Telling Secrets: Parables of Jesus Park Street Church Small Group Study Guide
Rarely does one hear the exclamation, “Tell me a fact!” But, “Tell me a story!”? That’s a different matter.
Written by Jeff Schuliger and Chris May Illustrations by Adrian Johnston Book design by Elizabeth Lohnes Copyright © 2012 Park Street Church One Park Street, Boston, MA 02108 www.parkstreet.org
In the studies that follow, we have the privilege of entering the lively world of Jesus, the Master Storyteller, a world where even the soil has personality! Where priceless pearls don’t just adorn beautiful women and pushy weeds don’t just give farmers grief. Come into Jesus’ world and prepare to be surprised, amused, and challenged. Prepare to come away more in love with the Savior than you were before. Listen, the story is starting…
The Parable of the Talents
The Parable of the Net (and more)
Why Do You Speak to the People in Parables?
The Parable of the Sower
The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
The Pearl of Great Price or The Parable of the Hidden Treasure
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
The Parable of the Wedding Feast
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats
I think, Jesus opens the series of parable teachings with the Parable of the Sower; even seed sown in the best of soils takes time to grow, mature, bear fruit, and multiply. Emily Dickinson’s famous poem is an apt reminder for Jesus’ handling of the Truths found in these parables: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant— Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth’s superb surprise
The parables of Jesus afford us ample material for lively discussion, perplexing questions, and challenging teachings. As a church community hearing and heeding these words amidst city life in Boston in the 21st century—we need to be both wise and imaginative as we draw conclusions and applications from Jesus’ powerful and often unpredictable words in the Parables. These studies have been designed not as a commentary on these parables but as a means of discovery and response to these faraway (yet very near) words of Jesus. We want to both hear these words with our ears and heed them in our hearts—and so impact the way we live with God in our modern world. This guide is written with small groups in mind, giving you and your group opportunity and various ways to discuss and listen to these words of Jesus:
• There will be opportunity to read and reflect on each parable…sometimes with multiple readings to facilitate and emphasize the importance of listening to God’s word.
• There will be opportunity to tell your own stories and share how these parables have been impacting your everyday lives to emphasize the importance of listening to one another.
will be opportunity to reflect or journal your own thoughts and feelings about the sometimes shocking—but always God-breathed—realities found in these truths to emphasize the importance of listening to your own heart and life.
The bottom line is that these parables tell the truth…about God, about each other, about ourselves, and about the way God works in the world and in our lives. But often that truth takes time to sink in or break through to us or even burst open within us. The fruit could be a week, a month, a season or years away…which is why,
As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind— We often (and understandably) want a changed life now(!), but “the Truth must dazzle gradually” and so make a lasting change in our lives. By Divine design, these parables demand a response— but if one specific action is to “plant a seed,” we need not be frustrated if life doesn’t change at work or home or neighborhood in one week. The important thing, however, is to act…to plant, to reorient, to heed a warning, to change our heart, to prepare a meal, to visit a sick person, to obey in whatever way you may be asked to do in response to Jesus’ words. May we all have ears to hear, wisdom to speak, and courage to act!
How to Use this Guide
A major aim of these small group discussion guides is to provide you with enough material to interact as a group in a way which addresses each of your “head, heart, and hands” with the various questions and discussion prompts. Ultimately, we want you to learn new things (head), take them to heart, and do something (hand) in response to the truths revealed. Head: What am I to know or learn from this Scripture? [Pr 1:5–7; 2 Tim 3:14–16] Heart: How am I to feel or be impacted from this Scripture? [Ps 119:105,111–112; Pr 3:1–7] Hand: What am I to do in response to this Scripture? [James 1:22–24; 2 Tim 3:17]
Therefore, it is important to know that you and your group do not need to get to every question and prompt included in each session. The goal is not to finish the guide—rather the goal is to guide the discussion so that there is head learning, heart impact, and a handily applied action for the group or persons.
Each session is designed to be done within an hour or so of group discussion. However, discussion leaders really should familiarize themselves with each session’s questions and prompts before the group meets. This will go a long way to facilitate those spontaneous learning moments in a group (which often require extra time), and it will help guide the group back from a ‘rabbit trail’ or unrelated question—even if it seems like something good to address!
Most sessions include some ‘Facts and Notes’ added to aid in your discussion. Please feel free to use any other supplement material (commentaries, study Bible notes, etc.) that you find helpful. Resources used in this guide are included in the footnotes.
For those who would like to go deeper or add some personal study to these topics, questions "For Further Study" have been added to some sessions for individual study and learning outside of small group time.
Lastly, since there is opportunity as a whole congregation at Park Street (in both the AM and PM worship services) to hear a sermon on the passage and parable for each session—you are always welcome to share what you learned or took to heart from that sermon during your small group time. These studies were written as a complement to our corporate worship experience—and we pray God will use the multiple exposures of these sometime enigmatic Scripture stories to bring the truth home to us all.
Short History of Interpretation Commentator Michael Wilkins summarizes the history of interpretation of the parables: The history of interpretation of Jesus’ parables has swung from extremes. Early interpretation was allegorical, where every mi-
nor element of the parable was understood to teach something. More recently the parables were said only to have one point, with the surrounding details being simply stage props. Most interpreters have now swung partway back to suggest that the parable may accomplish Jesus’ intended analogy through points associated with each major character or groups of characters. (474) Therefore, for discussion purposes, it is important to dig in and talk about what the parable teaches us about multiple things: about God himself, about the “new things” of the Gospel which Jesus preaches, about the kingdom of heaven, about ourselves, and about God’s way in the world. The literary form of the parable lends itself to multiple applications—some have ears to hear and some don’t; some have work to do on the ‘soil’ of their lives, some need to nurture the growing crop. (Mounce, 128–129).
Learning to Listen This series from the Parables provides multiple opportunities to listen: listening to sermons on the parables, listening to the parables themselves as read together in small groups, listening to one another discuss and respond to Jesus’ words, listening to God as he speaks through his word and each other, and listening to ourselves as we contemplate and take to heart what we are learning, seeing, and hearing from the Teacher of teachers! Everyone in a small group—and especially the discussion leader—needs to be a good listener and facilitator. Really hearing what someone is saying involves both ears and eyes—and can help seize holy moments in the group, recognizing that God is at work and the Holy Spirit in charge of the agenda. So, make the effort to develop and hone your active listening skills during this season of study in the Parables… (1) Fully attend to the one speaking, (2) Don’t jump to judgment or conclusions, (3) Notice expressions of dismay, satisfaction, sadness, relief, confusion, or insight in the group, and (4) Respond to each other respectfully. My enthusiasm about this church-wide effort builds when I consider that we can become better listeners together—and therefore more mature disciples and more loving brothers and sisters to one another. “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” —Jeff Schuliger, Minister of Small Groups
The Parable of the Talents
DISCUSSING THE WORD
Responding To What We Hear
If you received $10 million, what would you do with it?
1. What do you think the point or intent of this parable is? Why?
1. Because English gets its word “talent” directly from this parable, we often put an English definition into the story, making “talent” a metaphor for gift or ability. In his commentary R.T. France writes:
2. Picturing yourself in the audience and hearing this parable firsthand…
HEARING THE WORD
What sorts of people might be with you? Pharisees? Disciples? Mothers with their children? Soldiers? Laborers? Rich young rulers?
1. Notice the context of this week’s parable. What is worth noting? (Paying attention to where the parable occurs in Matthew—and to what comes before and after the parable—will be an important exercise each week in order to aid our understanding and encourage our response to it!) 2. Slowly read Matthew 25:14–30 out loud in your group. Picture yourself in the audience, which in a sense you are! Share your immediate impressions of this parable.
LOOKING CLOSER 1. Who are the main characters in this story and what do you learn about their relationship to one another? How might their relationships have affected their actions in verses 16–18?
Facts and Notes: A talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years' wages for a laborer. In modern day America, this would be approximately $500,000 (ESV and NIV footnote). Early Jewish writings attest that there was both a custom of burying money to keep it safe and also trading with it to increase one’s principle (Snodgrass, 520–22; Kistemaker, 216–17). In Jesus’ day, household slaves were often given managerial responsibility (Keener, 601).
2. What is stated or implied in the parable about the master’s expectations concerning the vast amount of money he has entrusted to his servants? What about the master’s own habits with or attitude about money? 3. Consider the phrase “Now after a long time…” in v.19. Why do you think Jesus includes this as part of the telling of the story?
Using any of the words below, describe how the crowd might react to the parable? Why? Intrigued Despondent Elated Angry Agreeable Afraid Defensive Receptive Confused Enlightened Something else? What do you think a Pharisee’s reaction would be? a tax collector’s? a disciple’s? What is your reaction? How do you feel about your reaction? 3. Reread vv.19–30, focusing on the dialogue between master and servants and noticing the similarities and differences. In what ways might the distinction between the first two servants be significant? What does this say about what ultimately matters to the master? What if the second servant were not in the parable…how might that change the flavor of the story? Why do you think the third servant was afraid? Of what exactly was he afraid? What evidence do you see in the parable that the third servant was wrong in his judgment of the master?
