"The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. And he spake many things unto them in parables" (vs. 1-3). (Remember the awesome acoustic effect of the Bay of Parables? If not, you can read about it in "The Calling of the Apostles" in a previous post.)
"And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. 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 away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand" (vs. 10-13 JST). Then he quoted a prophecy of Isaiah's about this very thing (vs. 14-15).
Why would Jesus not want everyone to understand what he was really teaching?
The answer can be found in the words "receiveth" and "continueth not to receive."
Parables were a great way to give each individual a kind of trial, a sample of the gospel. If they were sincerely interested in the doctrine behind the parable, they could simply ask later and he would tell them. But in his mercy, he provided this extra step so that spiritual knowledge was not obtained too easily, because:
"Of him unto whom much is given much is required, and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation" (D&C 82:3; see also Luke 12:36-48). Or as Peter said, "For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them" (2 Peter 2:20-21). The Lord was protecting the insincere, the spiritually handicapped, from knowledge that would condemn them.
But for those who will take the one extra step--to ask--great treasures are found. "But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them" (Matt. 13:16-17).
As we look at the parables, notice how they are placed in a way that enhances our understanding. There is a theme to each parable, to pairs of parables, and to the entire set.
THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER (vs. 3-8)
In explanation of this parable, Elder McConkie wrote, "The seed is the word of God, the gospel of salvation. Jesus preaches it and he directs his servants so to do. And the seed is the same whether sown by the owner of the field or by the servants whom he employs. And as to whether the seed sprouts and grows and ripens and is harvested, such depends not upon the seed, but upon the soil...Thus, this parable of the sower, as we are wont to call it, might more aptly be considered as the parable of the four kinds of soil. The growth of the seed depends upon the nature of the soil; it depends upon the hearts and minds and souls of the hearers of the word (McConkie, p. 249).
There are four different types of soil:
1) the way side
2) the stony places
3) the thorny soil
4) the good ground
The Savior himself explained the parable very well to his disciples later (vs. 18-23), and so it is easy for us to understand. But we must always relate the parables to ourselves and see where we stand, and how we can improve. We are the soil. We are probably each of the four types of soil at some point in our lives. What kind of soil are we right now?
1) The way side refers to the paths or roads through farmers' lands.
They are unplowed and are hardened by the treading of many travelers' and beasts' feet and the rolling of heavy cart wheels. A seed sown in such a place will simply lie on top of the ground, easy prey for birds.
In this condition of soil, we have already had our hearts filled with false doctrines and worldly knowledge. We have become eye-rollers, scoffers. We already know too much to accept simple gospel truths.
Or our hearts have been hardened by the trials of life. We don't believe God speaks to us or cares about us.
It is easy for Satan, just like the birds, to snatch away the truth from us, because we never provided a space for it to enter our hearts in the first place.
2) The stony places have a thin layer of soil with rock underneath.
The rock can trap water for a time, providing a great opportunity for the seed to sprout up quickly. But once the rainy season is over, the rock collects heat and bakes the seedling, while also keeping its roots from digging deep for a permanent water source.
Are we sometimes a stony place? We got super-excited about something we heard at General Conference, and we felt the Spirit prompt us to do it, and we were going to follow through on it, we really were...but then we got busy...or it was too hard...or we forgot...or we lost interest. A lack of commitment is the problem. We become fair-weather saints. When it is fun and easy to live the gospel, we do it with zest. But when the going gets hard, the initial excitement has worn off, and real depth of commitment and sacrifice are required, we give up or wander off.
Or sometimes the rocks under the soil are our unrepented-of sins. As long as we leave them there, they provide a very effective barrier between ourselves and the spring of living water under the ground. When the light of truth shines down on us, the rock of sin heats up and kills the seed.
3) Thorns or noxious weeds will easily choke out any good seed.
We're so out of focus that we don't notice the overgrowth, or it may be that we like the lush look of the weeds. Either way, we don't bother to pull them and eventually they choke out the seed.
4) The good soil is prepared to receive seed, and provides space and nourishment for the seed. It is in full view of the sun, and is willing to accept the rain as another necessary ingredient of growth.
