This is the tenth installment, comprising Act 2. Scene 3, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the ninth installment here which contains links to the previous installment and from there you can link to all of them.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
1 Again he 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. 2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 "Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 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. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold." 9 And he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" 10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 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; 12 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.' " 13 And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 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. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 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. 18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 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. 20 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." 21 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? 22 For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23 Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" 24 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. 25 For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." 26 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." 30 He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 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." 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (NRSV)
This is the longest scene thus far in the Gospel of Mark, and though initially similar to other scenes (“Such a very large crowd gathered around him,” 4:1), it is the first time we are witness to Jesus teaching for an extended period. Jesus has taught in the context of conflicts and challenges to his authority (2:1-12; 3:4), but this is the first time that the word “teach” or “teaching” has been used in the Gospel -it appears three times in the first two verses (didasko; didache)- and the first time Jesus’ teaching has been devoted to the education of his followers directly. Mark is giving us insight into the teacher himself and the nature of the education by allowing us to eavesdrop on the lesson.
Jesus teaches in parables, which are short stories or comparisons of two things alongside one another by which a religious or spiritual lesson or moral is to be derived or something unclear is put in greater light. Jesus’ teaching in this whole scene is by parable. In 4:4-9, Jesus tells the story of a sower who went out to sow and whose seed, scattered by broadcast method, fell on various types of soil and grew in varying degrees of success. Jesus ends the parable by proclaiming, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" This parable was told to the whole crowd which had gathered around Jesus, for Mark tells us in 4:2 that “he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.” It seems, though, that not everyone who heard the parables had “ears to hear.”
This lack of comprehension is noted immediately after the parable, for when Jesus “was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables” (4:10). It is not simply that the crowd has not understood the parables, what the stories were driving at, what point Jesus was trying to make, but that the crowds have gone and even those who are left, the twelve and the others who have remained, do not understand them. It is not just the “outer circle" which does not understand, but the “inner circle.” The inner circle is different only in this regard: they want to have “ears to hear.” Being there is half the battle; hanging in there is the other half.
"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' " (4:11-12). Jesus says that those who are around him do have the secret (Greek: mysterion), even if their comprehension is dull, because they want to hear and understand and have stayed to ask the question and hear the explanation. But what about for those who are “outside,” who seem to be consigned to a lack of understanding, a lack of repentance, a lack of forgiveness? Why do they “look, but not perceive”? There is no question that some have been “chosen,” the Twelve, but they still must respond to the call. There are others, though, who remain with Jesus, listening to his explanations, and whether they were called and appointed individually, the fact that they have chosen to remain makes them insiders too. They will hear the same explanations as the Twelve. To be on the “inside” and not on the “outside” demands only that you decide to stay and listen. It is also a profound dramatic trick Mark has managed: because we are reading, listening, participating, we, too, become a part of the inner circle, privy to the same explanations that the Twelve and the other disciples (“those who were around him along with the twelve”) will hear. The attentive reader sits with Jesus.
And because they, and we, stay, Jesus explains the parable to us, after a final challenge: "Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” (4:13). In 4:14-20, Jesus unpacks the parable, metaphor by metaphor, explaining that the seed is “the word” sown by “the sower.” Though Jesus does not directly identify the sower, by identifying the one who eats the seeds which fall on the path as Satan, it is clear that God is the sower of the seed, the speaker of the word. Jesus then goes on to identify all three of the other persons in this scenario: those who hear God’s word with joy, but abandon it when troubles begin; those who receive the word, but desire worldly things ultimately; and those who hear the word, receive it and produce abundantly. So, Jesus has explained the parable, but what does it mean? Is Jesus sowing God’s word? Does it mean to be attentive to Jesus? Is it a general warning not to be hard, rocky and thorny soil? Is it a choice as to what kind of soil one is when the seed falls on it? How do you prepare yourself?
Jesus is not done with parables and immediately after interpreting the first parable, he begins to tell another. Hopefully, the explanation of one parable might give us clues as to how to interpret other parables, might be the key that unlocks them all, at least in a general way, but we cannot be certain. We need to listen and hear. We are reminded of it once again when we are given this short parable – “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” (4:21-22) – and then the same warning: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (4:23). What should we hear? To what should we listen? Is the lamp like the word? Is Jesus the lamp? Is God? Or is the lamp just a lamp? The lamp must stand for something. The focus in the second half of the short parable is that the light discloses what is hidden, our secrets. Is the lamp God’s judgment?
Another parable comes: “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” (4:24-25). What does it mean? The parables seem always concerned with God, but will we be given more of God? More knowledge of God? More things of God? Or just more things? At least, for those who are given: others will have it all taken away.
And another parable comes: “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” (4:26-29). The Kingdom of God comes with the judgment of God, the reaping, the harvest, his listeners would know that, we know that. Is this the Kingdom of God now? Is it growing silently, unaware? Where? Here? When will I see it?
Still another parable: “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” (4:3-32). A mustard seed? The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed? It grows into a great shrub? Not a mighty cedar? Who are these birds who nest in it? His hearers might have known of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, when his kingdom was “a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed” (Daniel 4:9-10-12). That was a kingdom and the birds were all the people of his kingdom. Can a shrub be a mighty kingdom? Can the birds be all people? Even the gentiles, as in Nebuchadnezzar's dream?
There were more parables, for “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” (4:33-34). They must have been enthralled and exhausted and wondering, do we have it all? Do we understand it all? What does it all mean? How can I know this? Because Mark has brought me there, has brought you there, and these are my questions after listening to Jesus’ parables. But did we get it all? “He explained everything in private to his disciples,” but have we been recipients of every private teaching? Have we missed something? And if so, how do we get it?
John W. Martens
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