Just as the Lord veils himself from the natural eye, he often veils his words. He teaches in parables from time to time to ensure that the hidden truths he speaks of are accessible only to those who truly seek them. In Matthew 13, Jesus began apparently for the first time to speak in parables. At that time, his listeners were so numerous that the disciples arranged for him to teach from the deck of a boat floating just offshore. His new manner of teaching must have puzzled many of his hearers; it certainly puzzled the disciples, who came to him asking, “Why speakest thou in parables?” (v. 10).
Why Speakest Thou in Parables?
“Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given,” was his reply. “For whosoever receiveth, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever continueth not to receive, from him shall be taken even that he hath.”[i] Joseph Smith’s clarification of these verses shows that those who actively seek light receive more light, but those who refuse to understand lose the light they have. Unable to understand the parables, the disciples sought out the Lord for the interpretation. Like the disciples, we need to approach the Lord ourselves to gain an understanding of the truths veiled in his parables. Prayer and careful study are required.
Elder James E. Talmage has suggested that the Lord taught in parables for three reasons:
1. To avoid trouble with the scribes, Pharisees, and rabbis who “were alert in maintaining a close watch upon His movements and his works, ever ready to make Him an offender for a word.”
2. To show mercy to his hearers: “Had He always taught in explicit declaration, such as required no interpretation, many among His hearers would have come under condemnation, inasmuch as they were too weak in faith and unprepared in heart . . . to accept and obey the saving word.”
3. To help people to remember and reflect on his words: “Many a peasant who had heard the little incident of the sower . . . would be reminded by the recurring circumstances of his daily work; the gardener would recollect the story of the mustard seed whenever he planted afresh.”[ii]
The Lord tailors his teaching to the capacity of his hearers. A simple story that interests for a moment stays in the memory, coming back to mind again and again to teach wisdom in unpredictable ways. Those who actively seek a clearer understanding will find it. In this way the Lord plants seeds of faith and knowledge in the hearts and minds of his children.
Fittingly, the first parable Jesus teaches in Matthew 13 provides the key to understanding all his parables. He likens himself to a sower scattering seeds of gospel truth in the hearts of his listeners. “A sower went forth to sow,” he begins, and tells how the seeds fall into different kinds of soil that represent different levels of spiritual preparation.
- “Some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up.” Elder Talmage explains: “So with the seed of truth falling upon the hardened heart; ordinarily it cannot take root, and Satan, as a marauding crow, steals it away.”[iii] This soil represents the hearts of the wicked, and we are reminded of Heavenly Father’s children stolen away by Satan’s contrivances in both pre-mortal and mortal worlds.
- “Some fell upon stony places.” These seeds spring up, but because the roots are shallow, the sun scorches them. Elder Talmage: “So with the man whose earnestness is but superficial, whose energy ceases when obstacles are encountered or opposition met.”[iv]President James E. Faust illustrates: “Some seeds fell upon stony places in the early days of the Church when the Prophet Joseph Smith issued calls to several converts to serve as missionaries. One of them was Simonds Ryder, who was ordained an elder on June 6, 1831, by Joseph Smith. After reading the revelation that pertained to him and finding that his name had been spelled ‘Rider’ instead of ‘Ryder,’ he became offended, apparently unaware that Joseph Smith often dictated revelations to his scribes. . . . Like the seed that fell upon stony places, Simonds Ryder joyfully received the word at first but quickly became offended over a trivial matter and lost his place in the kingdom of God.”[v]
“Some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprung up and choked them.” Elder Talmage: “Grain sown where thorns and thistles abound is soon killed out by their smothering growth; even so with a human heart set on riches and the allurements of pleasure.”[vi]
- “But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirty fold.” These are the heirs of the celestial kingdom, who enter the way “that leadeth unto exaltation and continuation of the lives.” They are like Abraham, who “received promises concerning his seed . . . they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them.”[vii]