But this traditional reading of the parable is not the most likely either in terms of the way the story is told or in the light of the context in which it is set…It is then more about responsibility than about natural endowment…What matters is that, however precisely the ‘talents’ are interpreted, each disciple should live and work in such a boldly enterprising way that the returning master will say, ‘Well done, you good, trustworthy slave’ (France, R.T., 951–2). Perhaps few of us would consider ourselves “boldly enterprising” for the sake of the Master, but… What might it look like for you to live and work in a boldly enterprising way? Are there areas of your life in which you are already bold? How could you apply your adventurous, creative, and “can-do” spirit in service to your Master, Jesus Christ? With what other resources has God entrusted you and your small group to accomplish his ongoing work in the world? How can you (as a small group together) help one another in your endeavor to be “faithful with a few things”? Remember the apostle Paul’s exhortation: And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:24–25). 3. A.W. Tozer begins his masterly study of the character of God, The Knowledge of the Holy, with this provocative sentence, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Like the third servant in this parable, have you ever viewed God as a harsh and unjust taskmaster? If so, how did this affect your walk with him?
If not, is there another distorted view of God that has affected your approach to life and discipleship with Jesus? Some examples could be seeing God as a: cosmic policeman silent or distant observer hard-to-please parent distracted or indifferent deity too busy for me businessman With this parable, what is Jesus teaching about who God is and how we might think and be mindful about God?
Praying for One Another Read aloud again the following words from the master: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” Close with the following exercise. Sit together in silence for a few moments considering these two things: With what ‘few things’ might God be asking me to be faithful in this season of life? What might the ‘master’s happiness’ include? What would it mean for me to share in it? Take some time to share whatever you would like with one another from this closing exercise…or perhaps some other thing in this discussion that you would like to take away. Close in prayer for one another, mindful that all that we have is a gift from the Master, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Parable of the Net (and more)
Hearing the Word
Discussing the Word
Good news—new things are happening! The original sense of the word “news” was “new things,” the plural of the adjective “new.” As you know, since the 15th century “news” has come to mean “the report of recent events.” In this week’s passage, Jesus asks his followers, “Have you understood all these things?” and so we must ask ourselves the same thing. His disciples respond by saying, “Yes,” though the real proof of understanding would be seen in how they lived their lives in response to the new things they were learning, the good news they were hearing.
1. Look at the context. This short passage really includes two parables—the net and the owner of a house—and it comes at the end of a short series of teachings to the disciples in particular which begins at Matthew 13:36.
1. In what ways is the kingdom of heaven like “a net that was let down into the lake…”? Try to be specific.
Jesus is announcing something new and something good—Real. Good. News. While the disciples and the crowd got to “hear all about it”—we get to “read all about it” and so gain our own understanding and challenge and privilege and responsibility.
2. Open with a short prayer that God would open your hearts and eyes and ears to his word. Then…Read aloud, Matthew 13:47–52. 3. And again, paying close attention to details and to all of the different people and players involved with these scenes…Read aloud, Matthew 13:47–52.
Looking Closer 1. Why do you think the following details are included in the parable of the net?… “all kinds of fish” “When it was full” “they sat down” “in baskets”
Pick any of the following modern similes to explain your own understanding (however big or small) of some aspect of the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of heaven is like:” an acorn a wireless network one who begins building the tallest skyscraper a young graduate student who wins millions in a lottery the world wide web a butcher who carves the best meat for all purposes striking oil a doctor who sets up a clinic in a disaster area something else… In what way(s) is this descriptive of the kingdom? Where might it intersect with something Jesus has taught? Could you imagine Jesus using this or another simile in modern day to describe the kingdom of heaven?
2. What is Jesus referring to in v.49 when he says, “This is how it will be at the end of the age.”…? 3. Look at several different translations of verse 52. Summarize what is being said in this remarkable verse.
Facts and Notes: The net is the large seine or dragnet, the oldest type of net used on the lake and until recently the most important fishing method. It was shaped like a long 750 to 1,000 foot wall, upwards of 25 feet high at the center, and 5 feet high at the ends. By means of this net, all sorts of fish would be gathered in. The worthless fish would be those forbidden by Jewish law (Lev. 11:10–11) or perhaps simply those that were inedible (Wilkins, 489; Mounce, 136).
2. Why compare the kingdom to a net and not to the fisherman who let down the net? (see 13:24 for an example of the kingdom compared to a person/action) 3. What roles do the “fishermen” play—both in this parable and in/ with the kingdom? 4. Notice where and when the separation occurs. Why is this significant? What can we learn from this about the end of the age— and about the present age? What truth is Jesus illustrating and illuminating with this parable? 5. Where on the following spectrum do you imagine the disciples’ affirmative response to Jesus’ question, “Have you understood all these things?”
“Yes, definitely— we’re ready to teach it!”
“Uh-huh” (head nodding)
2. Is the end of the age something to which you look forward—or something you dread? Do you wish for it to come sooner or come later? Why? 3. In Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, she defines “teachability” as “a propensity and openness to learn from God no matter who the teacher or what the experience may be” (82). How would you rate your spiritual teachability? Which of the following practices do you need to work on? Openness to new ideas or opinions Curbing the know-it all attitude Asking questions that lead to deeper God awareness Listening more—talking less Refraining from snap judgments based on appearances 4. What new things have you learned about God and yourself in the last month? How did you learn them? What impact, if any, has it had on your life? 5. What have you learned from this study (or from the sermon preached on it)—and what are you taking to heart as a result? What are you being challenged to do in response?
6. Where are you on the above spectrum?
Praying for One Another
7. Why would the owner (or master) of a house bring out new treasures as well as old? Take some time with that first question and then discuss…What point is Jesus making to his disciples with this one verse parable (v.52)?
Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all these things?”
Responding to What We Hear 1. While Jesus will be even clearer in later teaching, he does not shy away from “the end of the age” judgment in these early parables. How does “beginning with this end in mind” help orient your lives in the present? [Note: you may want to take some extra time this week to reflect on this question and journal your response like a prayer to Jesus.]
Pray for each other in your group…for increased understanding of the Gospel, of God’s way in the world, of Jesus’ work in our lives, of the Holy Spirit’s presence with us. Pray for Park Street Church—for God’s continued faithfulness to us; for our faithfulness and steadfastness to the Gospel; for our openness to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and leading; for our leadership; for our service and outreach to the city and the world.
Why Do You Speak to the People in Parables?
Sometimes the best learning occurs when students are bold 1. As best as you can tell, what would you say is Jesus’ attitude enough to ask questions—even the hard ones. Knowing the toward the crowd? right questions to ask can be just as important as receiving an 2. What do you think the crowd was hoping to hear from answer…and this is true especially when Jesus? What might their attitudes, motivations, underencountering Jesus and considering the standings, or expectations be? things of God. The Pharisees don’t come Facts and Notes: to Jesus with a question—but with an 3. To their question, what kind of answer do you think accusation and a demand (Mt. 12:24,38) “Secrets” in v.11 is the Greek the disciples were expecting from Jesus? Do you sense —and Jesus roundly renounces them word ‘mysteria’ (mysteries). In curiosity, confusion, concern or disappointment in the with a dose of reality. The disciples, Jewish apocalyptic literature, disciples’ question? however, come with a question, “Why the “mystery of the kingdom” do you speak to the people in parables?” 4. How would you summarize Jesus’ answer to the was the counsel of God disJesus responds by explaining the pardisciples’ question? For instance, pretend you’re in a hotel closed only by revelation and able, but first provides an answer worth lobby and someone asks you why Jesus spoke to the enacted at the end of time. discussing. people in parables—what would you say in one minute The term is used only here in or less? the Gospels (incl. the parallels)
Opening Up Open your time together with short prayer, inviting the Spirit of God to be with you in your discussion of God’s Word. Then share with one another answers to these questions:
and is found explicitly in Daniel 2:18–19: “During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision” (Wilkins, 476; Mounce, 137).
Discussing the Word 1. What about the kingdom of heaven is “secret” or a “mystery”? In what ways is this related to the identity of Jesus as the Messiah?
Who was (or is) your favorite teacher, and why? How did his or her style of teaching or personality affect your learning?
2. The context of the disciples’ question is in the middle of the "telling" and "explanation" of the Parable of the Sower. How does this parable demonstrate what Jesus is saying is the reason for teaching with parables?