Anyone can become good soil, but it takes work and sometimes pain.
1) The long, sharp tines of the harrow can be raked through the hardened dirt of the wayside path. The dirt can be overturned with a plow or a shovel. Fertilizer can be worked into the soil. It's painful, it's unpleasant, but it's necessary.
2) The rocks can be dug up and hauled away from the stony ground. It is backbreaking, painstaking, time-consuming work. But it can be done.
3) The weeds can be killed and pulled. Extra care must be taken with weeds, however: if the dead weeds are left on the soil for any period of time, they will drop their seeds in an effort to preserve themselves, causing many more weeds to spring up in their place. They must be cast far away from the garden.
4) It sounds like a lot of work to prepare soil for seed, and it is, but the payoff is huge: "He that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth and endureth; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty" (Matt. 13:23). Wow! That is an amazing return!
THE PARABLE OF THE WHEAT AND THE TARES (vs. 24-30, 36-42 JST)
Perhaps this parable is here just to remind us that 1) even if the soil of our hearts is prepared, tilled, cleared, and weeded, we will still be surrounded by challenges, but 2) we can endure to the end without being "choked out" by the weeds, and 3) we will triumph eventually. The struggle will be worth it and the harvest will still be great.
THE PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED (vs. 31-32)
Bruce R. McConkie reported that both of the symbols in this parable would have been well-known, and the meaning would have been clear to any listening. Mustard seeds were often used by the rabbis as examples of the smallest things possible. A tree with branches large enough to host birds was clearly known in ancient Israel to symbolize "a mighty kingdom that gave shelter to the nations" (McConkie, p. 260-261). (See Ezekiel 17, 31 and Daniel 4.)
"Mustard seeds are highly renowned for the high amounts of glucosinolates, which are believed to have anticancer properties. They are a good source of iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorous, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc" (Ask Dr. Gott website). Whether ancient Israel knew all of the nutritional and medicinal properties of mustard may be doubtful, but Christ did, and perhaps this information has meaning for us today to symbolize how the gospel helps us to grow spiritually, and heals and prevents spiritual disease and decay.
Isn't the mustard blossom the cheeriest-looking little thing? When seeing this little gem of a flower, it's easy to feel the gigantic hope in the itty-bitty, expressed in the parable of the mustard seed.
Joseph Smith explained the parable of the mustard seed: "Now we can discover plainly that this figure 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, or in due time; let us behold it coming forth out of the ground, which is indeed accounted the least of all seeds, but behold it branching forth, yea, even towering, with lofty branches, and God-like majesty, 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 righteousness begins to look down from heaven, 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 God, even the Church of the Latter-day Saints" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 98-99).
The Church has made a short video of its growth up until the year 2007, with beautiful and inspiring music, which you can download here.
THE PARABLE OF THE LEAVEN (v. 33)
In ancient Israel, bread was leavened by simply letting it sit long enough for the yeast in the environment to work its way into the dough and grow and ferment there, similar to the way we might make sourdough bread.
Elder McConkie points out that, while the tiny mustard seed grew into a large tree that showed the kingdom of heaven in a way that all the world could see, the invisible "leaven worked silently, without observation, unknown to many among men, to establish the plans and purposes of Divine Providence...In this parable of the leaven we see the glory and triumph of the kingdom in the hearts of men...The leaven of life, the leaven of righteousness, the leaven of the word of God--the yeast of eternal truth--is 'kneaded' into the souls of men. Then its spreading, penetrating, life-giving effect enlarges the soul and 'raises' sinners into saints" (McConkie, p. 262). Both visible world growth and invisible inner growth are miracles prophesied in Christ's parables, and being fulfilled today.
THE PARABLE OF THE HIDDEN TREASURE (v. 44)
There has always been hidden treasure in Israel (Wright, p. 249). Many civilizations passed through, conquering or being conquered, over the centuries. Men leaving for battle, or for a long journey, used the earth itself to keep their treasures safe while they were gone. If they returned, they could reclaim their buried treasure. If they did not, it remained to be found by someone else. With all the upheaval and unrest in the middle east throughout its entire history, the burying and finding of treasure were familiar topics with Christ's audience.
