The wheat and the tares grow together, and their joy can sometimes look identical. And so we are looking for joy that endures. We are looking for joy that works its way into all of our lives and grows from seed to tree. We are especially looking for joy that keeps rejoicing even in the face of hardship, affliction, trials, and loss.
Does Christian Hedonism help us understand the Bible? That is, does the emphasis on magnifying the worth of Jesus by delighting in him above all else help us to know “the secrets of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:11)? I believe it does, and Matthew 13 is a great example why.
Matthew 13 is the “parables” chapter of the Gospel. In it, Jesus gives seven public parables (to the crowds), three private explanations (to his disciples), and two surprising statements on the purpose of parables. And in the midst of all of that, he also gives us two startling lessons about joy in God. What is joy in God — and what is it not? And how do we distinguish between true and false joy?
What Parables Reveal and Hide
The seven parables are easily organized into four groups:
- A parable about how we hear the word (the sower and the soils, Matthew 13:3–9)
- Two parables about the mixture of good and bad in this age, and their separation at the end of the age (the weeds, Matthew 13:24–30; the net, Matthew 13:47–50)
- Two parables about the slow but sure growth of the kingdom (mustard seed, Matthew 13:31–32; leaven, Matthew 13:33)
- Two parables about the value and worth of the kingdom (treasure in a field, Matthew 13:44; pearl of great price, Matthew 13:45)
The purpose of these parables, Jesus says, is both to reveal and to hide. The parables divide Jesus’s audience. Some come to know the secrets of the kingdom (Matthew 13:11), but others do not. Some have eyes that see and ears that hear; others see, but do not see, and hear, but do not hear. That is, some truly understand what Jesus says, and some do not. For the latter, the parables are a form of judgment, a further deadening of already dull hearts (Matthew 13:15).
Thus, the key issue in this chapter is understanding. When we hear the parables, do we truly understand them? Or do our hearts remain hardened and dull? And as we try to understand them, what difference, if any, does Christian Hedonism make?
Same or Different Joy?
When a Christian Hedonist reads Matthew 13, he naturally notices the word joy. It appears twice, once in verse 20 and once in verse 44. These are two of six total uses of the word joy (Greek chara) in Matthew. So, does meditating on the place of joy in these particular parables reveal anything significant?
One use of the word joy is likely familiar. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). The message is clear: our joy over finding the supreme treasure leads us to gladly sell everything in order to have that treasure. What we are willing to joyfully sacrifice is the measure of our treasure — and, in this case, that was everything.
The other use of joy occurs in Matthew 13:20. Here Jesus is explaining the parable of the sower and the four soils. The first soil is the path, and the birds devour the seed before it takes root. The second soil is rocky ground; the seed is planted, but lacks deep roots, and thus withers beneath the scorching heat. The third soil has thorns, which choke the life of the plant. And the fourth soil is the good soil, which produces an abundance of grain.
Now, given how joy is used in verse 44, we might expect joy to be associated with the fourth fruitful soil. To receive the word with joy must mean that we’ll bear fruit for eternal life, right? But instead, we’re surprised to discover that it’s the second soil that “hears the word and immediately receives it with joy.” This joy, however, proves to be only a flash in the pan; the joyful receiver has no root in himself, and thus falls away when trials and persecution come.