Hearing the Word
3. Which of these quotes about this passage resonates with you? Discuss it and why.
1. Because the passage to be discussed falls in the middle of a parable told (vv.1–9) and explained (vv.18–23)—we will first read the entire passage. Read aloud, Matthew 13:1–23. 2. Now, imagine a private audience of your small group with Jesus and read Matthew 13:10–17, listening for Jesus speaking to you and your small group of disciples. What word or phrase stands out to you in Jesus’ response to the disciples? Why?
God does not force anyone to accept the message of the kingdom, so the crowd’s response to the parables is dictated by the nature of their heart (Wilkins, 478). Since the knowledge of truth carries with it the responsibility of acceptance and appropriate action, the withholding of truth from those who were hardened against it should be interpreted as a desire not to increase judgment (Mounce, 127). 4. What do you think those who “will be given more” in abundance are to do with it?
5. What do parables do for someone who is sensitive to the Spirit or willing to respond in faith? What about for someone who is hardhearted and hard-headed and unwilling to respond?
4. When did you first “get it” and respond in faith to follow Jesus? Who do you know among the “crowd” of people in your life who has yet to respond?
6. As we will find out in this series, it seems to be a characteristic of the kingdom of heaven to start small and hidden, and grow slowly and steadily. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? How would teaching in parables relate to this aspect of the kingdom?
5. What have you learned from this study (or from the sermon preached on it) and what are you taking to heart as a result? What are you being challenged to do in response?
Praying for One Another Responding to What We Hear 1. How can Jesus’ approach with the people (or crowds) inform our approach and interaction with them? How about Jesus’ approach and interaction with his disciples?
Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear…many prophets and righteous people longed to see…and to hear.” Pray for each other in your group… for increased longing to see and hear from Jesus.
2. What does this interlude of “question and response” from the disciples to Jesus within the Parable teach us about God? What question would you like to ask Jesus?
Pray for your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors who have yet to respond positively to the Gospel and follow Christ.
3. How does a person become more sensitive, willing, or able to hear and understand Jesus’ message? How can you become more sensitive, willing, or able to hear and obey Jesus’ words?
Pray for your group to respond in obedience to what you have “heard” and “seen” in this discussion—and for wisdom to know what to do with your “abundance.”
For Further Study: Read Matthew 12:22-50… 1. Notice especially Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in verse 28. How does this relate to the “something greater” in vv.41–42? 2. What do you think Jesus expected would be the Pharisees’ response to this rebuke? How do you respond to such direct and deliberate teaching? 3. How might Matthew 12:43–45 (on the impure spirits) relate to Matthew 13:12 and Jesus’ answer to why he speaks to the people in parables?
Read Isaiah 6…(from which Jesus quotes in our passage) 1. Notice the role of lips, eyes, ears… and speaking and hearing in this passage…what does this reveal itself about the message of God? 2. What do you make of the message given from God to Isaiah to go and preach? How would you respond if given a similar message to preach? Do you sense a turn of hope in verse 13?
The Parable of the Sower
Introduction Many commentators consider the “Parable of the Sower” (13:18) to be the parable of parables (Kistemaker, 40). All three synoptic gospel writers make it the introduction to their first deliberate collection of Jesus’ parables, and they devote a disproportionate space to it and its interpretation by Jesus. Matthew has put the collection of parables that is headed by the sower at the very center of his gospel. Every writer includes Jesus’ use of Isaiah 6:9–10 to explain the “why” of parables, in the midst of this parable and its explanation. Therefore, we want to be sure we have “ears to hear” its meaning and application!
Opening Up Pause in wonderment as you begin. God himself in the form of the Holy Spirit, is with you, not virtually, but in reality. What was your experience with soil as a child? Did you love messing with it or did you cry when your hands got dirty? Have you ever planted seeds? What was the result?
Hearing the Word 1. Note that in Matthew, the important parabolic chapter 13 is bookended by descriptions of Jesus being rejected by his family and neighbors (12:46–50; 13:53–58). How might this rejection be illustrative of 13:10–17? What do you think differentiates the disciples from those portrayed in Isaiah 6:9–10? 2. Have someone read Matthew 13:1–23 aloud. What do you notice? 3. Though Jesus calls this the Parable of the Sower, he does not even mention the sower in his interpretation, and never uses the word “seeds” in his story (Snodgrass, 150). His focus seems to be on the soils, as the traditional German title for the parable, “The Four Types of Ground”, reflects (France, 503). Make a chart of the different kinds of soil and what they represent. Keep this at hand as you study the passage.
Responding to What We Hear 4. Though not evident in either the ESV or the NIV, Jesus begins his parable with the little word idou, which has traditionally been translated “Behold!” A more comprehensible translation for modern ears might be “Pay attention!” You might think of idou as yellow highlighter to the text. What does this tell you about what follows? How can you prepare your heart to listen carefully?
2. What do you think is the main point of this parable? 3. We see that even the disciples did not understand it at first. Do you think it would have received a favorable reaction from the crowd? Why or why not? 4. What do you think is the purpose of the insertion of the Isaiah quotation?
1. This parable calls us to practice what commentator Klyne Snodgrass calls “depth listening” (170). This practice involves listening with the heart, mind, and will. How might practicing depth listening change us? Consider that the Hebrew word for “listen” is often translated in English as “obey” (ibid.). In the small group setting, how can we help one another listen with depth? 2. Note that, though the time is extended, all the seeds in the first three soils end up fruitless. What is your response to this?
Facts and Notes:
Discussing the Word
3. We see from the parable that joy alone is not a sufficient response to ensure fruitfulness. How do you feel about this?
As in many parables, Jesus is using an analogy that would be familiar to his listeners, many of whom would have been engaged in agrarian practices. It may be a little harder for us to comprehend. Note that it was a regular practice to sow before plowing, which would cover the seed, enabling it to take root and grow. Since no mention is made of the proportion of seed sown in each soil, the farmer is not to be considered foolish or wasteful because some seed falls on the path or the rocks. Palestinian soil was often shallow, with rocky limestone protrusions. Long before Jesus’ time, volcanic eruptions scattered dust, which would have made certain areas more fertile later on. It was not uncommon for one field to contain rocky, fertile and thorny patches. An average yield would be 7½ to 10 fold with 30 or 60 fold being considered a bumper crop. 100 fold would not necessarily be miraculous, but would certainly be viewed as a sign of blessing (see Gen. 26:12) (Kistemaker, 31, 32; France, 505; Snodgrass, 155).
1. Comment upon these two definitions of parables. You might want to consider coming up with your own definition in the weeks ahead.
4. Reflect upon these quotations, and share your thoughts:
Looking Closer 1. We know that parables tell us something about the kingdom of heaven. We also know that it would not have been surprising to Jesus’ listeners if they heard a parable about coming judgment, a time when some would be destroyed and some harvested (Wright, 156). It is what they would expect. So, why does Jesus use idou,” Pay attention!” to begin his parable? What is startling about this story? What does Jesus want his hearers to pay particular attention to?
Jesus used parables to “break open the world-view of his contemporaries and to invite them to share his vision of God’s kingdom instead. His stories portrayed this as something that was happening, not just a timeless truth, and enabled his hearers to step inside the story and make it their own” (Wright, 216). A parable is “an utterance which does not carry its meaning on the surface, and which thus demands thought and perception if the hearer is to benefit from it. Learning from and responding to a parabole¯ is not a matter of simply reading off the meaning from the words but of entering into an interactive process to which the hearer must contribute if true understanding is to result. That is why the same parable which enlightens one may puzzle or even repel another” (France, 502). 2. State the obstacles to growth in your own words. In the parable there is more emphasis on them than on the bountiful harvest. Why do you think this is?
“The only conversions that count in the kingdom are those confirmed by a life of discipleship” (Keener, 381). “People think they can look like giant oaks without putting down deep roots. When they realize how much effort it takes to put down deep roots, they too often settle for being bramble bushes” (Snodgrass, 176).
Praying for One Another This is a sobering parable. We must practice Hebrews 10:13 and “consider how we may spur one another toward love and good deeds.” Share some specific ways you might do this. Close your time in prayer, encouraging one another about the things you've learned in this study.
3. What is scary about this parable? What is hopeful? 4. Matthew uses the Greek word suniemi, “to understand, perceive, have insight about” 5 times in the parable (vv.13, 14, 15 19, 23) and again at the end of the chapter when Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” (51). Why do you think Matthew does this?
The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds
Introduction This parable is unique to Matthew and is one of only three that include an interpretation (the Parable of the Sower and the Net are the others). It is one of only two to be given a title (the Sower is the other), another fact testifying to its importance in the parabolic canon. Jesus’ explanation ends with the statement, “He who has ears, let him hear,” a third indication of importance. This “challenge to discern the meaning of a cryptic utterance” (Snodgrass, 432), echoes such Old Testament verses as Jeremiah 5:21 and Ezekiel 12:2, and also concludes the parable of the Sower. It is found near the beginning of the glorified Christ’s words to the churches (Rev. 2:7), and is used seven other times in the book (Rev. 2:11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9).
