On Wednesday evenings, our church sponsors various classes and activities for children, youth, and adults from youth group to yoga to church history. My husband and I are participating in a class covering the Gospel of Mark. One of our priests guides and moderates a discussion as we, as a group, read through Mark and share insights from the reading and respond to each others’ thoughts. The class is different than any other Bible study I have participated in in a few ways: it is more discussion than lecture (our priest is a co-learner), there are no right or wrong answers (the point is to engage the text, not check off boxes), and there is a lot of freedom to explore a thought without committing to it.
This past week, we read through and discussed Mark 4. Per usual, my brain was going a mile a minute as little things popped out at me as we read and others shared their thoughts and insights. I was able to share a broken glimpse at what was going through my mind during that class, but wanted to try and collect them more fully and completely here.
We read the chapter in both the World English Bible (WEB) and English Standard (ESV) versions. When sharing passages for discussion, I will indicate which translation I am referencing.
First, a (very) basic outline to help keep me organized:
- What Comes Before, And After – Mark 3 & 5
- The Parable
- The Parable Explained
- The Second Through Fifth Parables
What Comes Before, And After – Mark 3 & 5
A good portion of the book of Mark up until Chapter 4 concerns Jesus’ healing ministry (including exorcisms) and the crowds that followed him from place to place seeking healing. As early as Mark 1:23, Mark tells of a man with an unclean spirit entering the synagogue where Jesus was teaching after beginning to call his disciples and of Jesus successfully commanding the spirit to leave the possessed man. From there through Mark 3 we hear of many other healings and exorcisms: Simon’s feverish mother-in-law (1:30), a leprous man (1:40), a paralytic (2:3-12), and a man with a withered hand (3:1-5). And these are only the healings and exorcisms specifically mentioned. We are told in 1:34, 1:39, and 3:10-11 that, in fact, Jesus healed many people and exorcised many demons/ unclean spirits as he traveled and taught. Then we get to Mark 4, and the focus changes abruptly to Jesus’ teaching… specifically his method of teaching in parables. (More on this in a minute.) Then, just as abruptly as he stopped, Mark returns to relating the stories of Jesus’ healing in Chapter 5 with back-to-back tellings of the exorcism of Legion, the healing of the woman healed of a hemorrhage, and the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter.
At the start of Chapter 4 (keeping in mind that chapters weren’t added to the Bible until the 13th century, so I am fudging a bit by including this as part of a “previous chapter” since it does precede the parabolic teachings), we see Jesus enter a boat before he begins to teach. The crowds following him had gotten quite large and often pressed upon him with so many seeking healing that Jesus had requested that his disciples keep a boat handy in case he needed to separate himself from the crowd (3:9). When he was done teaching the crowds, Jesus tells his disciples that they should cross the Sea of Galilee and it is here that a great storm overtakes them. (Again, this story technically takes place in Chapter 4, but these events occur after the teaching of the parables, so I am going to ignore the chapter designation for ease of discussion.) The disciples are afraid they are going to drown and wake up Jesus to ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are dying?” (4:38; WEB) To which I would have responded if I were Jesus and finally getting some sleep after healing dozens of people, and exorcising dozens of demons, and teaching thousands of people, and being pushed and grabbed by hundreds of strangers, and being berated and questioned by the local religious authorities while in synagogue and at friends’ houses and while eating, “Obviously! That’s why I was sleeping!” (Can you hear the eye roll that would have accompanied my exhausted, sarcastic answer?) Instead, Jesus answers (after telling the storm to quit it and it obeying), “Why are you so afraid? How is it that you have no faith?” (4:40, WEB) You can feel the weariness and pain in those questions. (And you may even be able to make out the faint traces of an exasperated eye roll.) The boat then reaches the opposite shore and Jesus immediately gets out of the boat and begins healing people again. All of the teachings Mark shares with us in Chapter 4 occur while Jesus is in the boat.
As a photographer, when I am framing a photograph, I carefully choose the frame and matting so as to draw the viewer’s eye to the photograph and to enhance it by clearly distinguishing it from its surroundings. It appears Mark has done this here with his writing. He has set apart Jesus’ parabolic teaching with the frame of healings and the matting of water. Now let’s try to figure out what Mark thinks is so important.
(An interesting note before we proceed: The Gospel of Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus and ends with Jesus giving his disciples the charge to go out into the world and make more disciples through teaching and baptism. Is Mark’s framing of his gospel and this portion of Jesus’ teaching with water significant? I don’t have an answer to that, but it is an interesting thought to ponder.)
