NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 13: This is why I use these stories to teach the people: “They see, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really hear or understand.”1
Moses chided the children of Israel by saying: “You saw the miracles and amazing things He did. But even today, you still don’t understand what happened. The LORD has not let you really understand what you saw and heard.”2 In other words, human logic is not enough to comprehend the things of God. It takes insight from the Holy Spirit through faith. Jeremiah ran into the same obstacle,3 as did Ezekiel.4 Many do not seem to grasp the real underlying meaning of what often appears to be a paradoxical attitude on the part of Christ in His attempt to teach the people. They question: “Why should Jesus speak using such parables that are easily understood for their pragmatic value but still require an explanation for spiritual application?” And, “Why does He then point out their inability to grasp what He’s trying to say, and seems to declare that it may have been His intended purpose?”
An early church scholar offers this explanation: “It was Jesus’ habit to frequently make use of parables for at least two reasons: either because He would be speaking about things unseen, and by using the parable would make invisible things seen, so far as this was possible. Or, it was because of the unworthiness of the hearers, when [without the parable] nothing beneficial would come to them from the things that were said. But there was a third cause for using parables. Frequently, when He was saying something by way of refutation, He would by means of a parable temper the harshness of the refutations for the sake of the hearers, as when He tells the parable of the vineyard.”5 And when He asked the Pharisees what will happen to these terrible men who rented the vineyard, that said to Him: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers.”6 In saying these things to the Pharisees, Jesus clearly avoided harsh language.”7
The best analogy may be obtained, not by examining Christ’s motives but rather the hearer’s reaction to what they perceived Him to say. Hasn’t man often proven that anything he discovers, learns, develops or invents, he immediately attributes to his own intelligence rather than God’s revelation? But those who must be taught are humbly respectful of their teacher. If the people would have sensed the real meaning of Christ’s parables without the aid of His own explanation, their smug reply would have given honor to their own intellect. However, faith plays a major roll in our acceptance of God’s Word. Despair not if the Bible is never completely and fully understood by everyone.
Had all that Jesus said been easily assimilated, today the Bible would be a dead and unread book. After all the centuries of exegesis, study, and expounding of God’s Word, man’s extensive efforts have still not been able to uncover all the truths contained therein. It is a living document and grows as the world grows in order for it to remain relevant throughout each generation. I am on a mission to fully understand God’s Word in order to proclaim it, but each time I read it, I end up discovering more of what I did not know than what I did know. I hope that never ends.
Jesus then backs up His statement by quoting the Old Testament:
Verses 14-15: So they show that what Isaiah said about them is true: “You people will listen and listen, but you will not understand. You will look and look, but you will not really see. Yes, the minds of these people are now closed. They have ears, but they don’t listen. They have eyes, but they refuse to look. If their minds were not closed, they might see with their eyes; they might hear with their ears; they might understand with their minds. Then they might turn back to me and be healed”.8
This text used by Jesus was not a prophecy of Isaiah that would be fulfilled in some form of a curse. The problem of seeing but not understanding already existed in Moses’ day. But God did not intend for it to stay that way. That’s why the same prophet was given this word of hope and promise, “Then I will lead the blind along a path they never knew to places where they have never been before. I will change darkness into light for them. I will make the rough ground smooth. I will do these things for them; I will not abandon my people”.9
The people’s eyes were not deliberately blinded by God so they could not see the light, nor did He plug their ears to keep them from hearing the Word. It was rather a prophecy that indicated the difficulty of trying to communicate God’s message to the world that had no interest in hearing it and were easily distracted by their own philosophies.
The great Chrysostom offers this insight: “After this, lest anyone should suppose His words nothing more than an accusation, and lest people should say, ‘Being our enemy He is bringing these charges and calumnies against us,’ Jesus introduces the prophet, Isaiah. The prophet pronounced the same judgment as Jesus himself: So it is the prophet himself who accuses them with the same precise point. He did not say ‘You see not’ but ‘You will indeed be able to see but never perceive.’ He did not say ‘You do not hear’ but ‘You will indeed hear but never pay attention.’ So they first inflicted the loss on themselves, by stopping their ears, by closing their eyes, by making their heart impenetrable. For they not only failed to hear but also ‘they took it hard, and they did this, he said, ‘so they would not turn so that I could heal them.’”10
The preacher then goes on: “Thus, Jesus described their aggravated wickedness and their determined defection from Him. But He actually said this to draw them closer to Him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would convert He would heal them. It is as if someone would say, ‘He would not look at me, and I thank Him; for if he had given me even a glance, I would have quickly given in.’ He spoke in this way to signify how He wanted to be reconciled with them. He implied that both their conversion was possible and that upon their repentance they might be saved. It was not for His own glory alone, but for their salvation, that He was doing all things.”11
It is very much along the lines the prophecy that says it would be so: “Just like the days of Noah…they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away.”12 We call this, “learning the hard way.” There are some who will sit and hear the Gospel but dismiss it because of unbelief, and that it does not pertain to them because of their ability and talent to cope without it. Since Jesus faced this but did not let it discourage Him, we must do the same.
