Mark 4:1-20: We come to the first extensive recording of Jesus teaching in the Gospel of Mark. It will primarily be parabolic. “In the Bible ‘parable’ is used for a wide range of indirect communication, including figures of speech, aphorisms, proverbs, riddles, illustrations, lessons, allegories – almost any kind of metaphorical speech” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). New Testament scholar, C. H. Dodd defined parables in this way: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or from common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” The authors of The People’s New Testament Commentary, where this quote was found (p. 121) go on to write: “Jesus’ parables did not deliver prepackaged meaning but challenged the hearer to respond.” Scholars agree that Jesus taught in parables. They usually also agree that many of the explanations of the parables found in the New Testament were probably the work of later Christian interpreters, though there would be disagreement about this. The first parable presented in Mark is the well-known parable of the sower, about a farmer who goes out to sow seeds and the results of his work. We have some seeds falling on a path, some on rocky soil, some in soil filled with thistles and weeds, and some on good soil. While the story presents a realistic look at current agricultural practice in the time of Jesus, the yield on the good soil would be beyond the wildest expectations of any farmer. That would certainly arrest the hearer by its strangeness. God’s action is toward abundant life. An interpretation of the parable is offered where the different soils are viewed as representing different responses to “the word of God” given by Jesus. We are encouraged to be good soil. I would also argue that we are encouraged to sow seeds of God’s love and care with liberality in the world. That the interpretation offered in verses 13-20 is probably the work of an early Christian interpreter of Jesus’ parable simply says that parables are open to a variety of interpretations. That seems appropriate as they are ways Jesus used to describe God’s dream for the world and how God might move through the Spirit to make that dream a reality. There is always a bit of mystery involved here and so we are invited to listen to the parables carefully. Here is one comment on the parable worth quoting. To human eyes much of the labor seems futile and fruitless, resulting apparently in repeated failure, but Jesus is full of joyful confidence: he knows that God has made a beginning, bringing with it a harvest of reward beyond all asking or conceiving (Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 150). Verses 10-12 seem to indicate that Jesus offered his teaching in such a way as to deliberately confound people. The irony is that the disciples don’t understand the parable either, and so go and ask Jesus for further explanation. One way to read these verses may be to say that the work of God’s Spirit is out there to be seen by those who wish to see it, and heard by those with “ears to hear.” Often we are both kinds of people at different times in our lives - people who see and hear and people who are blind and deaf to what God is doing.
Mark 4:21-25: If the secrets of the kingdom of God are a bit of a mystery, they are not so permanently – or rather they need not confound us permanently. Nothing is secret except that it will later come to light. Disciples are invited to pay attention. As we begin to see God at work, we will see even more of the work of God’s Spirit. Sometimes Jesus’ teaching and the Bible itself is cryptic, mysterious, secret. These verses encourage me to keep reading and listening and paying attention. Mark’s emphasis on secrecy and mystery may have something to do with his context. Could his Gentile Christian community been meeting in secret because of the authorities? Did they pass their message on carefully out of concern for being betrayed? If they have to be cautious now, later the message will come to light. In the end, they will be seen as working for the right cause, God’s dream for the world. That’s what matters. Theologian John Howard Yoder put it this way. “People who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.”
Mark 4:26-29: Only Mark has Jesus telling this particular parable, and it is the only such parable in Mark. It is a story that tells of the wonderful mystery of the working of God’s Spirit. We are invited to trust that God’s Spirit may be at work in our lives and in the world even when we may not understand how. I am reminded of words of Albert Schweitzer. No ray of sunlight is ever lost, but the green which it wakes into existence needs time to sprout, and it is not always granted to the sower to live to see the harvest. All work that is worth anything is done in faith. (Schweitzer: an anthology, 162-163)
Mark 4:30-32: God’s dream for the world may begin in small and mysterious ways, and in small ways in our own hearts and lives, but it can grow in amazing ways, becoming great and becoming inclusive. The image of the birds gathering in the branches is an image of Gentile peoples becoming a part of God’s kingdom.
Mark 4:33-34: Jesus used parabolic speech to teach, and did so “as they were able to hear.” This seems to contradict earlier statements that parabolic speech was intentionally confusing. Parables are rich and one can miss their importance. Grappling with them in order to deepen one’s faith is worth the effort. As we do so, we, too, will have Jesus “explaining” some of their meaning to us.
Mark 4:35-41: After a long day of teaching, Jesus decides to go across the sea, go to the other side. Jesus sleeps along the way (a Sunday afternoon nap after preaching?!?). A storm arises, and the disciples panic. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Their anxiety rises quickly! Jesus calms the storm, turns and asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith.” Given the teaching that has just gone on, we are led to wonder what kind of soil are these disciples made of? Don’t they know that God’s work can start small and grow? Still they don’t get it, even though they had some private lessons. Mark’s Jesus community must have asked the same question the disciples asked, “Don’t you care about us?” The reply is to have faith and not be afraid, not be defined by fear. It is to trust a Jesus who can calm the storms of life.