Commentary on Mark 4:1-34
Mark 4:1-34 offers us four parables (the parables of the sower, the light and the bushel basket, the growing seed, and the Mustard seed), and two explanations of how Jesus intends the parables to work (or not work) upon the hearer.
Each of these parables is certainly worthy of attention, and one could preach on any of them individually. I want to suggest, again in keeping with Mark 1:15 as a lens for understanding Mark as a whole, that focusing on the purpose of Jesus’ teaching as fulfillment of God’s time, and instructing the able-hearer in the nearness of God’s kingdom and calling them (us) to repent and believe.
First, then, to the purpose of the parables. In Mark 4:10-12, 33-34, first Jesus and then the author of the Gospel talk about the purpose of the parables. Jesus explains his parable — telling by quoting a part of Isaiah 6:9-10. Jesus says that he teaches 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.’” Jesus appropriates the prophet’s words in order to validate his own, and in order (theoretically) that his disciples might understand him in the context of the Old Testament. The fullness of what is at stake in Isaiah 6 is interesting. After Isaiah’s lips have been purified with a coal (Isaiah 6:6-7), and he responds to God’s summoning question, “Whom shall I send … ?” with the oft repeated “Here am I; send me!” God says: ”Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
For Isaiah the tone of sarcasm, even contempt, comes through clear as can be. In Mark, Jesus’ use of Isaiah shifts the sarcastic to the secretive: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” and this fulfills what Isaiah was describing. Try as any listener might, only those to whom Jesus gives “ears to hear” (cf. 4:9, 23) will be given to know the secret. But of course we who read the Gospel are given an insider’s perspective, we are allowed to listen over the disciples’ shoulders as Jesus explains what he means. Here, again, is the stage whisper of Mark’s “secret.”
The Gospel-writer then summarizes Jesus’ use of many parables as another summary of his speaking “the word,” and as directed to those “able to hear it.” While caution may be needed in attributing capitols to the translation of ton logon in Mark 4:33, “The Word,” i.e. God’s Word, the fact that this phrase occurs eleven times in the Gospel of Mark, with no less than eight of those occurrences here in Mark 4 and seven of those in the Parable of the Sower who sows…God’s Word, I think it works. What is more, in Mark 7:13 Jesus challenges the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes — in the context of the Sabbath traditions derived from the Ten Commandments — saying that it is, “making void the word of God.” It seems clear that Mark’s Gospel identifies Jesus’ parables as God’s Word, and that the use of parables is a parallel to Jesus’ proclaiming of the good news of God in 1:14.
The parables fit well with Mark’s take on the Gospel-genre. As Roy Harrisville, in discussing the “messianic secret” that is so central to Mark’s Gospel (cf. 1:23-35, 34; 5:43; 7:36; 9:30-32; 11:33) argues, the Gospel of Mark as a whole, “must appear as ‘parable,’ at one and the same time revealing and concealing. It must announce the truth without insisting that that truth can be known or recognized through sheer sense perception or any of the common, human ways of knowing.”1
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