Verse 16: But God has blessed you. You understand what you see with your eyes. And you understand what you hear with your ears.
This form of speech was common among Jewish speakers, especially when they talked about attaining wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. One Rabbi expressed his joy this way: “You are happy, and she that gave birth to you is happy; happy are my eyes because of what I’ve seen.”13 This is another way of saying, “I was happy when I heard about it, but my joy was increased by being able to see it.” Therefore, the joy that comes to every believer’s heart when they hear about the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be increased many times over when they actually get to see it happen!
As one early church writer puts it: “God blesses them, accordingly, as hearers of the Son’s voice and as having been made ready to see Him, through whom and in whom they saw, intellectually, the nature of God and the Father. Of these things the saints of old were accounted worthy, those, namely, who most completely possess a joy in good things.”14 And so it should be the desire of every current follower of Jesus to join this blessed group as eager listeners and joyful hearers of what the Lord said then, and what He, through the Holy Spirit, is saying today. We should never allow ourselves to become so complacent that we no longer expect to hear from God again.
Verse 17: I can assure you, many prophets and godly people wanted to see what you now see. But they did not see it. And many prophets and godly people wanted to hear what you now hear. But they did not hear it.
Christ was speaking of Himself, of course. The rejection of the prophets was inexcusable, but the rejection of Christ and His message of salvation was even more unpardonable. Jesus must have made this exclamation with a sense of exasperation. But instead of angrily turning and walking away, He calmly tells them the story of the sower. So, whether or not a person receives or rejects the good news is not contingent upon what they hear, but the condition of their heart to accept it.
The Early Church preacher Chrysostom had this to say: “Do you see that what has been given them is a free gift? Yet they would not have been blessed unless they had cooperated with the gift with good intentions of their own. Do not tell me this is spoken vaguely. Those who did not hear might have come and asked Him for further clarification, as the disciples did. But these listeners did not will to do so because they were careless and apathetic. Why do I say that they did not want to do this? They were doing the very opposite, not only disbelieving, not only not listening but even waging war. They were disposed to be very bitter against all He said. So Jesus brings before them the charge of the prophet: ‘Their ears were unwilling to hear.’”15 As strange as it may seem, there were those who simply refused to listen to the Son of God when He was here on earth. It should not surprise us if there are some of them still around today.
The preacher goes on: “But the hearers were not like this, and this is why they were blessed. In yet another way He assures them again, saying, ‘Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see and did not see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it,’ that is, hear of My coming, My miracles, My voice, My teaching. Here He compares the hearers to the non-hearers. He affirms the hearers as blessed not only because they have seen what the prophets did not see but even what those of old desired to see but did not. For they indeed beheld by faith only, but these were beholding by sight too, and much more distinctly.”16 How blessed everyone who has heard the Good News should be that they were not born someplace the Gospel has not yet reached. It is reported that there are still places on earth where the name, “Jesus”, has never been heard or uttered. Oh, how blest are those who have!
If you are a minister, have you ever preached a salvation message and no one responded, even though you knew sinners were present, and the substance was easy to understand. Do not be perplexed, Jesus wasn’t. You must trust the Holy Spirit, just as David sang: “The LORD is good and always does the right thing. He shows sinners the right way to live. He teaches His ways to humble people. He is understanding as He guides them. The LORD is kind and true to those who obey what He said in His covenant”.17
Verses 18-19: So listen to the meaning of that story about the farmer: What about the seed that fell beside the road? That is like the people who hear the teaching about God’s kingdom but do not understand it. The Evil One comes and takes away what was planted in their hearts.
Now that we, along with many of those in the crowd that day listening to Jesus, have surmised and considered what the interpretation of this parable might be, our Lord gives the true meaning. It is worthy to note that Jesus identifies Satan as the one who comes to steal any seed that fell where it is not usually sown, just to make sure that it has no opportunity to take root and sprout. This was no surprise to His Jewish listeners.
It is reflected in various Jewish writings that explain how evil entered the world. We read: “The wicked Samael [the Devil] made a bond with all the host on high against his Master. This was because the Blessed Holy One said regarding man, ‘and let him rule over the fish of the sea and the flying things of heaven.’18 [Samael] said, ‘How can we cause him to sin and be exiled from before God?‘”19 This was how evil started because it goes on the say that Samael (the Devil) told Adam and Eve not to believe everything God had said. So it was just like Satan to come steal any seed of God’s Word that may have fallen into a person’s heart, no matter how hard or barren.