Opening Up What has been your experience of farming or gardening? In your life, what have you found to be spoilers in the way a weed is to a gardener?
Hearing the Word Chapter 13 is one of several parable clusters Matthew has grouped in his gospel (chapters 18 and 25 are others). Skim the entire chapter. Note the scene change from 13:1–2 to 13:36. 1. Our parable is preceded by another agricultural parable with an explanation. What mood in the hearers, ancient and modern, might be engendered by this placement? 2. Now have someone read aloud slowly Matthew 13:24–30 and 36–43. What do you notice?
The sower of the good seed The field The good seed The weeds The enemy who sows the weeds
5. In Matthew 13:24, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is not just analogous to the sower, but to the sower and his actions. Consider all the sower’s actions. What do they tell you about him? What do they tell you about the kingdom?
The harvest The reapers
Facts and Notes: The weeds Jesus is speaking of (probably darnel) are not normal ones. They are particularly nasty, grow only in cultivated fields, and resemble wheat, probably being a degenerate form of this good plant. Sometimes they carry a poisonous fungus, which if ground together with the wheat, will spoil the flour. (Snodgrass, 198, Kistemaker, 44). Spend a moment reflecting on the fact that Satan can never create anything; he can only spoil the good things God has made.
Looking Closer 1. Weeds will always occur in a cultivated area. What evidence does the parable give us that this infestation is not normal?
3. Jesus gives a succinct and helpful explanation of the parable, but he leaves some things out. What are they, and why do you think he does this?
2. The word “gather” occurs four times in three verses (28–30), and is used twice in the explanation. The only other uses of the word are in Matthew 7:16 and Luke 6:44. We can conclude “gather” is to be noticed. Why? What pictures does the word bring to mind?
4. Fill in the blanks so you will have Jesus’ explanation easily at hand as you study:
3. What is the point of the parable? “To what question does the parable provide an answer” (Snodgrass, 191, 205, 206)?
darnel in a wheat field as an act of revenge” (France, 525), which shows us Jesus was using a real agricultural problem to teach about a spiritual one.
4. What do you learn about the enemy from this parable? Note that “Roman law dealt specifically with the crime of sowing
Discussing the Word
6. How does this parable help us better understand the problem of evil, what theologians call theodicy? 7. The Parable of the Sower, which precedes this one, focuses on the human responsibility in regard to evil, but the Weeds and the Wheat focuses on the devil’s part. How do the two parables taken together enhance our understanding?
Responding to What we Hear
1. What problem about the nature of the kingdom is Jesus addressing in this parable? Consider John the Baptist’s reaction to Jesus in Matthew 11:2–6.
1. What is your response to the Sower’s patience? Some possibilities are: irritation | relief | anger | hope confusion | comprehension | gratitude
2. Do you think this parable teaches passivity toward evil? Why or why not?
2. Are you a weed yanker, in other words, are you quick to judge? Respond to this story from the Babylonian Talmud:
3. There are warnings in both the parable and the explanation. What are they and why are they important? What might the audience’s reaction be to the warnings? What is yours? 4. Commentators agree that this is a judgment parable. Jesus’ wording would bring to his listeners’ minds such Old Testament verses as Zephaniah 1:2, 3; Daniel 3:6 and 12:3, and Malachi 4:2. Look up these verses, read them aloud and share how you think they relate to the weeds and the wheat. 5. Our parable depicts judgment in both an encouraging and a frightening way. Where do you see this? What emotions are stirred in you?
Facts and Notes: The expression “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is used by Matthew four other times (8:12; 22:13; 24:51: 25:30) besides the two in our passage, and once in Luke (13:28), always with reference to final judgment. If you have time, check out the references, but also spend a few moments picturing the devastating pain and emotional turmoil that would engender these graphic actions.
Rabbi Eleazar arrested some Jewish thieves for the Romans. Thereupon Rabbi Joshua, son of Karhah, sent word to him, “Vinegar, son of wine! How long will you deliver up the people of our God for slaughter!” Back came the reply: “I weed out thorns from the vineyard.” Whereupon Rabbi Joshua retorted: “Let the owner of the vineyard himself come and weed out the thorns” (Snodgrass, 194). 3. What is your intellectual and emotional response to parables about judgment?
Praying for One Another Sing together “Come, Ye Thankful People Come” a hymn based on our parable. Then spend time praising Jesus for his sacrifice that allows you to be “safely gathered in.” Pray through this Longfellow translation of a 1694 German language poem by Friedrich von Logau: Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness He grinds all.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Looking back on my decision to follow Christ, I certainly did not know the tectonic shift that was occurring within and around me when I prayed that "simple prayer." Little did I know also that seeds had been planted in me as a child, many people had been praying for me, and God was tending to me—all hidden but significant work amidst my life. This study is about the small and hidden, yet powerful and effective, work of God in and around our lives in this world. "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed… and like yeast…"
1. Notice who plants the mustard seed and where; notice who benefits and how. What detail or details stand out to you? Why?
are needed for the growth of the kingdom? What precise conditions are needed for the maturing of a disciple?
2. How much flour is being mixed and worked into the dough in v.33? Does anyone know how many loaves that would make? (www.thefreshloaf.com/lessons/yourfirstloaf ) For what possible reason was such a large amount needed—and what point might Jesus be making?
5. Look at the explanation of wheat and weeds (13:37–39, discussed last session). Notice who the sower is; what the field represents; and what the good seed stands for. In what way(s) do these parables (mustard seed and yeast) recall and expand upon the parable of the weeds?
Opening Up Take some time to observe the illustrations for this session and the previous ones. What strikes you from any or all of these? In what way(s) have these added to your experience of studying or comprehending these parables?
Hearing the Word 1. Notice first that the parables of the mustard seed and yeast are found in the middle of the parable of the weeds (13:24–30) and its explanation (13:36–43), which you discussed last time. With this context in mind, have someone read aloud Matthew 13:31–35. 2. Open with a short prayer that God would open your hearts and ears to his word. Then, have another person read aloud, Matthew 13:31–35.
3. How has the accompanying artwork for this session incorporated references from both parables in the drawing? What in these parables suggests prayer and praying—and for what might this woman in the drawing be praying?
Discussing the Word 1. With which of these two similes do you most resonate…that of a seed planted in a field (gardening) or that of yeast being worked into dough (baking)? Which is more effective for you in shedding light upon what the kingdom of heaven is like? 2. How are these two similes similar, how are they different? In what ways do they appropriately describe the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is announcing? 3. In addition to describing the kingdom of heaven, how do these similes also describe the life of Christian discipleship? 4. Both of the natural processes of fermentation and growth need specific conditions in which to occur—and even more precise conditions in which to flourish. What specific conditions
Facts and Notes: The mustard seed was the smallest seed known in Palestine at that time. Apparently the remarkable contrast of the tiny seed of the mustard plant with its final large results took on proverbial status in Judaism (cf. Matthew 17:2) (Wilkins, 483). Bread requires a baker’s yeast or leavening agent to cause it to rise (www.finecooking.com/articles/yeast-role-bread-baking. aspx). Scripture uses leaven almost exclusively as a negative metaphor, probably because fermentation implied disintegration and corruption (cf. Deut 16:1–4; Matt 16:5–6; Luke 12:1–2). Jesus reverses the common negative connotation associated with yeast to symbolize the positive, hidden permeation of the kingdom of heaven in this world (Wilkins, 483–4).
Praying for One Another
6. How do you think the crowd would have responded to such “good news” of the kingdom? What comparison might the crowds have preferred to hear? How does this relate to the reason Jesus spoke to the crowd in parables (vv. 34–35)?
Begin your prayer time by giving thanks to God for his creation and creativity, for his work and faithfulness to his world and people. Intercede on behalf of those who have not yet heard, comprehended or have resisted the good news of the now and coming kingdom. Pray for the growth of God’s kingdom blessings upon the earth…for joy, peace, hope, and love to be planted and grow (or mixed and expanded). Pray for each other in your group around the areas of growth you desire in your lives—and the impact you can have for God’s work and blessing in the world.
Responding to What We Hear 1. Quickly summarize the main points and truths of these two parables. How have you seen the truths highlighted in these parables that describe the kingdom of heaven worked out in your own life of discipleship with God? 2. In what ways can you (personally and as a group together) plant a “seed of faith” into the heart of someone you know? Or “mix some yeast” into the lives of friends or family? 3. From the description in these parables, what would you say would be the purpose or ultimate goal of the kingdom of heaven? How can your group adopt or incorporate a similar goal for the coming season? 4. Looking back at #4 from the previous section, which necessary “conditions” for your spiritual growth need to be improved? What changes can be made in your life in order to facilitate these new conditions? 5. What have you learned from this study (or from the sermon preached on it)—and what are you taking to heart as a result? What are you being challenged to do in response?