The Lord’s parables are like the seeds of the sower. They are simple, small stories, mysterious in their power, but containing tremendous vitality and potential fruitfulness. We can do the Savior’s work only if we prepare the ground of our hearts to receive his truths and bring forth fruit. Additionally, like him, we are called to share the gospel and spread the seeds of truth wherever we go. Unlike him, we do not know whether the seed falls on good or bad ground, as President Faust observes:
Today, as we travel throughout the world, we see that many seeds have fallen into good ground. We meet wonderful, stalwart members of the Church who are faithful and dedicated. Some of us who have sown seeds as missionaries may have felt that those seeds fell on hard ground. It is not always possible to know the consequences of one single contact. For years William R. Wagstaff, who served in the North Central States Mission from 1928 to 1930, felt disappointed he had not baptized more people. In the summer of 1929 he and his companion visited a farm family about 180 miles west of Winnipeg. Brother Wagstaff remembered giving a copy of the Book of Mormon to the mother and discussing the gospel with her during numerous visits through that and the following summer. He recalled that during each visit ‘she’d take off her apron and we’d sit down and discuss the gospel. She’d read and have lots of questions.’ But at the close of his mission, she still had not been baptized, and he lost touch with her. Brother Wagstaff went home, married, and raised a family. Then in October 1969 he and his wife attended his missionary reunion. A lady approached him and asked, “Aren’t you Elder Wagstaff?”She introduced herself as the woman he had taught on the farm outside Winnipeg. In her hand was a worn copy of the Book of Mormon–the one he had given her 40 years earlier. “She showed me the book,” he related. “I turned over the front and there was my name and address.” She then told Brother Wagstaff about 60 members of her family were members of the Church, including a branch president.[viii]
Because the parables of the Lord contain veiled truths, they require a revelator to make them plain. At one level, the Lord’s parables are like any fable or allegory: many useful lessons can be drawn from them. (They can also be twisted and misinterpreted.) But only the Lord himself can reveal what he had in mind with the parable. The ancient Greek New Testament word for revelation is apokalupsis, which literally means “a lifting of the veil.” The Lord himself lifted the veil from his words in private for his disciples in Matthew 13:18-23, where he explained the significance of the Parable of the Sower. Now, in our time, the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith lifted the veil from the parables of Matthew 13 to reveal striking truths about the coming forth of the kingdom of God.
The Meaning of the Kingdom Parables
In a letter to the priesthood of December 1835,[ix] the Prophet explained that the parables of Matthew 13, often called the “kingdom parables,” are prophecies, foretelling in a veiled fashion the course that his Church will follow from his own age through the ages to come. Joseph taught that Matthew 13 “afford[s] us as clear an understanding upon the important subject of the gathering, as anything recorded in the Bible.” Beginning with the wheat and the tares, Joseph explained, “we shall continue to trace His saying concerning this Kingdom from that time forth, even unto the end of the world.”[x]
The Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43)
The Prophet taught that this parable “has an allusion directly, to the commencement, or the setting up of the Kingdom in that age,” meaning the time of the Savior.
Now we learn by this parable, not only the setting up of the Kingdom in the days of the Savior, which is represented by the good seed, which produced fruit, but also the corruptions of the Church, which are represented by the tares, which were sown by the enemy, which His disciples would fain have plucked up, or cleansed the Church of, if their views had been favored by the Savior. But He, knowing all things, says, Not so. . . . The Church is in its infancy, and if you take this rash step, you will destroy the wheat, or the Church, with the tares. . . . Let them grow together until the harvest, or the end of the world, which means the destruction of the wicked.[xi]
Elder Talmage defines the tares as “any kind of noxious weed, particularly such as in early growth resembles the wholesome grain. Over-sowing with the seed of weeds in a field already sown with grain is a species of malignant outrage.”[xii] Modern terms for “tares” are “vetch” or “darnel.” Only an expert eye can distinguish tares from wheat in the early stages. The New Testament Greek term translated as “tares”—zizanion—is still used in some modern European languages to describe evil whispers or the spreading of malicious lies (e.g., in French, la zizanie).
