Matthew relates more lessons from Yeshua, and these are delivered in the form of parables. They all relate to the central conflict of the Gospel, separating true believers from the hangers-on and wannabes. They also highlight Yeshua’s tendency to obscure his message to the crowds who follow him, relaying his true meaning only to his most trusted lieutenants. In clarifying his meaning to his disciples, Yeshua states quite plainly the intended fate of those who aren’t included in the Kingdom. “Do not think that I come to bring peace…”
Matthew introduces a theme that Yeshua will return to later in the Gospel with the parable of the talents:
For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.Matthew 13:12
The parables are actually smokescreens that mask the true meaning of the story Matthew is telling. In much the same way that Yeshua is instructing his disciples to read between the lines, Matthew is asking his readers to do likewise. The prophecies he cites tell more of the story than Yeshua’s parables, most of which convey the message, “Those who truly believe will be saved and the rest shall perish.” The one that differs, the parable of the mustard seed, has greater implications for the speaker than the audience, as shall be demonstrated.
Matthew has Yeshua quote Isaiah:
“With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’”Matthew 13:14-15
The quote is a loose paraphrase of Isaiah 6:9-10:
And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”Isaiah 6:9-10
More important than the wording is the fact that this citation refers to a vision that comes within the context of prophecies related to the Assyrian conquest and exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Just prior to this passage, Isaiah laments that he’s unworthy of God’s favor because he lived among the transgressors who will be punished by the Assyrians, and he’s cleansed by one of the cherubim.
The situation described in the preceding chapter of Isaiah — which “predicts” the coming destruction of Israel by the Assyrians — mirrors the condition of Jerusalem in the wake of Roman retaliation to the Jewish uprising, which more closely resembles the Assyrian conquest than the Babylonian exile, from which the Jews were permitted to return once the Persians defeated Babylon. On the surface, Matthew appears to be alluding to an earlier disaster to help explain why Yeshua doesn’t fully explain his intentions to the crowd, but since Matthew was written after the sack of Jerusalem, his readers would have appreciated the irony in invoking this portion of Isaiah in this instance.
Matthew returns to this theme later after more parables.
All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”Matthew 13:34-35
This “prophecy” is actually a paraphrase of Psalms 78, which begins:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders which he has wrought. He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God. The E′phraimites, armed with the bow, turned back on the day of battle. They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. They forgot what he had done, and the miracles that he had shown them.Psalm 78:1-11
Matthew is alluding to Israel, and, in particular, Ephraim, whose fate then and now remains unknown. Readers will recall it’s not the first time Ephraim has been invoked in this Gospel. Rather than simply explaining Yeshua’s use of parables, Matthew is once again drawing a distinction between the situation in Jerusalem at the time of the uprising (66-70 CE) and an earlier instance of turmoil brought about by failing to heed the word of God. Matthew would not have needed to spell it out for his audience, who would have understood that Jerusalem fell because it once again failed to heed a messenger sent by God. Just like the expatriates who chronicled the exile in Babylon, Matthew intends for his audience to realize the consequences of disobedience to the Law. Only this time, the consequences seem to be more permanent, just like the fate of Ephraim.
The chapter concludes with a bit of humor as Yeshua’s pronouncements in the local synagogue are met with skepticism by the people in his own community, but it hammers home the main point of the chapter. In fact, everything that has been related, including the prophecies appear designed to provide the counterpoint to this incident.
This is based on one of the passages Matthew has lifted from Mark which provides some scant biographical information on Yeshua.
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.Mark 6:3
Mark implies Yeshua could not do mighty works because of the disbelief, but Matthew does not clarify if Yeshua was unable to perform them or simply chose not to do any. Matthew also corrects one of Mark’s details.
Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.Matthew 13:55-58
Mark says Yeshua was a carpenter, but Matthew alters this, making him a carpenter’s son. As in the previous chapter, when his family shows up wanting to talk to him, Yeshua’s mother and brothers are reported, and here his sisters are also mentioned, but his father is not named beyond being identified as a carpenter. Both passages yield an intriguing possibility about Yeshua’s place in his family.
The nativity story which begins Matthew’s Gospel leads many to assume Yeshua was the first born son, though it’s never explicitly stated that he was, only that Mary was betrothed to Joseph and pregnant without having been with him. This passage helps clarify this, since it would have fallen to a first born son to assume responsibility for the family in the absence of a father. In his epistles, Paul reports interacting with James as the leader of the Jerusalem Church around 50 CE, who’s also identified as the brother of Jesus. Here and in Mark, James is listed first in the order of Yeshua’s brothers, implying he’s the oldest.
Given the trend in the Hebrew Scriptures (which Matthew emulates) of God always favoring later born sons (Seth, Jacob, Joseph, David), it would be consistent for Matthew to present Yeshua as a younger son, and possibly the youngest of his brothers, just like King David was. Since Matthew alluded to Rachel during the nativity story, it’s also possible that Mary was Yeshua’s mother but not the mother of his older brothers. This, combined with Matthew claiming Yeshua’s father was Joseph at the start of the Gospel would strengthen Yeshua’s identification with the patriarch Joseph who was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. It’s probably no coincidence that Yeshua’s closest disciples share names with his brothers, James, Simon, and Judas.
This helps to explain the parable of the mustard seed, in which the tiniest seed yields a great tree, and Yeshua’s overall message that the least among men shall be exalted in the Kingdom of Heaven. He wasn’t speaking of his followers, he was talking about himself. If Yeshua was in his early teens at the time Paul has James as the leader of the Jerusalem Church, he would have been in his early thirties at the time Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed just as Church tradition says Jesus was at the time of his crucifixion.