Alluring Allusions (Part One)

Upon reflecting on the set of parables in chapter 13 of Matthew, we might find it obvious that Jesus himself was very much like the scribe compared to a householder, as mentioned at the end of this discourse.

"Well, then," he said to them, "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his storeroom some new things and some old things."   (Matthew 13:52 - KNT)

As Jesus imparted uniquely vivid perspectives about Kingdom of heaven realities as "new things," he wove these fresh insights together with some "old things," namely, several striking allusions to Old Testament truths.

For example, his intriguing parable of the weeds (v. 24-30) offered the new insight that the farmer did not rashly send the servants to uproot weeds prematurely, even though they were the work of an enemy. The reason given is that they could have accidently pulled up the wheat as well; thus, they were to wait until the harvest. The picture of wise, forbearing patience before the upcoming judgements at the close of this age becomes clear upon reading the explanation of this parable in verses 36-43. Connected with this explicit new perspective are a couple of allusions to the book of Daniel, a book which related events and prophetic insights that were already about 600 years old. The picture of a "fiery furnace" (v. 42) is an interesting allusion to Nebuchadnezzar's prepared punishment for those who did not bow down to his idol (Daniel 3:6). The future reward of the righteous shining like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Mt. 13:43) is an allusion to an apocalyptic picture near the conclusion of Daniel.

But the wise will shine like the brightness of the heavenly expanse. And those bringing many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3 - NET)

Between the telling of the parable of the weeds and its explanation (in Matthew 13), there are two tiny parables rooted in dynamic allusions to former times. It is noteworthy that similar versions of these two parables are also presented back-to-back in another context in Jesus' ministry in Luke 13:18-21. To touch on the use of allusions in these short comparisons is merely to scratch the surface of a vast potential web of interconnected biblical imagery.

He put another parable to them. "The kingdom of heaven," he said, "is like a grain of mustard seed, which someone took and sowed in his field. It's the smallest of all the seeds, but when it grows it turns into the biggest of all the shrubs. It becomes a tree, and the birds in the sky can then come and nest in its branches." (v. 31, 32 - KNT)

The mustard seed has been well-known, then and now, as a symbol for smallness. From this "smallest of all the seeds" the garden plant or large shrub produced is sort of bumped up into the category of a tree, since its branches serve to shelter flying birds. This provision for birds is reminiscent of a couple of Old Testament pictures of mighty trees which symbolized exalted kingdoms or empires. In Daniel chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar’s magnificence as the head of Babylon was so pictured.

Its foliage was attractive and its fruit plentiful; on it there was food enough for all. Under it the wild animals used to seek shade, and in its branches the birds of the sky used to nest. All creatures used to feed themselves from it. (Daniel 4:12 - NET)

Verses 20-22 in this context also elaborated on the abundant tree, "in whose branches birds of the sky used to rest" (v. 21b), in order to identify this impressive, ancient king. Of course, Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance soon reduced him metaphorically to a stump until he truly humbled himself to the Most High, the one who sees the big picture and ultimately has authority over human kingdoms.

Contemporaneous with some of realities in Daniel, Ezequiel spoke of the cedar of Lebanon, referring figuratively to the haughty house of Israel as judged by Yahweh. Once again, Yahweh was shown as prevailing over human pride, this time with a prophetic view described as the tiny planting of a cropped off sprig!

The Lord Yahweh says this: From the top of the tall cedar, from the highest branch I shall take a shoot and plant it myself on a high and lofty mountain. I shall plant it on the highest mountain of Israel. It will put out branches and bear fruit and grow into a noble cedar tree. Every kind of bird will live beneath it, every kind of winged creature will rest in the shade of its branches. And all the trees of the countryside will know that I, Yahweh, am the one who lays the tall tree low and raises the low tree high, who makes the green tree wither and makes the withered bear fruit. I. Yahweh, have spoken, and I will do it. (Ezequiel 17:22-24 - NJB)

God's judgement on uplifted human evil is given another vivid picture in the Psalms.

I have seen the wicked exultant, towering like a cedar of Lebanon. When next I passed he was gone, I searched for him and he was nowhere to be found. (Psalm 37:35, 36 - NJB)

Jesus, although alluding to the records in Daniel 4 and Ezequiel 17, did not compare God's coming Kingdom to the kinds of lofty trees that were metaphorically judged for boastful pride. The use of the lowly mustard shrub containing a place where birds could nest involved a plant portrait that was easy to overlook. Jesus' unique comparison was practically a parody of the powerful trees that would have been impressive to most people, but that had previously been associated with God's judgements on human arrogance. A mustard garden herb definitely made for an unexpected analogy, when clearly alluding to former scriptural pictures of magnificent trees. Absolutely, that which was planted as a tiny, insignificant looking mustard seed would not be stopped, even if the proud might presently disregard its supreme importance. God's reign will "grow," intervening to prevail as a perfectly ample, worldwide provision and shelter when all human kingdoms will have turned to rubble.

He told them another parable. "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven," he said, "which a woman took and hid inside three measures of flour, until the whole thing was leavened." (Matthew 13:33 - KNT)

Leaven or yeast is commonly known for its permeating influence and its function to make dough rise. It is spoken of literally many times in the Old Testament, but it is used solely in a metaphorical sense in the teachings of Jesus, as well as in all its New Testament uses. Though leaven is neither inherently good nor evil, it is always used figuratively for an evil influence with one notable exception! In this Matthew 13 parable (and in a similar version of it in Luke 13:20), we find that one exception in which leaven represents a positive influence. That makes this use an unexpected twist. Even if it goes largely undetected in this present age, the message of God's eventual reign will have God's intended good, pervasive influence where He sends His Word and causes it to be effective.

Furthermore, there is a subtle allusion in this parable to an event that occurred some two thousand years before Jesus spoke these words. The last time the Scriptures had referred to three measures of flour (Genesis 18:6), Yahweh had appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre by sending three heavenly messengers (angels) to proclaim a great promise on His behalf. Specifically, the pivotal timing of Isaac's birth, through whom God's Kingdom promises would continue to develop, was established. Genesis 18 relates the details to which Jesus alluded by mentioning three measures of flour.

Interestingly, three measures of flour was a lot of flour! A measure (saton) was a bit more than sixteen lbs. (or seven kg.) according to data from a footnote in the NET Bible - Reader's Edition. So three dry measures would be about fifty pounds of flour. Perhaps that would have been perceived as the appropriate quantity for a large, festive occasion. In Genesis 18, that was the amount deemed proper for entertaining Yahweh's heavenly representatives, who ended up announcing the timing of a powerful miracle relevant to God's future reign! "Is anything impossible for the LORD?" (v. 14a - NET). Jesus' one sentence comparison (Mt. 13:33) takes into account the marvelous events of Genesis 18 by alluding to a simple quantity of flour.

Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables. He didn't speak to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:

I will open my mouth in parables,

I will tell the things that were hidden

Since the very foundation of the world. (Matthew 13:34, 35 - KNT)

Once again, it is amazing to view how Jesus masterfully presented the revelation of kingdom of heaven truths as "new things" while peppering such fresh insights with "old things", including several allusions to Old Testament pictures and events. In part two, we will briefly overview how Jesus later alluded back to some of his own imagery in powerful ways.

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