51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” [i]
Matthew’s wrap-up, or epilogue, of his collection of general kingdom parables ends with a question, an answer, and a brief parable. It’s not the kind of parable we usually think of when we hear the word – one that tells a story. It’s parabolic because Jesus compares two things. Parables set one thing beside another for comparison. Like the treasure and pearl parables, it begins without any introduction. It is, however, a bit more enigmatic. Jesus has mostly been speaking in general terms about the kingdom as a seed sown in a field, as yeast hidden in dough, as plants sprouting among weeds, and as valuable treasure (whether stumbled upon or searched for), and as a dragnet that dredges the strangest kinds of junk and brings it into glory.
We have been learning that Jesus’ parables are not nice morality tales told to help everyone understand human ethics. Christ hides his message in parables as judgment upon those who have rejected him as Israel’s promised Messiah. His parables are all about the Kingdom of God Messiah is ushering into the world during his earthly ministry. They can be divided into three broad classes of topics: the nature of the kingdom (Kingdom Parables); the nature of God’s one-way love (Grace Parables); and, the judgment of God upon those who oppose his kingdom (Judgment Parables).
All Jesus’ parables relate, in some way, to the kind of people who enter into God’s kingdom: the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead (or, to continue the alliteration, the “lifeless”). So, Jesus’ parables highly offensive to those who believe –by virtue of their superior knowledge, or intellect, or talents, or family lineage, or wealth, or job descriptions – they are wise enough to exercise their own direct, head-on power to accomplish what seems right in their own eyes. All the parables convey some aspect of the kingdom as catholic (universal – not confined to the borders of Israel), mysterious (spiritual, left-handed, indirect power), already present in the world, and demanding of everyone’s repentance (Mk. 1:15).
Q AND A
Jesus begins by doing something rather courageous for a teacher. He asks, “Have you understood all these things?” [ii] The word “understood” in the text primarily meant to “bring together” in broader Greek usage. In the New Testament, it has the flavor of gathering ideas or propositions into a useful thought.[iii] Do you recall a few weeks ago, the parable of the sower and the seed at the beginning of Matthew 13? The disciples asked Jesus why he started to speak in parables and he answered them by quoting from Isaiah’s commissioning as a prophet. In Isaiah 6, God told Isaiah to go preach truth to people who would refuse to understand it. That would be the basis for Israel’s judgement – the Babylonian decimation of Jerusalem and the people’s captivity and slavery in the very land from which Abraham was first called.
God commissioned Isaiah, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’”[iv] The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the same word for “understanding” Jesus uses in his question here in verse 51 and his explanation of why he taught in parables in verse 14. Like Isaiah’s prophecies, Jesus’ parables were judgment upon those who also refused to understand. The basis of God’s judgment upon those who call themselves his people is their refusal to understand and accept his truthful prophetic testimony that he is the long-promised Messiah of God’s Kingdom come. That’s why Jesus asks his disciples if they understand (perceive, have gathered together) all these propositional truths about his kingdom he has been teaching in Matthew 13: The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, the Parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast, the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl, and the Parable of the Net.
In the context of the entire chapter of general Kingdom Parables, Jesus is asking if his disciples have a willingness to trust what he’s teaching, not whether they have a scholarly knowledge of the theology yet. And, he’s asking only his disciples. In verse 36, Matthew told us Jesus, “left the crowds and went into the house.”[v] So only the disciples hear his explanations and receive the Treasure, Pearl, and Net parables – not to mention this epilogue parable of the Scribe. To the crowds outside the house he is preaching judgment by parable. To the disciples inside the house, he is offering propositional truths about his Kingdom for them to trust and begin to understand.
Again, if you have ever done any teaching, you will understand that the answer Jesus receives to his question is probably not encouraging. The word translated “yes,” just like in English, “can mean anything from a ‘Yes indeedy, we’ve taken in every last item, and we’re ready to explain it at length to anybody who comes along,’ all the way down to an ‘Uh-huh,’ muttered chiefly in the hope that it will hoodwink the teacher into not asking them to recite.”[vi] I suspect Jesus knew he was getting the “uh-huh” response rather than the “Yes indeedy” response, because the gospels are crystal clear that his disciples understood very little about his earthly ministry until he breathed the Holy Spirit into them. Jesus, however, doesn’t miss a beat in moving on to his final epilogue parable because he trusts implicitly the work of the Father and the Spirit to ultimately give all but one of these students the scholarly knowledge of which he will now speak in the Parable of the Scribe.
Jesus knows the disciples don’t get everything he’s teaching right there and right then, and yet he replies by saying, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” [vii] The “therefore” (or, “on account of this”) means Jesus bases his next parable on their response that they understand all his parabolic teachings so far. Why does Jesus give them another parable based upon their rather weak “uh-hum” response? Because the thrust of Matthew 13 is that true understanding of God’s Word flows from trust into God’s person.
