The parables in this chapter can be divided into two groups. The first group contains parables addressed to the Jewish crowds as well as to the disciples (vv. 1-35). The second group contains parables addressed only to the disciples (vv. 36-52). In vv. 1-2 Matthew makes much of the fact that Jesus teaches the crowds; but in v. 36 Jesus leaves the crowds and goes into the house, where he teaches only his disciples. Because the crowds have not received Jesus' proclamation with faith and understanding (vv. 10-17; cf. chs. 11-12), Jesus removes revelation from them. This is the judgment for failure to accept Jesus' proclamation. Herein lies a warning to all who hear the Gospel but close their ears to its truth.
The parable of the soils (vv. 3b-9; cf. vv. 18-23) explains the several reactions to the proclamation of the kingdom. The seed represents the message about the kingdom (v. 19), i.e., the preaching of the gospel (cf. 4:17). Although all persons hear the same Word, they respond to the Word in various ways. Some, like the Jewish crowds, have hearts that are so hard the seed is unable even to germinate. Others begin the life of discipleship but fall away either because of suffering or concern over material things. Only a minority remain faithful to the Word, obedient to the will of the Father until the end (v. 8; cf. 12:33-37).
To those on the outside this parable declares that the rejection of the Word by the greatest part of Israel (and, indeed, the greatest part of all hearers) does not mean there is anything wrong with the Word. On the contrary, the problem lies with the poor quality of the human heart-soil on which the Word falls. To the disciples this parable teaches vigilance: They must guard against the possibility of falling away because of persecution or possessions.
The parable of the weeds (vv. 24-30; cf. vv. 36-43) emphasizes the contrast between present coexistence of the wheat and the weeds and future separation. The wheat represents the followers of Jesus, while the weeds refer to evil persons in the world. The servants of Jesus (i.e., the church) must not attempt to exterminate wicked persons from the earth, since in so doing they may destroy those who would find their way into the kingdom. Jesus, through his angels, will separate the evil from the righteous at the end.
The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven (vv. 31-33) are twin parables; they teach essentially the same thing. Although the kingdom has small and apparently insignificant beginnings, eventually it will cover the whole earth. Only those who participate in the kingdom now (in its “smallness”) will experience the blessings of the endtime kingdom that Christ will establish upon the whole earth at his second coming.
The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl (vv. 44-46) are also twin parables. The kingdom of God is so supremely precious that a person should be happy to make any sacrifice necessary to obtain and maintain a place in the kingdom.
The parable of the net (vv. 47-50), like the parable of the weeds, involves a contrast between present coexistence of the righteous and wicked and future separation. Here, however, the focus is not on cohabitation of the righteous and wicked in the world but in the church. Jesus declares that there are false disciples in the church, persons who will not pass muster at the Last Judgment. Therefore, all in the church should examine themselves to be sure they are true disciples, bearing the fruit of righteousness (cf. vv. 9, 23, 43).
This segment comes to a climax with vv. 51-52. The disciples who have accepted Jesus' proclamation and are thus able to understand the parables (cf. vv. 10-17) will find that the parables are rich in meaning. As they reflect on the parables, they will constantly discover new insights regarding the kingdom.