Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

10. The Treasure, the Pearl & the Net
Matt 13:44- 50 

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     variants 

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Echoed Themes

This cluster of three parables followed by an eschatological interpretation of the third is found only in the gospel of Matthew. Like the previous parables in this chapter, all three parables in this group offer an analogy for the "kingdom of Heaven." But the subjects and plots of these parables differ dramatically from the sower and seed imagery invoked in the parables with which this discourse began.

Like the mustard seed and leaven, the first two parables in this cluster-- the buried treasure and the precious pearl -- share a similar plot.  The theme linking the former pair is the focus on something very small producing something very large (Matt 13:31-33). The latter pair both present the kingdom as something of such great value that one who finds it is willing to "sell all that he has" in order to obtain it. Unlike previous parables in this chapter, all of which focused on the active role of a living agent (sower, seed or leaven), the kingdom is here likened to a passive object which requires a human act to possess it. Yet like the parables of the mustard and leaven, no interpretation is offered for the imagery of the buried treasure or pearl.

The third analogy in this cluster -- a net that gathers all kinds of fish -- presents a plot similar to the parable of the weeds and the wheat (Matt 13:24-30): the eventual sorting of the good from the bad. Moreover, both parables are interpreted eschatologically.  And the focus of both interpretations is not on the initial broadcasting of seed or net -- nor even on the ingathering of harvest or fish -- but on the separation of the "evil" from the "righteous." The fate of the evil is underlined in the interpretation of both parables by the verbatim echo of the climactic phrases: "and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth" (Matt 13:42 // 13:50).

 

Rhetorical Pattern: Parabolic Catena

The echoed themes in this cluster of sayings draws attention to the elegant rhetorical construction of this chapter in the gospel of Matthew: a parabolic catena (looped chain) in which each link suggests another and latter elements mimic and reinforce the former. In fact Matthew's catena of kingdom parables has three loops, each introduced by a parable and concluded by an interpretation:

  • Parable of the Sower (13:1-9) > seed
  •    Reason for parables:  secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven (13:10-11)
  •    Difference between those who understand & those who don't (13:12-17)
  • Interpretation of Sower (13:18-23)
  • Parable of the Weeds & Wheat (13:24-29) > sort good from bad
  •   Parable of the Mustard seed (13:31-32) > growth
  •   Parable of the Leaven (13:33) > growth
  • Interpretation of the Weeds & Wheat (13:36-43) > evil burned
  • Parable of the Treasure (13:44) > sell all
  •    Parable of the Pearl (13:45-46) > sell all
  •    Parable of Net (13:47-48) > sort good from bad
  • Interpretation of the Net (13:49-50) > evil burned

 

Distorted Focus

While this rhetorical pattern stresses themes that are echoed elsewhere in Matthew's gospel, its artificial character obscures the focus of the final parable in this chain. If the Kingdom of Heaven is really "like a net" cast to gather "fish of every kind," then this parable was probably originally designed to stress the ingathering of all rather than the subsequent discarding of the undesirable, an act in which the net itself plays no function. Moreover, the explicit echo of the fate of the weeds in the previous harvest parable totally distorts the image of fishermen sorting their catch. For unlike weeds, rejected fish are not "thrown into the furnace of fire," but are usually tossed back into the sea.  Thus the interpretation of the parable of the net, like those of the parables of the sower and the weeds, was evidently not composed by the same mind that created the parable it pretends to explain.  Rather, it was evidently forged by the only writer who recorded this parabolic catena: Matthew.

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last revised 21 December 2015

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