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?
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?
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.
This parable presents a different angle on joy. We learn that receiving the word with joy does not guarantee that God is pleased or glorified. In this case, the presence of joy proves not to be the measure of the treasure, but instead a shallow and fleeting mirage.
Picture two men. One man has sold all he has. The other has received the word.
These two men, based on these two parables, could not be more different. In the end, one will be commended; the other will be condemned. One will have joy everlasting; the other will find himself weeping and gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness. And yet at this moment in each story, their faces look identical. They are both radiant with joy — one as he receives the word, the other as he sells all he has.
Now a new Christian Hedonist might be puzzled. He expected the presence of joy to make all the difference. Receiving the word with joy and selling everything with joy belong together, don’t they? And yet Jesus distinguishes them in his parables. And so we must press in further and see more than we have yet seen to understand the secrets of the kingdom.
What should we learn from the juxtaposition of joy in these two parables?
The juxtaposition of joy reinforces that we are dealing with a mixed field. As in the parable of the weeds, the wheat and the tares grow up together until the harvest. Or again, with the parable of the net and the fish, the kingdom “gathers fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47), both the good and the bad. But they are not sorted until the end of the age. And the presence of joy at any given moment in this age isn’t an infallible mark that one is wheat or a tare, a good fish or a bad.
Even though joy is found among the wheat and the tares, it is still possible to distinguish them. The parables about the slow but sure growth of the kingdom may help here. The joy that we’re after is joy like the mustard seed: it may start small, but it grows to be a large tree. It’s like the leaven in the dough that comes to pervade the entire loaf. Thus, in looking for joy, we are looking not merely for a snapshot; we are looking for a growing and increasingly pervasive sense of joy in the kingdom.
The Christian Hedonist also, however, notes that the key distinction between the joy of the Treasure-Seeker and the joy of the Second Soil is the response to trials and tribulations.
Trials reveal the quality of our joy. In looking for joy, we’re after a supreme joy in God that endures hardship and affliction.
“Trials reveal the quality of our joy. We’re after a supreme joy in God that endures hardship and affliction.”
The two parables of joy express the importance of trials explicitly; they simply locate the trial at different points. The Treasure-Seeker faces his trial at the outset. He finds the treasure and must decide whether to leave it buried in the field, or to sell all in order to buy the field, and with it, the treasure. And he passes the test. The loss of his possessions is nothing compared to the value he places on the treasure. The roots of his joy run deep, and thus he gladly lets goods and kindred go in order to gain it.
On the other hand, the Second Soil faces his trial after receiving the word with joy. The scorching heat tests the depth of his roots. His joy does not pervade the whole loaf. His is a shallow joy, and its superficiality becomes evident when trials and conflict come. He abandons the word of the kingdom in order to keep his goods and kindred.
After speaking his parables and giving his private explanations, Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood these things?” (Matthew 13:51). Today he asks us the same question. Have we understood the secrets of the kingdom? Seeing, have we truly seen? Hearing, have we truly heard?
Christian Hedonism, with its focus on the worth of Christ in the joy of his people, has helped. By focusing on the presence and juxtaposition of joy in these parables, we’ve seen more. We can bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52).
“The presence of joy is the measure of our treasure, and the quality of our joy is tested by suffering.”
We see that a snapshot of joy isn’t enough. A moment of joy, on its own, tells us very little. 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. The presence of joy is the measure of our treasure, and the quality of our joy is tested by suffering.
These are not merely academic questions. We can intellectually grasp the point of the parables and still lack true understanding. We can see the point and still miss the point.
The real test is not whether we’ve mentally grasped what Jesus said. The real test is how our hearts respond when we find the treasure in the field. The fundamental question is what happens when the scorching sun beats down on our faith. Does our joy die, or does it endure? Does it just endure, or does it grow?
Joe Rigney (@joe_rigney) is president of Bethlehem College & Seminary and a teacher for desiringGod.org. He is a husband, father of three, and pastor at Cities Church. His most recent book is More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust.