Mark 4:1-25 Parables and the Growth of the Kingdom

Parables and the Growth of the Kingdom

Again he [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.

And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'”

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. Mark 4 (1-34)

Parables by the Seaside…

Mark begins this section of his narrative by noting that Jesus has come once more to the sea and has begun to speak again to the crowd, although in our text, this is really the first time we actually can listen in on the extended teaching. Mark paints a picture once more of ever growing crowds large enough that Jesus must preach from a boat to avoid being crushed by the masses. In our text, Mark notes that Jesus uses parables to make his points as he teaches. In fact, at the end of this section, Mark reiterates “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables.”

Mark’s generalization trips a little as we also see that from time to time, Jesus sums up his parabolic lessons with well known aphorisms. Proverbs like you have to tie up strong men in order to plunder their houses and a house divided does not stand.

Of course, Mark also notes that Jesus has to spend time in private making sure that his disciples get the point, an observation that may have an ironic meaning especially in light of that fact that in most of our narrative, the disciples tend to miss the point over and again.

Part of our problem with understanding the notion of parable in scripture and Jesus’ teaching has to do with the fact that parable can mean several things. Parables can have a narrative quality as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that sense, a parable is a story that illustrates a point. Mark, however, seems to understand parabolic teaching as a process of analogy, where Jesus explains that which is less than clear by comparing it to more widely experienced life realities. So in this passage, common experience like sowing and harvesting, the absurdity of covering lamps, measuring seeds, the mystery of plant growth and the miraculous transformation of a very small seed into a really big tree all provide handles on understanding elements of the coming kingdom realities.

Does this Really Belong Here?

I need to take a short detour before we look directly at these particular analogies. Thus far, we have pretty much slogged our way through the text as if it were a seamless narrative. This particular chapter (and yes, I understand that there were no chapter or verse notations in the original) raises for the first time the question of the shape of Mark’s text and the point that while even if it flows like a story, it is finally a redacted piece of writing. That is to say, that Mark has created his narrative by cutting and pasting both the oral tradition and perhaps certain now lost collections of stories and teachings into the text we have before us now.

Christian Century editor and Bible scholar John Dart points out that there may have been more than one Mark (or whatever our author’s real name might have been). Dart, who is a journalist by trade, reflects on the editing process where early versions of a news story are subject to revisions either because some elements of a story become more clear as a day moves on or additional information becomes available. Afternoon copy reflects these revisions often made by writers from a different shift. Dart uses this parabolic analogy to demonstrate certain observable rhetorical patterns in our received text and I will return to his proposals in due time.

My point here has to do with the fact that we have a couple of problematic verses that one might argue interrupt our story line. In the sixth verse, we find the following quote from Jesus.

And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’

While it appears that the reason Jesus teaches using analogies has to do with providing a way to greater clarity. With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; in these two verses, parables seems to take on the function of obscusfication, of being deliberately being obtuse. Parables are used not to clarify, but to confuse. In this sense, a parable is more like an unsolvable puzzle that divides insiders and outsiders.

Scholars point out the echo of a similar passage from Ezekiel which draws on the difficult and mostly offensive tradition where God seems to intentionally “harden people’s hearts” to deliberately foreclose the option of repentance.

At this point, I am going to argue that these two verses are out of place in our text and have reference to a different tradition, one that shows up later where distinctions are directly drawn between insiders and outsiders. Not everybody agrees with me, but my case rests on two points, first that we have an almost contradictory notion of parable at play and secondly, in our ongoing story, those who are most inside, the disciples, seem to be the ones who understand the least, that is they function like outsiders.

With your permission, I will bracket the question of these references until a later time.

Who is Listening?

We must remember that our received gospels, in contrast to other writings in our New Testament tradition like correspondence and sermons that function more straight-forwardly, are quite complex documents that must be read at several levels. Julie Gallambush describes this phenomenon.