Early church scholar Jerome offers a commentary on how this was understood by scholars in his day. He writes: “The wicked one snatches away the good seed. You must also understand that it was sown in the heart. The diversity of soils stands for the diversity of the souls of believers. Hence, there is some distance between the one who is constrained by many troubles and sufferings to deny Christ and the one who in the face of persecution immediately falls away and succumbs.”20
To this, we may add that the term “wicked one” is used here as a metaphor for Satan. When we look back at the Garden of Eden, what was it that Satan did that caused Eve and then Adam to let God’s word to them about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil be stolen from their hearts? He created doubt in their minds for the first time. Up until then they believed everything God told them. So it is doubt in the soil of a person’s mind that makes it impossible for the seed to take root and, therefore, it is easily stolen by skeptics or dies for the lack of nutrients.
Verses 20-21: And what about the seed that fell on rocky ground? That is like the people who hear the teaching and quickly and gladly accept it. But they do not let the teaching go deep into their hearts, minds, and souls. They keep it only a short time. As soon as trouble or persecution comes because of the teaching they accepted, they give up.
Here we have a situation where doubt was not completely successful in keeping the seed of God’s word from taking root. But soon conditions that were favorable before now become unfavorable. For instance, a son or daughter is told by their parents that they can make up their own minds about accepting the religion they were raised in such as Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, etc. But when they tell their parents that they have converted to a new religion, suddenly they are treated with disbelief and anger and told to stop pursuing that new faith. For instance, my father who was raised by his father who was a Lutheran minister was severely criticized for becoming a Pentecostal, even though it changed his life dramatically for the better.
As we have seen from those who have investigated and those who have given their own testimony, there are some cults and fringe groups claiming alliance with Christianity who forbid their new converts from talking to or even associating with their family and former friends such as those who belong to the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, better known as “Moonies.” They also know how vulnerable the seed is that they planted in the heart of this new follower. For those listening to Jesus, it was a case of accepting the new agreement of salvation by faith through grace, but then allowing persecution to make the fall back into the prison of believing in salvation by works through the Law.
Verse 22: And what about the seed that fell among the thorny weeds? That is like the people who hear the teaching but let worries about this life and love for money stop it from growing. So it does not produce a crop in their lives.
For the Jews, there were few things worse than what they called “the pleasures of this world.” They feared when a Rabbi left Israel to go live in another country, that he would become so absorbed in the pleasures he found there that his dedication to the Torah would suffer. Rabbi Judah the Prince said: “He who accepts the pleasures of this world shall be denied the pleasures of the world to come, but he who does not accept the pleasures of this world will be granted the pleasures of the world to come”.21
Also, another venerable Rabbi commenting where David said of ADONAI: “’You are my LORD; I have no other portion beside You,’ as these men have, whose inheritance and portion is silver and gold and the pleasures of the world; but, as for me, ‘the Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and my cup,’”22 says: “The portion, the inheritance, the cup,and the lot are identical; it is simply a repetition of the idea with a change of terms to give emphasis, as is the custom of the language; the meaning being, in all my words and in all my affairs He is my inheritance and to Him is my devotion directed.”23
In other words, anything that distracted and took the listener away from the source of spiritual nutrition – God’s Word, these were the thorns that Jesus talks about here. In clearer words, one Rabbi stated there was a proverb that said: “When you are kept from receiving kindness, it’s because the thorns kept it from reaching you.”24 How true that is for many believers who have been given such wonderful things from the Lord that are meant for their blessing, but they waste them on the things of this world and thereby forfeited any intended blessings because of the thorny weeds that cohabit their home, work place, or neighborhood.
1 Deuteronomy 29:4
2 Ibid. 29:3-4
3 Jeremiah 5:21
4 Ezekiel 12:2
5 Matthew 21:33-40
6 Ibid. 21:41
7 Theodore of Mopsuestia: Commentary fragment 73
8 Isaiah 6:9-10
9 Ibid. 42:16
10 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 45:1-2
12 Matthew 24:37-39
13 Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai: Babylonian Talmud, op. cit Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Chagigah, folio 14b
14 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 167
15 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 45.2
17 Psalm 25:8-10
18 Genesis 1:26; Robert Alter, op. cit., renders this: “to hold sway over the fish or the sea and fowl of the heavens.”
19 Sefer ha-Bahir – “The Book of Illumination,” by Nehunya ben HaKanah, Section V, Mysteries of the Soul, v. 200.
20 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew Vol. 2, loc. cit.
21 The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 28
22 Psalm 16:2, 5
23 The Longer Commentary of Rabbi David Kimchi on the First Book of Psalms, Translated by R. G. Finch, London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1919, p.76
24 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nashim, Masehket Kethuboth, folio 53b