If we trust God is who he says he is, then we will hunger to understand what he means when he speaks because he alone has the words of eternal life (Jn. 6:68). It was Peter who expressed that confidence right after Jesus’ parabolic comparison of himself to the Manna with which God fed Israel in the wilderness. Peter made that confession after Jesus (effective preacher that he was) had driven away most of the crowds following him by telling them they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood. When the crowds left, Jesus didn’t ratchet up the miracles and put on a bigger show. No. He started teaching in parables. So, Jesus knows he has his disciples’ trust that will lead to their ultimate scribal understanding of the treasures of truth.
The word “scribe” comes from the Greek word for “letter,” as in a letter in the alphabet. So, a scribe is simply a person of letters. In the New Testament, scribes are often lumped together with the Pharisees as major players on the anti-Jesus team. By Jesus’ day, scribes were lawyers, experts in biblical law. They drafted legal documents: deeds, wills, marriage and divorce certificates, mortgages and the like. They also taught God’s law in the synagogues. Often, they acted as judges. They are referred to about 60 times in the New Testament – almost always as the bad guys. But there are a few passages (Matt. 23:34; 1 Cor. 1:20) where the word refers to plain old biblical scholarship rather than membership in an anti-Jesus faction. That’s the use here in this passage – just a generic Jewish lawyer.
But our generic scribe is a little more than generic. Jesus says he “has been trained for the kingdom of heaven.”[viii] Further, Jesus says this kingdom-trained scholar is like a “a master of a house.” Unless you grew up in great wealth and privilege, you probably aren’t familiar with the concept of a house master – someone who oversees the entire staff of maids, stewards, valets, cooks, gardeners, and drivers. Or, you could be familiar with some of those pompous, ponderous PBS programs from Great Britton featuring Lords, Ladies, massive houses, and servants for every kind of duty. There’s always a “tough-but-fair” master of the house in those shows. He knows where the best wine is hidden in the cellar, has a special relationship with the best meat and veg venders are in the district, and knows of all the little crushes and intrigues going on among his staff and among the Lords and Ladies of great house.
Jesus is saying to them, “Once you’ve been taught about the kingdom of heaven by me, you’re going to be like someone who’s been given full authority over an incredibly rich castle. There will be nothing you lack and nothing you’ll ever exhaust the wonder of – and, of course, nothing over which you won’t have utterly satisfactory control.”[ix] And like the house manager on a ponderous pompous PBS rebroadcast of an opulent British soap opera, you will be able to bring out all kinds of treasures – things stored in the secret spaces of the wine cellar and things acquired just this morning through that special contact you have at the local market. Jesus said in Matt. 12:35, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings out good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings out evil things.”[x]
In Jesus’ context, to be trained for the kingdom of heaven means to understand who the King, the Messiah, is and what he has come to do for his subjects. He is the old treasure long prophesied – the promised seed, the arm of the Lord, the branch, the righteous servant, the suffering servant, Seed of Abraham, Son of David, Son of God, and Son of Man. He, like the treasure long-buried in a field or like a splendid pearl newly up for purchase, is the focus of the household of God. To be trained for the kingdom of heaven is to be like the devout man Simeon who longed to see Messiah before he died. He knew Messiah would be “the consolation of Israel.” In Luke 2:25-32 we read of his finding the long-promised treasure of God’s glorious salvation:
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” [xi]
Jesus says the kingdom-trained scribe brings out treasure (thesaurus). In English, “A thesaurus (as in Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases) is a dictionary of synonyms in which the light of various words and phrases is allowed to shine on practically the whole array of human ideas and concepts. …The Bible, from start to finish, is a matter of words; and even when those words are about actions (in particular, when they are about major actions like the Creation, for example, or the choosing of Israel, or the Exodus, or the giving of the Law, or the sacrificial system of the Old Testament – not to mention the Incarnation, or the earthly ministry of Jesus, or his death, resurrection, ascension, or second coming), these actions are presented to us as the work of nothing less than the divine Word himself.”[xii]
It is that thesaurus – that treasury of words concerning THE Word himself – over which those instructed in the kingdom have been made masters of the house. And from the inexhaustible storeroom of scripture they bring out an endlessly fascinating display of things old and things new by comparing and contrasting what the Word says and does in one place with what He says and does in another. The Bible is a vast unified work of one genius Holy Spirit who is constantly cross-referencing himself.
“Like a first-rate novelist, the Holy Spirit ‘buries bones’ all over the place. Early on, for example, he sneaks in a slain animal that protects the Israelites from the death of the firstborn born in Egypt; later, when he is heading for the grand finale, he digs up that bone and turns it, as the Paschal Lamb, into the very crux of his story.”[xiii] The Bible has many stories, many books, and many human authors. But it has one unified narrative: God’s re-unification of heaven with earth through the perfectly-lived life and sacrificial death of the risen and ascended Messiah Jesus. There is no place in the treasury of scripture that does not deal with either the promise or the fulfillment of Messiah’s person and work. That is what the Kingdom of God is all about.