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Introduction Many commentators agree that Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep to at least 2 different audiences—in Matthew, to the disciples (18:1) and in Luke to a crowd composed of tax collectors, sinners, and disgruntled scribes and Pharisees (15:1–2), (though surely the disciples were there, too). Therefore, since he is the Master Teacher, Jesus’ emphasis is nuanced to fit his hearers. We will focus on the Matthean version.
3. Note the exaggerated language Jesus uses in vv.5–9, which precede our parable. What mood do you think this sort of language would create in his audience?
Looking Closer 1. Now let’s focus on the parable itself. Read verses 10–14 and share some impressions.
Opening Up Pray together, resting thankfully on the truth Jesus speaks in Matthew 18:20, very close to our parable: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. Ask the Holy Spirit to make you attentive to him and one another as you study and share. Has anyone ever seen a sheep, flock or shepherd? Share with each other what you know about sheep and shepherds and where you got your information.
Hearing the Word 1. Take turns reading aloud Matthew 18:1–14. Pay attention to Jesus’ use of the words “children” and “little ones”. What do you notice? 2. Sometimes we are led astray from what Jesus means by “little ones” by a Victorian sentimentalized view of children, picturing them as sweetly innocent. However, it is more likely that Jesus had in mind the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless, the dependent, those of no account. In other words, “the least of these” (Mt. 25:31–46), who people would rather ignore and may even despise. Read the passage again out loud. What do you think the response of the disciples would be to the invitation to become like “least-ofthese” children, the very ones they tried to shoo away from Jesus (Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16)? What is your response?
2. In what way do you think v.10 serves as segue from vv. 5–9 to our parable?
Facts and Notes: N.T. Wright asserts that “the normal condition of angels in Jewish pictures of the heavenly realm or courtroom” is “covering their faces, hiding them in awe before the glory, beauty and majesty of the living God,” as in the famous recounting of the prophet Isaiah’s commissioning (Is. 6:1–8) (Wright, vol. 2, 30,31). Yet in v.10, Jesus states that the angels are “always looking at the face of my Father who is in heaven,” an expression that is used only here, and may indicate that these angels and, more importantly, the little ones they represent, have particular value to God (France, 686, 687). What is your response to this?
3. Remember that a parable usually has one point (even if it has several lessons). What do you think the point of this one is? Does Jesus make the explanation of the point clear or does he obscure it? Why? 4. Share how you react when a question is addressed to you, especially by a person whom you consider to have some authority over you. 5. Why do you think Jesus begins this little parable with a question? 6. The Greek construction of the question tells us that Jesus expects his audience to be in agreement with his point of view. Why do you think he would phrase his question this way?
Discussing the Word
Responding to What We Hear
1. In the two verses that contain the story part of the parable, Jesus uses the expression “go astray” three times! Why this repetition?
1. Let’s be honest. Who of us really wants to be “last, little, lost, least or dead”, yet, as theologian Robert Farrar Capon repeatedly points out in his commentary on the parables, Jesus continually elevates these seeming undesirables. What is your emotional response to the call to be like a least-of-these child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? Some possibilities are:
Facts and Notes: “Planao,” the Greek word the ESV translates here as “go astray,” also has the meaning of “mislead, deceive.” It beautifully fuses the images of a person who has been deceived (as in Titus 3:3) with a sheep who has aimlessly wandered off the path. Perhaps the most famous use of the word is found in the Septuagint, the Greek Translation of the Old Testament: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—everyone— to his own way (Is. 53:6a). If you have time, why not listen to the section of Handel’s Messiah entitled, “All We Like Sheep?”
relieved | insulted | light-hearted | puzzled grateful | adoring | cynical 2. Identify who might be lost sheep for you, ones you would rather despise (i.e. gossip about, ignore, deride, scorn) than welcome. Is your response to them the same as the sheep owner’s? What might you do this week to make your attitudes and actions more like his?
Praying for One Another Together, pray through this quotation:
2. Using your sanctified imagination, picture a lone sheep straying away from the flock and off the path set for it by the shepherd. What might be the dangers the sheep would encounter? 3. In his parables, Jesus often groups things in threes. We have seen that the word “astray” is used three times. There are two other threesomes. What are they and how do you think they contribute to the point? 4. It seems clear that in this parable Jesus is making the sheep owner analogous to God. What do you think he wants his listeners to learn about his Father?
Seeking and joy are the twin pillars of the parable, and God’s seeking does not come with conditions attached. The joy reflects both the attitude of God at recovering the lost and the celebration of the kingdom with its good news that God’s promised redemption has begun. The joy is communal, and Jesus’ hearers should join the celebration (Snodgrass, 109). Close by singing a hymn from our hymn book about sheep, such as: Savior like a Shepherd Lead Us #599 There Were Ninety and Nine #187 I Was a Wandering Sheep #464
Facts and Notes: Perhaps you are troubled by the fact that it appears the sheep owner is leaving 99 sheep unprotected and alone on the mountains to go searching for one who got lost. Many commentators note that a flock this size would have had several shepherds guarding it, probably all with some sense of family ownership, not hirelings.
The Pearl of Great Price The Parable of the Hidden Treasure
Opening Up As always, acknowledge that Jesus is with you because you are gathering in his name. Ask the Holy Spirit to enlarge your hearts so that desire for the treasure of the kingdom might grow.
4. How would you describe the mood of these two parables? Take a brief look at the two parables that bookend them. How would you describe their mood? What thoughts do you have about Matthew’s placement?
5. Should it bother you that the man who finds the treasure doesn’t tell the owner of the field about it? Do you think this fact is relevant to the point of the parable and if not, need not concern us?
Sing together these two verses from “Be Thou My Vision”:
Discussing the Word
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best Thought, by day or by night, Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light. Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise, Thou mine Inheritance, now and always: Thou and Thou only, first in my heart, High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art. What impressions come to mind when you hear the word “treasure”? Think about it as a verb and a noun. Have you ever found a treasure? Name one thing you treasure besides the gospel?
Facts and Notes: These two parables can be classified as “similitudes, extended similes…The marker of a similitude is that it is an extended analogy which lacks plot development. It is more than a simple comparison and may involve several actions and a period of time (Snodgrass, 12).
Hearing the Word Our two parables are part of a whole chapter full of them. Jesus begins, sitting beside the sea in a boat, talking to great crowds who stand on the beach listening (13:1–2); he then moves inside to talk with his disciples (13:36), continuing to use parables. It is in this more intimate setting that our two parables, which are found only in Matthew, are spoken. 1. Spend a moment picturing yourself as a disciple in these two scenes. What would be the same? What different? What might your emotional response be as you hear Jesus talking in each setting? 2. Now skim through all of chapter 13. Then have someone read vv.44–46 out loud. Since the passage is short, have someone else read it again slowly. 3. Try to state the point of the parables in 12 words or fewer.
1. Our two parables may not be narrative, but Jesus certainly manages to pack a lot of action, emotion, crescendo and resolution into a short space. What do you see and feel? 2. Find the similarities and differences between the two parables. What do you think is the most important phrase in each one? Why?
Facts and Notes: There are rabbinic regulations that indicate if a treasure is not lifted out of its hiding place, the finder may keep it, but these discussions may not have been specific enough to give an answer to question 5. Roman Law appeared to be undecided on the point (Kistemaker, 58 and Snodgrass, 244).
Responding to What We Hear 1. What is your emotional reaction to the two characters in these parables? Just for fun, place yourself somewhere on the following line:
3. Consider this quotation, from Stories with Intent: “If, as Kierkegaard argued, parables are a means of indirect communication, most of Jesus’ parables are double indirect communication, whether similitudes or narrative parables. Direct communication addresses the hearer about the subject at hand. For example, direct communication about the kingdom might say ‘The kingdom is of supreme value and is worth everything you could give.’ The parable of the Treasure in the Field is double indirect communication in that it does not speak of the hearer/reader or the subject at hand. It uses another person (the one who finds) and another subject (the treasure) to address the hearer indirectly” (Snodgrass, 11). Normally indirect communication is not considered a helpful form of speech. But in parables it packs a powerful punch. Why? 4. Is Jesus' description of the kingdom simply that of a treasure or a pearl, or does it also include the actions of the man? Explain.
I think they’re crazy. They should have left well enough alone
I want to be just like them—I’m going to the bank right now!
2. What are your thoughts on these two quotations? One who was unwilling to sacrifice everything else for the kingdom, who did not believe its reality sufficiently to stake all one’s future on it, was unworthy of it (Keener, 392). In buying the field and the pearl, the two men did not make a sacrifice, even though they sold everything they owned. “There is a basic difference between a purchase price and a sacrifice. Purchase is directed toward acquiring an object of equivalent value. Sacrifice on the other hand is a giving that expects no reward.” Both the man who found the treasure and the pearl merchant…heard opportunity knock and were ready to pay the price. They gave all they had in order to gain the one thing they desired (Kistemaker, 60).
