Jesus with total dedication. However, other disciples are equally dedicated to Jesus but were seeking the kingdom all along.
Snodgrass, Klyne R. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 892 pp. $58, Hb. Link to Eerdmans
When the first edition of Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent was published in 2008, I happened to visit the now-closed Eerdmans Bookstore in Grand Rapids. Alan, manager of the Bookstore approached me and handed me a copy of the book and said “You are going to buy this book.” For those who knew Alan, if he told you to buy a book, you bought it because it was going to be an excellent book. And indeed it was. The first edition of Stories with Intent won the 2009 Christianity Today Award for Biblical Studies and was almost immediately considered by many to be the best book on parables written in the last fifty years. Since I regularly assign papers on parables in my Gospels class, my syllabus states: ignore Snodgrass at your own peril. I was therefore quite excited to see the announcement of a new edition of this important book.
Stories with Intent is a comprehensive commentary on every parable of Jesus. Although the commentaries may have similar content, Snodgrass includes parables from each synoptic gospels and includes two or three versions of the parable when this occurs (The Mustard Seed in Matthew 13:31-32, for example). Snodgrass includes two chapters of introduction to parables (sixty pages) where he defines and classifies parables and discusses interpretive strategies. He recognizes some parables have allegorical elements, but these do not give the interpreter warrant to allegorize anything and everything in a parable (p. 17). In the body of the commentary, he often interprets some element of a parable without resorting to the kinds of allegorical interpretation found in ancient commentaries or popular preaching. For example, the lamps and oil in the Parable of The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-12) does not “represent” the Holy Spirit. Commenting on the two sets of servants in the Parable of the Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), any interpretation that makes these two sets of servants into pre-Easter mission to the Jews and a post-Easter mission to the Gentiles is “merciless allegorizing” (315). Snodgrass is consistent in this methodology.
What makes this book an especially rich resource for parables interpretation is the collection of parallel material for each parable. While there are collections of rabbinic parables or parallels to early Christian literature, Snodgrass conveniently places the text of these parallels alongside his commentary on the parable. Sometimes these parallels seem strained, but since the goal of the volume is a “comprehensive guide,” this is understandable.
The book is now about 35 pages longer than the first edition, the main difference being one additional chapter on recent contributions to parable research (pages 565-600). The page numbers from the first edition have not changed and there appear to be no differences in the endnotes. This is convenient since references to pages in the first edition will be the same pages in the second. The index of authors is greatly expanded (from just short of four pages to nearly eight pages). The bibliography has been updated to include the books appearing in the new chapter. The bibliography appears to use a slightly smaller font and spacing since it is several pages shorter than the first edition although the content is nearly the same.
The title of the book is important. Snodgrass was dissatisfied with reader response approaches to the parables since they ignore the author’s intent and make the parables say anything. Some literary approaches to the parables completely ignored what Jesus said in favor of creating a new meaning which was somehow more modern and provoking. For Snodgrass, when Jesus spoke a parable he did so with a specific intention, and to ignore that intention is to miss the point of the parable. Although taking into account the literary features of parables as well as the literary context of its place in a gospel, he does not engage in the fanciful reader-response type application of parables. This requires the interpreter to understand the historical, social, and literary context of each parable and to consciously read that parable in that proper context.
Other books on parables are more concerned with reconstructing the original forms of parables or determining what the historical Jesus may (or may not) have said. This was the driving force in John Meier’s 2016 Probing the Authenticity of the Parables. Using the criteria of authenticity Meier concluded only four parables go back to the historical Jesus. As Snodgrass observes, these criteria have been challenged and for many Jesus scholars they no longer have any value at all. Snodgrass does engage with scholarship on the authenticity of the parables, but his goal is to set the parable into a context where Jesus’s original intent can be heard. Stories with Intent is not a historical Jesus study.
The parables are grouped thematically (parables of the present kingdom, parables about discipleship, etc.) For each parable Snodgrass collects any parallels in canonical writings, early Jewish literature, rabbinic literature and early Christian writing. He includes the text for most of the non-canonical texts, which is extremely useful for some of the more obscure rabbinical sources. He then asks questions and creates lists of things needing attention for students and teachers who want to interpret the parable accurately. Sometimes he does not address all of these needs in his explanation, but for the most part a mini-commentary on the parable compares and contrasts several approaches to the parable and draws conclusions. He provides a section on cultural background when applicable. For each parable he offers a short comment on how to adapt the parable for contemporary use in teaching and preaching. Each parable concludes with a short bibliography, although these have not been updated since the 2008 edition of the book.
In his new chapter for the second edition of the book Snodgrass observes that in the ten years since Stories with Intent was first published, more than twenty-five books on parables have been published. This does not include journal articles, but the number seems small to me, especially in comparison to other more burning issues in New Testament studies over the same time. Compare this trickle of parables research to the avalanche of books written in the New Perspective on Paul. Perhaps the publication of this massive commentary on all the parables discouraged some scholars from contributing their own monograph on the parables.
Snodgrass divides recent parables research into several categories and offers a short summary of their contribution to the study of parables. He begins with a short comment on his non-use of the Gospel of Thomas in Stories with Intent. This was a critique of the first edition in the original round of book reviews. For some scholars, GThomas is an early witness to the Jesus tradition and is useful for interpreting the parables. Snodgrass agrees with Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre that the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels and dates to the second century. In a footnote he dismisses April DeConnick’s suggestion that Thomas is a “rolling composition” with a kernel of early Jesus tradition as “speculative and unconvincing” (note 2, 807). Although Snodgrass includes Gospel of Thomas in this parallel texts on the body of the commentary, he is clear that Thomas will not provide “an early window into Jesus’s parables” (566).
There are only a handful of new books on Old Testament and Rabbinic parables, and Snodgrass includes a few Bible Study type books as well as a few monographs on specific parables. In his section on New Testament parables he includes David Gowler’s book on the reception of the parables in Christian art and other literature. He groups several studies under the heading “Social Science” approaches. In his summary, Snodgrass indicates these studies see the parables as political and economic stories rather than theology. They assume anyone who is rich in a parable is a negative character. Snodgrass is not convinced politics was Jesus’s intent. Although the ethical concerns are important, Snodgrass sees these approaches as open to criticism. If Jesus was were entirely political in orientation, how did the early church get them so wrong when they collected them as theological statements? Commenting on Stephen Wright’s Jesus the Storyteller, Snodgrass concludes “If Wright is correct, why were these stories remembered at all?” (588)
Conclusion. Stories with Intent is certainly the “first off the shelf” book on parables. Some will object to his rejection of parallels in Thomas or his rejection of most of the faddish approaches once popular in parables research. Nor is there much here on reception history of the parables, partly because Snodgrass soundly rejects allegorical interpretations of the parables and most of church history allegorized them extensively. Snodgrass consistently provides sufficient background material to read the parables in the context of Jesus’s ministry, but also to adapt the parable to the contemporary situation.
If you have the first edition of this book, it may not be necessary to replace it with this second edition. However, if you are going to use one book on the parables, Stories with Intent remains the best, most comprehensive book on the parables of Jesus.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.