Besides the Paschal Lamb, there are thousands of illustrations of the King and the Kingdom “buried” in scripture. In Revelation, we saw the River of Life and the Tree of Life from Genesis reappear in the new heavenly earth. There is the old Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem as representatives of the entire world-wide City of God. There is Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin conception that, at first glance, appears to be merely a political metaphor, but reappears at the very turning point of history, being fulfilled in Messiah’s incarnation. Then there is the blood. From the blood of Able (the first martyr of a religious dispute), to the blood on Joseph’s coat, “to the blood on the doorposts, to the blood of the Old Covenant, to the blood from the Messiah’s wounds, to the [blood of the New Covenant offered in the Lord’s Supper], to the blood of the Lamb in which the saints [wash] their robes and make them white – there is not a single reference that does not incorporate and enlarge all the meanings that have gone before”[xiv] – all of which point to the person and work of Messiah.
Can you see? The entire revelation of God’s Word is a treasury both old and new. Earlier uses of words shine light on later ones. Later uses illuminate earlier ones. You can’t read the divine author phrase-by-phrase as if each word meant only what it says in the place where it’s found on the page. The Holy Spirit has all uses of his words in mind everywhere he writes them throughout scripture. He has complete and deliberate control over his story. You have to wait him out – read through the whole of His work – and store up his words and phrases and stories until you see both the old and the new of the one perfect and complete treasure that is the one-way love of God in Christ Jesus.
So, if Christ compares you to the house master, you must spend your time in the attic and the cellar pouring over all the things you find there to sort them into the treasure you bring out for all to enjoy. Notice Jesus says the house master brings out the treasure. He doesn’t hide it or keep it for himself. It is treasure to be displayed and celebrated by all who see it, touch it, taste it. It is the best wine at the wedding party and the finest food of the great feast. It is not for staring at with solemn faces.
We are kids, playing among the mysterious treasures we find in grandma’s attic, rummaging for things that intrigue us and spark our imaginations. And we are to invite the world along with us on our search for and enjoyment of the treasures we find. We giggle with delight and bubble with joy as we play dress-up in the wardrobe of old garments. We are, after all, supposed to be kids: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children….”[xv]
NEW AND OLD
What all this rummaging around in the attics and cellars of scripture brings out is “what is new and what is old.”[xvi] The treasure of the Kingdom doesn’t consist of certain things that are old and certain things that are new. Instead, it consists of old things that are perpetually springing up and new things that turn out to have been around since before the foundation of the world. Any item you find in the cellar or the attic will always be both an antique and a new novelty at the same time. These treasures, after all, are imported from the Land of the Trinity “where everything is, all at once, older than eternity and as fresh as the breath of the Word who speaks it into being.”[xvii]
That shouldn’t surprise you who have heard him say in Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.” …I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”[xviii]
As scribes instructed about the Kingdom of Heaven, and as children turned loose in the treasure rooms of a great castle, we have more than enough to keep us fascinated and joyful and full of wonder for ever and ever.
Finally, we should note that among the disciples who offered their tepid “Uh-hum” to Jesus question there was one who refused to understand anything about this left-handed, indirect, spiritual, mysterious kingdom. Judas said, “Yes” he understood Jesus’ parables. Yes, the Christ was the unimpressive Seed sprinkled in the world. Yes, the kingdom was to grow up among the weeds of the world until the end of the age. Yes, the kingdom was like a tiny mustard seed that would take time to grow into a great bush. Yes, the kingdom was like an unseen grain of yeast. Yes, the kingdom was a great treasure and a rare pearl worth selling everything to get. Yes, it was like a net gathering the impressive and unimpressive together, with the strangest things tossed into the “keep” pile by the gracious sorter.
Ultimately, Judas preferred the kingdom of direct, head-on action over the mysterious and indirect and spiritual kingdom Jesus taught and brought out. What kind of king would willingly offer himself up to die, as he promised his disciples he would do? What kind of king had the power to heal the sick, feed the starving, and raise the dead and yet refused to use it to exercise the head-on, direct, take-the-bull-by-the-horns, no-nonsense power the world obviously needed to be fixed in the way Judas expected it should be.
To Judas this king was an idiot, unworthy of Judas’ respect – much less his loyalty. The kingdom he brought out was a sham. It solved nothing. It brought no power of change. It brought Judas no honor or status or wealth. So, for about $600.00, he sold his share. I wonder if his “Yes,” was the most emphatic of all the disciples in that house with Jesus that day. “Oh yes, Lord! I totally get it!”
To receive the treasure, you must trust the one who brings it – brings it in all his mysterious, spiritual, indirect power that looks for all the world like absolutely no power at all. It is treasure for the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead.
Paul sums up the treasure this way:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. [xix]
[iii] Hans Conzelmann, “Συνίημι, Σύνεσις, Συνετός, Ἀσύνετος,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 888.
[vi] Capon. Kindle Locations 1748-1750.
[ix] Capon. Kindle Locations 1785-1787.
[xi] Trans. mine, Lk 2:25–32. Emphasis added.
[xii] Capon. Kindle Locations 1803-1807.
[xiii] Id. at Kindle Locations 1812-1814.
[xiv] Id at Kindle Locations 1818-1820.
[xvii] Capon. Kindle Location 1836.