3. Compare the story of the rich, young man (Mt 19:16–30) to the response of these men who sell everything. Which is the more typical response to the Gospel? What did the men grasp that the rich, young man did not? How has your desire for the Gospel intensified over the years? 4. Take a few moments to list what you treasure. Your “valuables” could be anything from the concrete, like people and possessions, to the invisible, like reputation, status, safety, popularity, and fitness. You don’t have to share your list, but do reflect upon whether there is anything on it that might be impeding your whole-hearted abandonment to Christ and his kingdom. Do you sense an invitation from the Lord to do something about this? You might want to share your thoughts with a friend or your small group in order to come up with a plan to help you implement your desire.
Praying for One Another It may seem scary to think about giving your all to Jesus Christ. Yet, long ago, in a house by the sea, our Lord was telling parables to encourage people to do just that. He still wants you to know it’s worth it. Pray for one another that you would hear and respond. And as you do, ponder and pray through these truths: For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth (Deut. 14:2). Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1–2).
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Hearing the Word
Funny how generosity can elicit the opposite of responses in our hearts—envy or gratitude. It could very well be that how our hearts respond to the eye-opening generosity of God determines our place in line for the kingdom of heaven…closer to first or closer to last. It’s not bad to want to be first in line— but how to get there might be surprising.
Look at the context. Chapter 20 begins with the Greek conjunction gar (“for”) and so connects the thought which ends chapter 19, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” This connection is made complete at the end of this parable. Read aloud, Matthew 20:1–16.
After reciting the Psalm, continue in a group prayer, giving thanks to God (out loud) for several things in and around your lives—and close with a prayer for your time together.
The ancient workday was typically divided into three-hour increments, running from about 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM, and according to Jewish law (cf. Deut 24:14–15), day laborers should be paid on the same day they worked (“before sunset”), so as not to take advantage of them. In this parable, those hired around five in the afternoon (v.6) were hired at the “eleventh hour”—from which the expression meaning the “latest possible moment” comes. The translated expression “are you envious” (v.14) can be rendered literally, “Is your eye evil,” indicating that the laborer could not be thankful because he was blinded by his self-centered envy. The “evil eye” in the ancient world was one that enviously coveted what belonged to another (Wilkins, 665).
4. What do you think the last ones hired expected to be paid? What does the landowner ultimately want to do with his money?
Discussing the Word Looking Closer 1. What does the detail, “early in the morning,” say about the landowner…and about the workers…and about the work that needs to be done? 2. Try to imagine the tone of voice used in the following bits of dialogue… Landowner (v.6): “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” Last workers (v.7): “Because no one has hired us.”
Facts and Notes:
3. Why do you think Jesus tells the parable with multiple returns by the landowner and shifts of workers? In what way do these add to the truths or drama expressed in the story?
What is your initial reaction to this parable? Which detail stood out to you the most?
Opening Up As a group, read/recite Psalm 136 together. Pick one person to read the beginning of each verse—while the rest of the group repeats the refrain, “His love endures forever.” To make the refrain less monotonous, try emphasizing a different word each time you say it either together or individually…(his love endures forever; his love endures forever; his love endures forever; his love endures forever).
Responding to What We Hear
• How do you hear the landowners question? • What do you think of the workers’ answer? • What kind of “characters” might these last workers be? First workers (v.12): “These who were hired last worked only an hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work…” Landowner (v.13): “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” • What seems to be the first workers’ greatest concern? • Does their voiced concern sound like an inquiry or an accusation? • Knowing that the address used by the landowner, “friend,” may be a mild reproach (cf. 22:12; 26:50)—how do you hear his response to this worker?
1. Is the landowner being fair? Why do you think the landowner isn’t also extra-generous with the first workers by giving them more than what they agreed to? 2. In what way(s) is the kingdom of heaven like the landowner and workers in this parable? 3. If your not-yet-Christian friend came to you with this parable and asked you to explain how this story is “good news”… what would you say to him? What would you tell her it reveals about the character of God? 4. It is difficult to know exactly who Jesus is referring to when he says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” but based upon this parable and the teaching in response to Peter’s question in 19:28–30, who might Jesus have in mind with this statement? 5. In v.10, Jesus makes the important point regarding the first workers that they “expected to receive more.” What does this reveal about the heart of those first workers? What other response might they have had to the landowner’s generosity? 6. Compare this parable with the well known parable of prodigal son (Luke 15:11–31). In what ways are they similar and distinct (compare characters/emotions/themes)? How is heart of the elder son reflected in what we have heard from the ‘all day’ workers?
1. One major “grace-killer” is a sense of entitlement and major “joy-stealer” is not receiving what we expected. How might you guard against a sense of entitlement when it comes to your spiritual life and relationship with Jesus? 2. Does God ever surprise you? Why or why not? 3. Look at the image included with this session…what and who stands out to you? How does this illustrate the truths being expressed in this parable? How might this illustrate the reality of your own daily work—in both a positive and negative sense? 4. What are some things you could do alone or together as a group to cultivate a grateful attitude and lifestyle? What could you do for people who are unemployed or overburdened in their work? 5. What have you learned from this study (or from the sermon preached on it)—and what are you taking to heart as a result? What are you being challenged to do in response?
Praying for One Another A couplet from George Herbert’s poem, “Gratefulness” reads: Thou that hast giv’n so much to me, Give one thing more, a grateful heart. Spend some time in closing prayer giving thanks for each other in your group. If you like, be specific and acknowledge the gift or blessing that at least one other in your group is to you. Pray for increased gratitude to God and generosity to others in your life.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
Pause a few minutes with the illustration to this session. From what is portrayed, what would expect of today's discussion? What detail stands out to you? How does the unique perspective of the drawing add to the interpretation of the parable portrayed?
1. With clues from Isaiah 5:1–7 and knowing the original audience, describe essentially what Jesus is recounting with this vineyard story in vv.33–39? [i.e., "This is the story of God…"]
5. Read the preceding parable, that of the two sons (vv.28–32).
2. What does the detailed description of the vineyard tell you about the landowner and the land?
How does that parable provide a way out or a proper response for the original audience?
3. From what you can tell from this parable, what motivated the tenants to act so cruelly?
In what way does the ending of our passage (vv.42–44) also provide a proper ending for the parable of the two sons?
4. Why does Jesus respond to the chief priests with this specific quotation in v.42 from Psalm 118? What does it (and vv.43–44) add to the "ending" of the vineyard parable?
Responding to What We Hear
Praying for One Another
1. Have you ever felt that Jesus—and the claim he has on you—is a threat to the life you have cultivated for yourself on earth? (Perhaps you haven't used such stark terms, but are there things you would rather not give up or give back to the "landowner" and "his son"?)
Share with one another at least one "truth-be-told" aspect of your life for which you need encouragement and prayer. This could also be a "growth-edge" or something you desire to prune or plant in your life in order to bear more fruit. (I suggest you break into smaller groups of men and women (or even triads) to close your time in prayer together this way.)
If you have time, look at some of the other illustrations in the booklet and compare and contrast the characters, perspective, details and other aspects of the drawing—and discuss how it adds to or drives home the major point in the parable it represents.
Facts and Notes: Jesus' parable closely describes that period's preparation and practices of a vineyard. Stone walls were built around vineyards to protect against thieves, and some larger vineyards had watchtowers for added security. It was common to have large farming estates in Palestine, which were owned either by foreigners or wealthy Jews and rented out to poorer Jewish farmers. Conflict between the two parties was not uncommon (Wilkins, 697).
Hearing the Word 1. Look over the context in chapter 21:23ff. The main audience who hears the parables ("two sons" and "tenants") that follow the opening exchange in vv.23–27 are the chief priests, elders and Pharisees (vv.23, 46). Also, this passage is presented as an extended question and answer, or back and forth between them and Jesus (vv.23, 27–28, 31, 40–41). 2. With this context and style in mind, read aloud, Matthew 21:33–46. 3. Before discussing this parable, one very important thing to know is that chief priests, elders and Pharisees would be familiar with the metaphor of the vineyard of the Lord as the house of Israel (see v.45). In fact this parable alludes strongly to Is 5:1–7. Have someone read Isaiah 5:1–7 and notice the similarities and differences.
5. What do you imagine Jesus' tone of voice (or attitude) is while telling this parable to this audience in particular? angry | frustrated | matter-of-fact | compassionate understanding | condescending | instructive | other?
Discussing the Word 1. How can that last observation about how Jesus tells this parable impact our interpretation or understanding of it? 2. Was it foolhardy for the landowner to send his son (v.37)? Do you get the sense at all that the landowner was expecting trouble when he sent for his servants to collect his fruit? How about when he sends his son? 3. In what ways does this parable (and that of the rejected stone in v.42) open our eyes to how Jesus saw himself and his own ministry (cf. Heb 1:1–2)? 4. Why do you think fruit-bearing, fruit-sharing and fruit-gathering are common biblical expressions of a spiritual life in relationship with God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)? What other Scriptures or parables can you cite or turn to for examples?
How does our parable build upon the point of that one?
If so, what do you do with such feelings and thoughts?
3. This is a "truth-telling" parable—and truth-telling is a tricky thing. Sometimes it leads to repentance, life and growth; sometimes it leads to broken relationships (and in Jesus' case, arrest and death). How has truth-telling been a part of your life and maturity? Do you receive it well? How have you spoken the truth in love—and with what result?
If not, how would counsel a Christian who is having difficulty giving up even a portion of what God has given—especially if it came into their possession with "hard work," "heavy labor" and much time investment? 2. At the end of the parable of the two sons, reference is made to John the Baptist (v.32) who says himself to the Pharisees in Matthew 3:7–8,10, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." Since Jesus' concern is about who will produce the fruit of the vineyard (v.43), how would you say you are doing in that regard? What steps can you take (or are you taking) to work in the vineyard, to cultivate and grow fruit in and through your life?
For Further Study: Look closer at the "Israel Question" by reading Isaiah 8:11–17; Matthew 8:10–12; 10:5–8; 15:21–28; and Romans 9–11. The commentaries in the source list also do a good job of shedding light on this question if this is of interest to you.
How can your small group help?
The Parable of the Wedding Feast
Opening Up Share a fond memory you have of a wedding and all the related festivities. Have you ever witnessed a wedding disaster, great or small? Who do you like to have around you to share a bounteous, special-occasion meal?
Hearing the Word 1. Before reading the passage, check out the context for Jesus’ “parabling,” (if we may be allowed to create a new verb) by reading 21:43–46 and 22:15, 23. Note that this parable is told during Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Have someone read Matthew 22:1–14 aloud.
3. Read the parable again out loud. What questions arise in your mind as you listen this time?
Facts and Notes: Ancient papyri testify that double invitations to an event were common practice, even in village life; the second was a reminder that the event was now at hand. We also know that attending a wedding was a social obligation in Palestinian Judaism (Snodgrass, 307, Keener, 519). Remember, the first of Jesus’ miracles that John records happens at a wedding (John 2:1–11). Attending a patron’s banquet was a necessity for social dependents, and there are records that show people accepted a banquet invitation even if they didn’t like the host.
2. What character or group of people stands out to you the most? What action stands out to you the most? Why? 3. Though obscure at first to modern readers, Jesus’ audience would have had no doubt that a story about a king giving a wedding banquet for his son would have the end-of-the-age messianic banquet as its theme. How does this inform your understanding of the parable?
Looking Closer 1. Let your minds roam over all the instances you can think of where the Bible mentions meals. Try to come up with at least ten.
4. To refuse a king’s gracious invitation to the marriage of his son would be considered an egregious violation of honored social practices, a deliberate insult to the king’s dignity (Keener, 519, 520). What is your reaction to the king’s actions? Do you think they were justified? 5. The king uses the word, hetairos, “friend” when he speaks to the man with inappropriate clothes. Matthew is the only biblical writer to use this word and he does so three times—always as a reproachful address (to an ungrateful vineyard worker, 20:13 and to Judas, 26:50). How does the use of this word inform your thinking about the attitude of the ill-dressed man? of the punishment meted out?
2. Considering our parable and the other meals you came up with, respond to this quotation: They [meals] were the primary context in which shame and honor were assigned…people were more preoccupied with shame and honor than is apparent in modern western societies (Snodgrass, 308).
Discussing the Word 1. What do you think the characters and events related in the parable might be representing in Jesus’ world? 2. Jesus tells a similar parable in Luke 14:15–24, this one given at an intimate dinner earlier in his ministry. The response of
this spurned host is much less harsh. How do you think the Holy Week setting would have influenced how Jesus told the parable recorded in Matthew? 3.The king mentions twice in the parable that the banquet is ready (22:4,8). What do you think is the significance of this? 4. What do you think is the point of this parable? 5. Commentators disagree about whether it was common for the host to distribute wedding garments on such occasions or whether the second set of invitees would have had time to go home and change clothes. There is also disagreement about whether the clothes required had to be special or just clean. Whatever viewpoint may be correct, the fact remains that all but one of the second group of guests are properly attired. How does this affect your view of the king’s harsh punishment of the ill-dressed man?
Responding to What We Hear 1. Read and discuss what strikes you from the following quotations: Without the concept of judgment one does not even need salvation, and any urgency about life and its importance, about justice, or even about God is, if not lost, at least greatly diminished. Grace is only grace if the outcome should have been otherwise, and the significance of life depends on accountability for life. We may not like judgment, but it is a central and necessary message of both Testaments and especially of Jesus’ teaching (Snodgrass, 323). The world has been summoned precisely to a party—to a reconciled and reconciling dinner chez the Lamb of God; judgment is pronounced only in the light of the acceptance or declination of that invitation (Capon, The Parables of Judgment, 120). Today we want to hear that everyone is all right exactly as they are; that God loves us as we are and doesn’t want us to change. People often say this when they want to justify particular types of behavior, but the argument doesn’t work…When the prostitutes and extortioners came to Jesus, he didn’t say, ‘You’re all right as you are’. His love reached them where they were, but
his love refused to let them stay as they were…Actually nobody really believes that God wants everyone to stay exactly as they are. God loves serial killers and child-molesters; God loves ruthless and arrogant businessmen; God loves manipulative mothers who damage their children’s emotions for life. But the point of God’s love is that he wants them to change. He hates what they’re doing and the effect it has on everyone else—and on themselves, too. Ultimately, if he’s a good God, he cannot allow that sort of behavior, and that sort of person, if they don’t change, to remain for ever [sic] in the party he’s throwing his son (Wright, vol. 2, 84). 2. It cannot be denied that judgment is central to this parable, and judgment is a concept that can make even Christians squirm. What is your emotional response to the fact that the Bible is clear that there will be a day of reckoning? 3. Have someone read aloud Ezekiel 18:23; 33:10–11 and 2 Peter 3:9–11. What insight do these verses give you into the heart of God with regard to judgment? 4. What needs to change in your heart, mind, or life in order to make you a grateful member of the wedding banquet?
Praying for One Another 1. As Christians, we know what the wedding garments look like. They look like Jesus. There’s a reason why the expression “in Christ” is used so often in the New Testament! Spend some time praising the Savior who has enabled you to put off the old clothes of your sin nature and put on his new, gleaming white robes of perfect righteousness, obedience and love, robes that give you a family resemblance to the Son of God (Eph 4:17–24; Col 3:1–14)! 2. There may be those you love who still refuse to wear the wedding garments God the King longs to give them. Spend some time praying for those people, perhaps covenanting to pray for them until the new year. 3. Close your time together by singing, “Amazing Grace.”
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
Hearing the Word
As a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas Eve—waiting up as long as I could with my brothers in anticipation of a morning which would reveal a decked-out Christmas tree and a living room made alive with gifts and toys so big they couldn’t be wrapped! Today, I still enjoy the anticipation of Christmas Eve—the hopeful feeling for toys has largely been replaced for the gifts of joy and peace which seem to be so near on Christmas Day. Yes, the final Advent of our Lord is coming! For now, we wait and hope.
1. The context of this parable is that this is the beginning of the end of Jesus’ formal teachings (discourses) in Matthew (ch.25). Before reading today’s passage, someone read first from the end of chapter 24:36–51 which is a teaching on the “day your Lord will come.” 2. Say a short prayer…"Gracious Father, as we open your word, we pray you would open our hearts and minds to what it is you want us to know of you, hear from you, and do for you. In Jesus' name, Amen." Then…Read aloud, Matthew 25:1–13.
Praying for One Another According to 7:21, who is it that enters the kingdom of heaven? How would this principle also apply to the wise virgins in our parable? 3. A lot of focus historically has been trying to discern what the oil might represent since this is what distinguishes the wise from the foolish—those who went in to the banquet and those who are shut out. a. Based on the previous question, what might the oil represent (if indeed anything at all)?
3. And again, paying close attention to details, to dialogue, to your emotional response…
b. Look also at Matthew 5:14–16. Do these verses shed any light upon this?
Share what Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was like for you growing up? Any peculiar traditions? Funny or memorable stories? Any feasts or special foods you eat?
Read aloud, Matthew 25:1–13.
Then open with prayer for each other during this season of increased anticipation and expectation which can also bring increased stress and sadness.
c. Perhaps the wise bridesmaids do not share their oil because it represents something that is not easily or readily transferrable to another person (especially a foolish one). How does that idea compare with what you have discussed it could be?
