Commentary on Mark 4:1-34
Transparency is something we value. In government, in our institutions, in our relationships.
We want to know what is going on and why. We deserve to know. While we don’t usually use the language of transparency when we talk about our hopes for growth as Christian disciples, many of us have an expectation that we can and will know more than we do about the things of God. We expect that there will be learning, development, maturation. We expect that we will be able to see more clearly what the dominion of God is like, day by day. We trust that when faith seeks understanding, it finds it, at least to some degree. What is the incarnation — God with us — if not (among other things) divine transparency?
An initial walk through the topography of Mark 4:1–34 may lend support to those expectations. There are five parables of Jesus cradled among these verses, which are described as “teaching.” That sounds promising — while teaching is not the same thing as learning, surely learning is Jesus’ desired outcome. But it turns out things are more complicated than that. In verse 10 the disciples ask Jesus about the parables — perhaps they are wondering why he spins yarns and paints pictures rather than just getting to the point already. But the reason Jesus gives for his pedagogical choices in verse 11 is famously unsettling: he teaches in parables so that some people (the ones Jesus chooses) will understand what the dominion of God is like and so that some other people (the ones “outside”) will not. These outsiders will be presented with the same images, hear the same words, but they will not comprehend what they really mean. And, according to verse 11, Jesus doesn’t want them to. The reference to “those outside” is a call back to the story that immediately precedes this text (Mark 3:31-35); in that story it is Jesus’ family who are outside the house where he is teaching: they are the ones who don’t “get” him. But surely disciples do not need to worry. They are “in” with Jesus: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells them.
But there are problems with this declaration, if Mark’s account is to be believed. In what sense do the disciples know “the secret of the kingdom” if they don’t even grasp the meaning of Jesus’ opening parable about the fate of some widely-sown seeds? Even Jesus sounds a little surprised by that — you don’t get this one? Then how will you understand any of them? And then Jesus has to explain the parable to them, bit by bit. In Mark 4:34 we learn that this becomes a pattern: Jesus teaches the crowds with parables, the disciples are confused by what has been said, Jesus explains things to them in private. So there is transparency, for them at least. Is that what it means that the disciples know the secret of the reign of God, that they get this extra tutoring on the side?
Of course, the very idea that there are insiders who get the good stuff and outsiders who get a riddle is disturbing. That alone is worth pondering, since the lines between inside and outside are pretty blurry as the Gospel of Mark unfolds. Everyone is confused by Jesus at one time or another, and sometimes the crowds and even his opponents seem to understand his parables quite well.
But a second troubling realization is this: whether present-day disciples are insiders or not, whether we are gifted with the “secret of the kingdom” or not, what we don’t have is a Jesus who explains things to us when we get confused. We don’t even have access to many of the parables Jesus told, much less his explanations. Sure, we pray for illumination, and sometimes, it seems to come. But it sure would be nice to know what exactly Jesus meant when he said that thing about the unforgivable sin, or why he sent that herd of pigs off the cliff, or his claim that you can will a mountain into the sea if you pray just right — I’m sure you have your own list.
We want to understand, but we are left with questions so much of the time. Images. Seeds. Not answers. And maybe that should not come as a surprise. Do people who have grappled deeply with the witness of Scripture over many years grow more confident about what they know, or do they increasingly testify to the vastness of God’s Word and the mystery of God’s ways? There are things we do know, divine promises we can confess, by God’s grace. But we still see through a glass dimly about many things, including, often, the teaching of Jesus. So too the first disciples, although they saw him face to face! What hope do we have in our quest for divine transparency, if they needed help?
It helps to remember there is an eschatological heartbeat to the Gospel of Mark. Apparently, God does keep some secrets now. The lamp is often hidden under the bushel basket. Many things are veiled from our eyes, even the most learned among us. But “there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” So, we follow Jesus’ instructions, without giving up: listen, look, pay attention. The measure we give will come back to us, someday.
Preachers venturing into the territory of Mark 4 have a lot to work with, and any commentary worth its salt will identify all the textual problems and interpretative challenges. But commentaries cannot solve the tensions named above, nor should they. The wise preacher will resist the temptation to explain it all away. “Make it plain” is good advice, of course, but what should we make plain? Sometimes it is enough to be clear about what the mystery is, and then, let it be.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of the Word, in the parable of the sower you showed us how your word can take root and grow within us. Nurture the seeds of your word in our hearts and help us to grow in faith and love. Amen.
He who with weeping soweth, Heinrich Schütz