Bible Studies Jeanie C. Crain See Back to Galilee (2012)

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Summary In chapter four of Mark, Jesus speaks in parables: the parable of the sower, the lamp under the bushel basket, the parable of the growing seed, and the parable of the mustard seed.  The chapter concludes with a word about the use of parables and a demonstration of Jesus' authority over natural forces.

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Recall Matthew thirteen concerning the use of parables:

10 Then the disciples came and asked him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" 11 He answered, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’

Here, clearly, the purpose of parables has to do with the kingdom of heaven. Mark records a similar purpose: 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.’ "  In a later section in this chapter of Mark, the explanation is added: 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. Readers need simply to recall that the teachings of Jesus in Galilee have been accompanied by controversy. Parables in picturesque images use analogy to refer to a similar but different reality. Jesus used parables to illustrate truth with daily life; although drawn from daily life, they may be exaggerated. The parables of Jesus are generally used to illustrate; here in Mark, however, they seem to be used to conceal. One rightfully asks why Jesus would want to conceal and why he would not desire that people "turn again and be forgiven."  The following general uses of parables are cited in Oxford Companion:

Parables served a useful purpose in concealing Jesus’ message from those hostile to him: by his parables he could publicly teach about the kingdom of God, but the representatives of the Roman empire could find nothing in them that was seditious. A third reason Jesus taught in parables was to disarm his listeners and allow the truth of the divine message to penetrate their resistance. Often hearers could be challenged to pass judgment on a story before discovering that in so doing they had in fact condemned themselves (cf. 2 Samuel 12.1–4; Matthew 21.28–31; Luke 7.36–50). A fourth reason for the use of parables was to aid memory: since Jesus’ listeners preserved his teachings by memorizing them, the memorable quality of the parables proved useful.

Since Jesus in proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near at hand has everywhere faced challenge and opposition, it would seem appropriate to think that, perhaps, he does have in mind here a softening of the seditious. He teaches about the Kingdom of God publicly without arousing overt anger or suspicion of his motives.

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The first parable provided is that of the sower.


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!"

In this case, Jesus himself interprets the parable for his disciples; we need to note that he is alone with the twelve and other believers:


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."

Jesus is about the work of instructing his followers. There is clearly here the sense of those inside and those outside: truth is revealed but comprehended only by those initiated.

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On the heels of Jesus' words about mystery and those initiated into truth revealed comes the next parable:

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 lamp stand? 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."

If this is applied to the previous parable, it would seem to suggest that Jesus is not in the business of hiding light: what is hidden will be disclosed; what is secret will come to light.  These lines suggest the mystery exists relative to timing: hidden now, will be disclosed; what is secret now, will come to light.  The obstruction to understanding is, ironically, the very means of understanding: the mental structure of time. Little wonder that Jesus should say, "Pay attention."  He goes on to speak even more directly: what you give, you will get; those having will get more, and those without anything will discover even that taken. If one begins with possessing truth revealed, then more will be gotten; if one begins without revealed truth, even what he has will be taken.  How simple! The parable works on two levels--the invisible kingdom coming into being and the existing, but disappearing temporal kingdom.

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Jesus, still speaking of the Kingdom of God turns to the parable of the growing seed:

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."

He's direct here in talking about the Kingdom of God and the mystery of its growth--the point is that "how it [the kingdom] grows," one does not know.  Even organic life is not understood in impulse, but only in manifest result: the stalk, the head, the full grain.  These parables are not unrelated: Jesus began by talking about a sower, then talked about parables as not being anything more than a "timed" disclosure, and moves now to the idea of the germinating seed or the invisible made visible in time.

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The Kingdom of God, if one credits the connected argument, begins with twelve and a few followers, a very small number.  This time, the figurative image is the mustard seed.

Thus, in addition to fertility, abundance, and continuity, plants are used to represent life’s frailty, brevity, and transitory nature (Isaiah 40.6–8; Job 14.2; Psalm 90.6; 1 Peter 1.24). Biblical symbolism draws also on the characteristics of individual plants, such as the great height and longevity of the cedar tree (Psalm 92.12; see similarly the parable of Jotham, Judges 9.8–15, and the parable of the mustard seed, Matthew 13.31–32). The New Testament is replete with agricultural imagery; see, for example, Mark 4.3–8; Mark 4.26–29; Matthew 9.37–38; Luke 13.6–9. (Oxford Companion)

The mustard seed grows very quickly, in a matter of weeks, from the smallest of seeds into a ten to twelve foot bush. As the mustard seed becomes the greatest bush, so will the Kingdom of God become the greatest kingdom.

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Having used details from nature in these parables, it's not surprising to find this argument logically culminating in a demonstration of Jesus' authority or control over the natural or temporal world:

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

I'm struck by the very human cry, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"  This is the mortal cry in all days and all ages.  Jesus responds, as he has throughout Mark, by acting, "He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still."   What follows is dead calm.  The disciples are probably even more afraid now; at first, they had been confronted only by natural and temporal powers; now, they are in the presence of the spiritual manifest, and they are afraid and filled with awe.   They ask, even though Mark has answered this in the beginning and will continue to answer it through the passion and resurrection. "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" The answer, though not supplied here, is simple: he is the Son of God, and the Kingdom of God is even now being revealed among humankind.






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Copyright 1999 Jeanie C. Crain
Last modified: December 07, 2012