Again privately, the Lord explained the parable of the wheat and the tares to his disciples in verses 36-43. Joseph “explains the explanation”:
Now let our readers mark the expression—“the field is the world, the tares are the children of the wicked one, the enemy that sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the world, (let them carefully mark this expression—the end of the world,) and the reapers are the angels. . . . The end of the world is the destruction of the wicked, the harvest and the end of the world have an allusion directly to the human family in the last days . . . and that which shall precede the coming of the Son of Man, and the restitution of all things spoken of by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began . . . as the servants of God go forth warning the nations, both priests and people, and as they harden their hearts and reject the light of truth…they are left in darkness, and delivered over unto the day of burning; thus being bound up by their creeds . . . The work of gathering together of the wheat into barns, or garners, is to take place while the tares are being bound over, and preparing for the day of burning.[xiii]
In Doctrine and Covenants 86, the Lord adds to his explanation of this parable. We learn that although the Lord’s apostles successfully established the Church, the forces of the Adversary overwhelmed it:
The field was the world, and the apostles were the sowers of the seed; and after they have fallen asleep the great persecutor of the church, the apostate, the whore, even Babylon, that maketh all nations to drink of her cup, in whose hearts the enemy, even Satan, sitteth to reign—behold he soweth the tares; wherefore, the tares choke the wheat and drive the church into the wilderness.[xiv]
Now in the last days, the Lord begins to bring forth his work again, and “the blade is springing up and is yet tender.” The tares, the forces of opposition, must also continue to grow alongside the Church: “Pluck not up the tares while the blade is yet tender,” the Lord says, “for verily your faith is weak, lest you destroy the wheat also. Therefore let the tares grow together until the harvest is fully ripe; then ye shall first gather out the wheat from among the tares.”[xv] Missionary work to gather the disciples of Christ—the wheat—goes forward urgently today and is a sign that the harvest is nearing full ripeness.
The Grain of Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32)
Visitors to the Holy Land are familiar with the beautiful mustard bushes that grow wild along the roadsides. Covered with yellow blooms, they grow three or four feet high from the tiniest of seeds. Elder Talmage observes that the “well-cultivated mustard plant is one of the greatest among common herbs, and presents a strong contrast of growth from tiny seed to spreading shrub.”[xvi]
For the Prophet Joseph, this parable foretells the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the planting and flourishing of the Church in the latter days. Out of the wilderness and from insignificant beginnings, the Church is to bloom into prominence in miraculous ways:
Now we can discover plainly that this figure [the mustard seed] is given to represent the Church as it shall come forth in the last days. Behold, the Kingdom of Heaven is likened unto it. Now, what is like unto it? Let us take the Book of Mormon, which a man took and hid in his field, securing it by his faith, to spring up in the last days. . . let us behold it coming forth out of the ground, which is indeed accounted the least of all seeds, but behold it branching forth, until it, like the mustard seed, becomes the greatest of all herbs. And it is truth, and it has sprouted and come forth out of the earth. . . and God is sending down His powers, gifts and angels, to lodge in the branches thereof. The Kingdom of heaven is like unto a mustard seed. Behold, then is not this the Kingdom of heaven that is raising its head in the last days in the majesty of its God, even the Church of the Latter-day Saints[?] . . . Notwithstanding all [opposition], the mustard seed is still towering its lofty branches, higher and higher, and extending itself wider and wider.[xvii]
Like the mustard bush from the tiny seed, the Church has grown explosively in recent decades and temples have spread worldwide in just a few years.