Facts and Notes: The setting of this parable is that of bridesmaids waiting at the bride’s house ready to light torches for the procession back to the bridegroom’s house, where the ceremony and wedding banquet will take place. The wedding feast was often held at night (Wilkins, 805; Mounce 233). Torches used to light the way for wedding ceremonies would be sticks wrapped with rags and soaked in olive oil. Since they would burn out in about fifteen minutes, it was necessary to take along extra oil in a separate container (Mounce, 237).
1. What is your initial reaction to this parable? Are you more nodding your head in an agreeable "Amen!", scratching your head in puzzlement, or shaking your head in disbelief? 2. How is the opening line of this parable different than the others we have studied and discussed previously? How might this change your understanding and application of this parable? 3. While the overall point of this parable is summed up in v.13, "Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour," what other points or lessons are taught by this parable?
4. From this parable, what can we learn about why Jesus delays his coming? From other biblical passages, why the delay in Jesus' return? (cf. Ps 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8–15)
Responding to What We Hear
4. What about this parable is encouraging? What about it is disturbing?
1. Notice that the wise virgins are not rebuked for becoming drowsy and falling asleep; rather they are wise because they are readily prepared when the call comes. For what in your life are you needing to be in "ready-mode"? How will you know when you are readily and properly prepared to receive the call?
Discussing the Word
2. Does the hiddenness of the kingdom of heaven and the slowness of the coming of Jesus—frustrate you, tire you, burden you, and/or inspire you? Why or why not?
1. In what way is the wise virgins’ response to the others in verse 9 in keeping with their wisdom? What would you have done…wouldn't the “Christian” thing be to share your oil? 2. In v.11, the foolish bridesmaids exclaim, “Lord, Lord” (“Sir, Sir” in the NIV 1984 version)—which is the same address we find Jesus singling out for judgment in Matthew 7:21–23. Look at those verses and find the other similarities of these passages.
3. What helps you to live in wise anticipation of Jesus' return? What hinders you to do so? How can your small group help each other to wait properly and wisely for the Bridegroom? 4. In what situations, relationships, or disciplines could you be wiser in this Holiday season and in the coming new year of 2013? Share these as a matter of prayer with each other.
Close your time together with a prayer of anticipation and hope. Pray for Jesus' return in glory Pray for wise preparations on your part to get ready Pray for any "foolish" ones you might know to change their ways Pray for things you shared above in #4. Lastly, I wrote the following "Day's Eve" sonnet during a reflection a few years ago on my childhood anticipation of Christmas morning. I share it with you in celebration of Jesus' birth—and hope of his quick return. Merry Christmas! The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:78–79). “Day’s Eve” by Jeff Schuliger Awakened from chrysalis dreams I keep Waiting, watching, waiting for the sunrise To condescend upon this place and shine A light and Life upon these souls asleep. Not yet but I already imagine My family gathering round the tree— Trimmed in glory gold, green with hope of peace, Treasured with our gifts received and given. Not yet revealed amid the reveling, My growing golden dream of all things new— Expanding gravity of grace and truth Resounding from the Day’s Eve caroling. Child-like I joy amidst the gifted present, Still keeping watch for Daylight’s descent.
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats
Hearing the Word
Discussing the Word
Praying for One Another
There’s nothing quite like Judgment Day to get our attention—nothing like eternal reward versus eternal punishment to get us wondering which side we are on. As we finish up our discussions of the parables of Jesus, we end with the End; we hear a parable which is perhaps the most shocking—as if Jesus thought he might just shout this last one so those hardest of hearing might be given one last chance to hear.
1. Notice the context of Matthew, chapter 25. What is worth noting?
1. What about this parable is comforting? What is disturbing?
Close your time in prayer, gathering up your thoughts…discussion… feelings…challenges…questions…desires…and lifting them up to God, our Father. As you pray, keep in mind the different “scenes” of this parable:
Opening Up Share about a time when you felt judged; what was that experience like for you? To help jog your memory… Picking teams in elementary school? A music audition? Your first job interview? Trying on clothes at the department store? Walking down Newbury street? An annual performance review? Choosing not to go along with the crowd?
Facts and Notes: Mixed flocks of sheep and goats were common in Israel, and because Middle Eastern sheep and goats can look alike, it was important to separate them at night so that the hardier sheep could be left outside and the goats, who need more shelter, would be brought inside (Wenham, 89; Wilkins, 809). The “Son of Man” is a messianic title associated with the vision of Daniel in Daniel 7:13–14—of “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven…He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him.” "Son of Man" is also Jesus’ most common title for himself used 81 times in the Gospels (NIV note).
2. Read the parable through aloud at least two times (Matthew 25:31–46) with a different person reading it each time. Which of the following scenes stands out the most in your mind from the reading? Why? a. Son of Man coming in glory with the angels b. Separating of people like sheep from the goats c. Description of the righteous serving the “least of these” d. Description of those who are cursed ignoring the “least of these” e. Final moment of eternal judgment
Looking Closer 1. Look at the various relationships and associations found throughout the parable (listed below)…what are the significances of each of these associations? Son of Man and the angels Son of Man and the nations Sheep and Goats King and ‘my Father’ ‘My Father’ and ‘those on his right’ King and the ‘least of these brothers of mine’ ‘Those on his right’ and ‘least of these’ ‘Those on his left’ and ‘least of these’ 2. In what ways is the “Son of Man” described? What does this tell you about the “Son of Man”? 3. How are those who are blessed described? How about those who are cursed? According to this parable, how would you know if you are blessed or not? 4. How are the “least of these” described in the parable? According to the relationships and associations found in this parable, to whom might Jesus’ description “least of these brothers of mine” be referring?
2. The other parables in Matthew 24–25 relating to the end of the age deal with keeping watch or being wise and staying faithful. How is this one similar? How is this one different? 3. What would you say is the intended purpose(s) of this parable? What would an original hearer of these words be meant to learn or take to heart or to do? 4. Based on this parable…what might the “kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” be like? (In other words, Who will be there? What might happen there? Would it be a place you’d want it to be?)
Pray for Christ’s return and for his Kingdom to come and will to be done on earth. Pray for the “least of these” whom you identified and discussed. Pray for yourselves and each other—to respond obediently to Jesus’ challenging words. Pray for opportunities as a group to serve Jesus by serving others.
Responding to What We Hear 1. In what ways does Jesus’ future return “in his glory” affect our present, everyday lives and living? In what way(s) does it affect our future?
For Further Study: Read Psalm 1…
2. Who are the “least of these, brothers of Jesus” in our modern day? As Christians who have their identity “in Christ”—what impact might this have on our relationship with those who are the “least of these”?
1. Compare and contrast the righteous and the wicked in Psalm 1 with the righteous and the wicked (the blessed and the cursed) of this parable.
3. What have you learned from this study (or from the sermon preached on it)—and what are you taking to heart as a result? What are you being challenged to do in response?
2. How does the Gospel—the good news of Jesus— change your understanding of who is blessed, or change the distinction between the righteous and the wicked?
4. Read aloud the beginning of the next section of Scripture… Matthew 26:1–2. These verses are a transition between our parable and the narrative of Jesus’ last days on earth.
Read Daniel 7 and Matthew 24…
a. Notice how the Son of Man is spoken of in these verses and compare this with how the Son of Man is described in our parable (Mt 25:31–46). b. How do you think the disciples would have responded to this announcement on the heels of what they just had heard? What do you make of this? c. How can you help one another in your small group—as modern day disciples—obey what Jesus is asking of each of us in through this parable?
1. How is the return of Jesus described in these passages? What are we to look for? What are we to look out for? 2. Again…how is the expectation of Jesus’ return (and our own messianic hopes and expectations) to affect our everyday lives and living? How might this change the way we relate to our friends, our family, our neighbors, even strangers?
Sources Bailey, Kenneth E., Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1983. Blomberg, Craig L., Interpreting the Parables, Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 1990. Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005. Capon, Robert Farrar, The Parables of the Kingdom; The Parables of Grace; The Parables of Judgment, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1985, 1988, 1989. France, R.T., The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids/Cambridge, U.K., William B. Eerdmans, 2007. Keener, Craig S., The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids/ Cambridge U.K., William B. Eerdmans, 2009. Kistemaker, Simon J., The Parables, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1980. Mounce, Robert H. Matthew. New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991. Snodgrass, Klyne R., Stories with Intent, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids/Cambridge U.K., 2008. Wenham, David. The Parables of Jesus. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989. Wilkins, Michael. Matthew. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. Wright, Tom, Matthew for Everyone, Part One and Two, London, SPCK, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
The following chapters were written using the New International Version of the Bible: The Parable of the Net, Why Do You Speak to the People in Parables?, The Parable of the Mustard Seed, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, The Parable of the Ten Virgins, The Parable of the Sheep and Goats. The following chapters were written using the English Standard Version of the Bible: The Parable of the Talents, The Parable of the Sower, The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds, The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Pearl of Great Price or The Parable of the Hidden Treasure, The Parable of the Wedding Feast.
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