Each of the canonical gospels combines three elements. First, and most simply, each incorporates what was known or presumed true about Jesus’ life and death, including sayings and stories already preserved elsewhere in written form. Second, the gospels include scriptural (Septuagint) quotations and allusions crafted to reveal the significance of Jesus’ deeds and words. Finally, they contain teachings specifically shaped, not for Jesus’ original hearers, but for a later generation, the readers and hearers of each gospel account. This last context-specific aspect of the gospels is plainly stated in the gospel of Luke. Luke announces that although many have, by this day, already written accounts of Jesus’ life, his own account will provide “security” (aphalelia) for his patron, Theophilus. Luke’s unselfconscious claim to have shaped his narrative to his reader’s need make it clear that the work was never conceived of “just the facts.”

Gallambush goes on to speak of the synoptic tradition.

The gospel writers wrote for communities in crisis – one reeling from the events of the Roman war; one stinging from the larger Jewish community’s rejection; one groping to articulate the role of Gentiles in God’s new kingdom. Each gospel, while propclaiming a universal message, is simultaneously responding to the concerns of particular and diverse audiences.

So, in this week’s text, who is Mark concerned about when he states “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

I have argued that this “gospel” is written particularly as a “good news” proclamation to a later, probably third generation of apostles in this fledgling movement whose mission is to announce the still coming Kingdom of God to a new, perhaps dispersed generation. For reasons that I will not outline at this point, I believe that Mark’s composition was created in the chaotic years just prior to the full outbreak of the Jewish civil war.

In that context, I argue that Jesus is not particularly preaching to the crowd assembled around his boat at the Sea of Galilee. Even the newly appointed twelve apostles at this moment have only indirect experience with broadly sowing the word and waiting patiently for growth and harvest. These four parabolic analogies seek to encourage these later apostles who have been about the task and apparently have mixed results.

Ring Construction:

Reflecting on the compositional structure of Mark’s narrative leads us to similar conclusions. Many scholars point out that Mark uses what is called a “ring” construction in his organization of the material. After, a short prologue, Mark begins his narrative with Jesus going to the Galilee. The narrative ends (or perhaps better begins anew) with the instructions to followers to go to the Galilee where Jesus has already gone on before them. Earlier, I had suggested that this rhetorical devise is a bit like the song from the Sound of Music, Do, Re, Mi where when we get through the scale, we arrive back at a second “Do.”

In that context, I believe that Mark’s parables are aimed at those who are charged with singing the third octave of our scale.

So in such a context, when these later day apostles ask Jesus about the mixed results that they are experiencing, in Mark’s narrative Jesus suggests that they reflect on the realities of sowing and how the harvest often depends on the quality of the soil.

But Jesus also adds that when the harvest comes in, they will not only just reap the way harvests usually turn out, but in terms of Kingdom realities there will be some amazingly exponential growth – not just 30-fold or 60-fold, but 100-fold.

When these later day apostles suggest that maybe with all the social unrest that they are facing, it might be prudent to tone the message down a bit. “I mean Jesus, did you not know that Simon got beaten last week in the synagogue for preaching.” In Mark’s narrative Jesus points out the absurdity of a covered lamp.

If they didn’t catch the meaning of the analogy, he reminds them that nothing stays hidden for long. He then reminds them with a third parabolic lesson, that cutting back on investments of time or energy in these peculiar times may even cost the original investment.

When these later day apostles are complaining that very little seems to be happening, in Mark’s narrative Jesus advocates for the patience of a farmer who must wait as the growth process is under the ground and not easily seem.. When the later day apostles ask whether their meager efforts can pay off, in Mark’s narrative Jesus reminds them that mustard seeds produce awesome results in time.

Finally, as these later day apostles are prone to mumble that their colleagues seem to have difficulty understanding this whole enterprise. Mark suggests that they read on. If they think that their current associates have flaws, Mark suggests that they reflect on the “thick-headedness of Peter or the temper of John and Andrew. The crowds get Jesus’ message, but the first apostles apparently needed private tutorials to understand. It is as if Mark says, “You think you had it tough! Let me tell you what it was like in the beginning!.

By this point, you will have noticed that I find in this particular passage the key that unlocks much of the meaning behind Mark’s story. Mark’s narrative is a word to a new generation. It is good news even in the midst of mixed results. It is hope in the midst of despair. It is patience in the midst of seemingly unendurable waits.

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