Have you understood all these things?” [The disciples] said to Him, “Yes.” And Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old. (Matthew 13:51-52)
The last of Jesus’ Kingdom parables in Mathew 13 is so short that some don’t even think of it as a parable. But it is. Jesus is talking privately to his disciples, and he asks them, “Have you understood all these things (that is, the parables in Matthew 13)?” And they answer, “Yes.” The disciples’ level of understanding is of interest to us for two reasons. First, as our fellow believers, they are in the same situation we are: trying to understand what Jesus, our teacher, is saying. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, those disciples are going to go on to be apostles. Jesus is going to send them out to teach the world, including us, what he taught and what it meant. So whether they understand what Jesus is saying is doubly important. Matthew 13 has a sub-theme concerning the understanding of the disciples. They don’t understand why Jesus is speaking in parables or what he means by them. Jesus explains things to them and congratulates them for having eyes to see and ears to hear. This is going to be hugely important in their role as apostles. And because they are future apostles, Jesus addresses this tiny parable of Matthew 13:52 to them.
Jesus says to them, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like…” A scribe, like a rabbi, was a student and teacher of the law, the Scriptures. The scribes studied and sought to understand the law and then explain it to the people. In one sense, every scribe was a “disciple of the kingdom of heaven.” They looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. But clearly Jesus is not referring to every scribe. For Jesus, becoming a disciple of the kingdom of heaven means becoming his disciple.
This is a great example of how Jesus uses the concept of the “kingdom” throughout Matthew 13. For him, the kingdom is the kingdom that he, the king, has come to inaugurate in his own way and in his own time. To become a disciple of the kingdom means to become a student of the way King Jesus is implementing his kingdom—which is very different from what the scribes at the time would have understood.
I would paraphrase what Jesus means like this: “A scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven studies and teaches the Scriptures from the perspective on the kingdom that I, Jesus, have presented in my parables and in the rest of my teaching.” The disciples are going to be called to this role. Have they understood what Jesus is saying in these parables? Okay, then in their future calling as teachers, they are going to be like “a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old.”
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like Jesus is saying much. The householder has old stuff and new stuff. Big deal. But we must first think about the dynamic of the situation. Every head of a household has his treasure—that is, the collection of things that are valuable, that bring him and his household security, joy, comfort, and so forth. We all want to make our lives better. The “treasure” of the household are those things which help to do that. As time goes on, however, changes happen to the householder’s treasure, to his collection. Some things lose their value. Maybe they wear out. Maybe they are no longer needed. Maybe something that does the job better has come along. And so those things get thrown away and replaced with new things. But other “treasures” do not lose their value. They continue to be valuable and desirable. They don’t wear out. Nothing better can replace them. And so the householder keeps them even as they grow old. That is the way of things: as time goes by, some old things never lose their value, but others need to be replaced by new things. It all depends on the changes that time brings.
So then, how are the scribes of the kingdom like this householder? First, let’s make clear what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying that some parts of the Old Testament have lost their value and need to be replaced. He made that clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Some people believe that Jesus was criticizing the Old Testament and replacing parts of it with his new, superior teaching. But that is not what he was doing. He was saying that the religious leaders had drawn the wrong implications from those Scriptures. Their understanding needed to change. The Scriptures were always right, but some of the teaching based on those Scriptures needed to change. And that is what Jesus means by “old and new” in the parable.
The things that need to be replaced by new things are the teachings, the understanding of the Scriptures, not the Scriptures themselves. A lot of what was being taught at Jesus’ time was either wrong or lacking in perspective. That “old” teaching was very different from the kingdom parables Jesus had just taught. His kingdom parables clarified the understanding of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ kingdom is the same kingdom that God had been promising in the Scriptures, but the scribes at the time had misunderstood what the Scriptures were really talking about. If Jesus’ disciples have really understood his parables, then they have understood that the true kingdom is partly just like everyone was expecting, but it is also partly different from what everyone was expecting.
The old understanding was right in several ways. The kingdom will one day provide protection and shelter to God’s people, like a tree giving shelter to the birds (Matthew 13:31-32). When the Messiah comes (again), he will send forth his angels to bless the sons of the kingdom and condemn the sons of the devil (Matthew 13:40-41). On that day, as Daniel had said, the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Matthew 13:43).
But the old understanding of the kingdom was also wrong in important ways and needed to be renewed. The people expected the Messiah to come and immediately bring about the end of the age. Well, the Messiah had come but not to end this age and establish the eternal kingdom of God. Rather, he came to start something. He came to teach and clarify exactly what God’s purposes were. He came to call his people to live out challenging lives of faith while they wait for his return. He came to urge us to persevere under hardship and the temptations of the world.
As we learn from other places in Jesus’ teaching, there was much more that he came to do that was not well understood before he came. He came to put the focus of the Scriptures back where it belonged: on love and mercy and repentance. He came to rebuke the religious leadership for its worldliness. He came to give his life as a ransom for many, so that God’s mercy might be poured out on his people. All of that was new, a change from what people had come to expect, and particularly, it was a change from the teachings of the religious leadership at the time. The coming of Jesus was a change of seasons. When he came, it became clear which things were old, but abiding, treasures and which things had worn out and needed to be replaced with something new.
So then, when Jesus’ disciples go on to become apostles, their teaching would in some ways be like what the scribes had been saying all along. But in other ways, it would be new, replacing an inadequate understanding of the kingdom with a new and better one.