The Leaven (Matthew 13:33)
The Lord follows the parable of the mustard seed with the parable of leaven hidden in three measures of meal. While the mustard bush symbolizes rapid, vital growth, “the process of leavening, or causing dough ‘to rise’ . . . [is] quiet and seemingly secret,” in the words of Elder Talmage.[xviii] For the Prophet, the leaven symbolizes the still inward voice of the Spirit that testified to the Three Witnesses and will testify of the Restoration until it fills the earth. “It may be understood that the Church of the Latter-day Saints has taken its rise from a little leaven that was put into three witnesses. Behold, how much this is like the parable! It is fast leavening the lump, and will soon leaven the whole.”[xix]
The Treasure Hid in a Field (Matthew 13:44)
In the witness of the Book of Mormon, the Saints find that “treasure hid in a field” that is beyond price. Elder Talmage teaches that “the hidden treasure is the kingdom of heaven; when a man finds that, he ought to be ready to sacrifice all that he has.”[xx] Thus the Saints are called on to gather and consecrate their all to possess that treasure, as Joseph explains: “To illustrate more clearly this gathering. . . The Saints work after this pattern. See the Church of the Latter-day Saints, selling all that they have, and gathering themselves together unto a place that they may purchase for an inheritance, that they may be together and bear each other’s afflictions in the day of calamity.”[xxi]
The Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46)
The Lord next compares the kingdom to a pearl of great price, for which a merchant sells all that he has. “Observe that in this parable as in that of the hidden treasure, the price of possession is one’s all,” says Elder Talmage. Anyone may possess this pearl of great price, for “the cost of . . . the pearl, is not a fixed amount, alike for all; it is all one has. Even the poorest may come into enduring possession.”[xxii] Joseph teaches that this parable refers to the establishment of Zion and her stakes in the latter days. “The Saints again work after this example. See men traveling to find places for Zion and her stakes or remnants, who, when they find the place for Zion, or the pearl of great price, straightway sell that they have, and buy it.”[xxiii] Joseph sees in his mind’s eye the consecrated wanderings of the Saints, looking for that place where they can build up Zion and her stakes as centers of strength.
The Net Cast into the Sea (Matthew 13:47-50)
Once Zion is established, the gathering of the Saints takes on worldwide dimensions and the Gospel net is spread wide to bring in “every kind.” Joseph explained that this final stage in the building of the kingdom as a harvesting and sorting process: “Behold the seed of Joseph, spreading forth the Gospel net upon the face of the earth, gathering of every kind, that the good may be saved in vessels prepared for that purpose, and the angels will take care of the bad. So shall it be at the end of the world.”[xxiv]
Have ye understood?
In closing his Matthew 13 discourse, Jesus asks his disciples, “Have ye understood all these things?”(v. 51) The same challenge is ours. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord closes his latter-day explanation of the parable of the wheat and the tares with a charge that applies to us: “Ye are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have [like the tender blades of wheat] been hid from the world with Christ in God—therefore your life and the priesthood have remained, and must needs remain through you and your lineage until the restoration of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy prophets since the world began.”[xxv]
How do the parables of Matthew 13 apply to us? We are asked to pay the price to understand these veiled words of the Lord—through our own study and prayer, and through prophetic “unveiling” of those words. Additionally, as modern heirs of the kingdom, we have been preserved and empowered to “gather out the wheat from among the tares”–thus the responsibility upon us to build the kingdom at home and do all we can in the saving labors of missionary and temple service. “Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel. The Lord hath said it. Amen.”[xxvi]
[i] JST Matthew 13: 10-11
[ii] Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1970, 295-298.
[viii] Faust, “Of Seeds and Soils.”
[ix] History of the Church, vol. 2, 264-272.
[x] History of the Church, 2:264, 267.
[xi] History of the Church, 2:267.
[xiii] History of the Church, 2:271.
[xvii] History of the Church, 2:268, 270.
[xix] History of the Church, 2:270.
[xxi] History of the Church, 2:271-272.
[xxiii] History of the Church, 2:272.
[xxiv] History of the Church, 2:272.