The treasure belonged to the land on which it was hidden. If one found buried treasure, the wise thing to do would be to rebury it, and discretely purchase the land. Of course, it was expensive to purchase land and the man in the parable had to sell everything he had to buy it, but if there was buried treasure on the land, he knew the return would be much more than the purchase price.
This parable also has a twin: The parable of the pearl of great price. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it" (vs. 45-46).
In the first parable, the man stumbled across the treasure accidentally. In the second, the merchant sought a pearl. The converts to the Church fall in both categories, but what matters is whether they recognize the worth of the find so that they are willing to "sell all" to obtain it.
THE PARABLE OF THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE (v. 45-46)
One of our books of scripture got its name from this parable. "The Pearl of Great Price began as a mission pamphlet, compiled and published in 1851 by Elder Franklin D. Richards, then president of the European Mission of the Church.
"The Pearl of Great Price was not originally compiled by an official committee of the Church and did not become a collection as a direct result of a commandment to the President of the Church or by specific appointment from the First Presidency, so far as the record shows" (Clark). Many Europeans in the 19th century recognized the great worth of President Richards' Pearl of Great Price and consequently joined the Church.
President Richards' pamphlet was a perfect example of the scripture, "For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily, I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness" (D&C 58:27).
THE PARABLE OF THE GOSPEL NET (vs. 47-50 JST)
"The net here meant is a draw net or a seine, which may be as much as half a mile in length; it is leaded below so it will sweep the bottom of the sea, while corks keep the top floating near the surface. As it is swept along the beach it gathers in fish of every sort without reference to their ultimate use or worth" (McConkie p. 266).
Here is an illustration of a modern-day seine:
Like the parable of the wheat and the tares, this parable tells of a large group of people, some of whom are wicked and some of whom are righteous. The big difference in the two parables, however, is that the wheat and tares are growing in the field of the world, but the fish are all inside the gospel net: they are members of the Church. Among these, Elder McConkie says, "Some are repentant and worthy and will be put in vessels; others are swept along by the tides of social pressure. Some are drawn in by the tight net of business necessity and economic advantage; yet others join with the saints to inherit property, marry selected persons, or gain political preferment. And all such shall be cast away with the wicked to be burned."
"Those in the Church are not perfect, and more than church membership is needed to save and exalt. Baptism alone is not enough: thereafter...they 'must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men'; they must feast 'upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end'" (McConkie, p. 266).
CONCLUSION: THE PARABLE OF THE HOUSEHOLDER (v. 52)
The last parable was important counsel which the true disciples of the Lord followed, but which was a stumblingblock for the leadership of the Jews: "Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old." The man in this parable recognized the worth of newly acquired treasure as well as that which had been handed down in his family. Imagine someone who rejected a gift of great worth just because it was new! How strange!
The Old Testament was to be combined with the teachings of Christ which we now have in the New Testament, but many of the Scribes and Pharisees clung to the Old Testament while not realizing its very God, Jehovah, stood before them, offering more. Christ's teachings were unnerving to many of his listeners. They were comfortable with the scriptures and commandments they already had, but did not want Christ to elaborate on them, to add more light to them, or to change them. Tradition was truth in their minds.
For us in the latter-days, the Book of Mormon and latter-day revelations are to be added to the Bible. Christ also prophesied to Nephi that people of the latter-days would reject the new treasure. "A Bible! A Bible!" they would cry. "We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible" (2 Nephi 29:3).
But we, if we are wise, will make a place in our garden for the seed the Savior sows every day and week in our lives. We'll not worry about the tares around us, but will keep growing and reaching for the sun. We'll help the kingdom expand in the world as a mustard tree, and in our hearts as a leaven. We'll treasure truths we stumble upon, and truths we seek for diligently. And if we do so, we will reap the blessing promised by Christ as he taught these parables:
"Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear" (v. 43).
Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, Book 2
Fred H. Wright, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands
James R. Clark, "Our Pearl of Great Price: From Mission Pamphlet to Standard Work," Ensign, Aug. 1976