If you have any experience in church or Sunday School, you have probably heard this parable of the farmer and the seeds. Jesus tells the story of a farmer who spreads seed on four types of land (by the road, on rocky ground, on thorny ground, and on prepared soil) and experiences four results of his planting (birds eat the seed, the sun scorches the seed, the plants resulting from the seed are choked out, or the seed grows and bears fruit 30, 60, or 100 times that which was planted). He ends his parable with the declaration, “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” (4:9, WEB) Given the meaning of the parable (which Jesus explains to his disciples in the following verses and Mark is kind enough to share with us), this is an interesting declaration to make at the end of this particular parable. Traditionally, this phrase calls the listener to pay attention because what the speaker is about to say (or has just said) is important. Given the subject of the parable, Jesus is calling for the attention of those he just described as the “good ground” to pay close attention to his teaching. Interesting that he chose such a clear entreaty after teaching such a veiled lesson via parable.
The Parable Explained
Before relating Jesus’ explanation of the parable, Mark tells us in 4:10, “When he was alone, those who were around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.” In the next verse, Jesus says, “To you is given the mystery of God’s Kingdom, but to those who are outside, all things are done in parables…” (WEB) I was surprised to read this because I was always under the impression from past readings that Jesus explained the parable to his disciples after they were alone and had left the crowds behind. Reading the passage this time, however, that does not appear to be the case. It looks like there were others with Jesus and the twelve disciples (either on the land or in other boats – as verse 36 indicates, which I had also never noted before) and it sounds like it is these people he is addressing with his explanation and not his disciples. Who were these people? Did these people happen to be near Jesus already as he was teaching or are we supposed to be picturing a day-long “retreat” where people came to be healed by Jesus and to hear him teach and during a coffee and hummus break some came closer to him (by land and by sea) to ask him to please explain the parable? If the latter, are those who “have ears to hear” predetermined and given a supernatural means of understanding without explanation? Or is Jesus referring to those who would hear his message then come to him or other teachers of the Word because they do not understand but they want to understand?
Jesus then tells this small group of scholars why he teaches in parables by quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. These verses are a small portion of the command given to the prophet Isaiah when he is called to his prophetic ministry. Isaiah is in the throne room of God. The seraphim are flying in the room while singing praises to God. Isaiah recognizes his uncleanliness and one of the seraphim flies down and purifies Isaiah’s lips with a coal from God’s altar. When God, himself, asks who will go to Israel as his prophet, Isaiah volunteers. God then tells him what to say to His people and the purpose behind his prophetic ministry:
He said, “Go and tell this people,
‘You hear indeed,
but don’t understand.
You see indeed,
but don’t perceive.’
Make the heart of this people fat.
Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their heart,
and turn again, and be healed.”
-Isaiah 6:9-10 (WEB)
Isaiah then asks God how long he is to preach this message to Israel, and God tells him that he is to preach it until the cities are empty, the land is destroyed, and God has removed His remnant and all that remains is “the holy seed.” When Jesus quotes the story in Mark, he says God’s purpose in his instructions to Isaiah were “lest perhaps they should turn again, and their sins should be forgiven them.” (4:13, WEB) Yikes! Jesus just said that the reason he teaches in parables is the same reason that Isaiah was sent to prophesy to Israel… so the people would be closed off to God’s teaching and unable to be forgiven! There is a difference between a prophet and a teacher. A teacher imparts new information to be learned and understood. A prophet reveals a truth that already exists. It looks like Jesus may be doing two things by choosing to quote Isaiah here: 1) reveal that he is acting as a prophet rather than a teacher when speaking in parables and 2) reminding the people that they are no different than the people in Israel at the time of Isaiah and have replaced worshiping God with worshiping their own desires and making themselves idols in the process. (Idols are created by men and have ears that do not hear and eyes that do not perceive. When God made mankind in His image, he did not make idols, he made living, breathing image-bearers. There is a big difference.) Jesus has been sent as a teacher, but not to everyone. To the disciples (those called and those who seek him out for greater wisdom), Jesus is a teacher. But to the masses, he is a prophet. He is revealing the disciples among the idols.
After sharing this passage from Isaiah, Jesus asks the small group two questions, “Don’t you understand this parable? How will you understand all of the parables?” (4:13, WEB) Jesus then goes on to explain the parable. Jesus’ response seems to support the idea put forth earlier that “whoever has the ears to hear” does not mean that these people have some sort of supernatural understanding of Jesus’ parabolic teaching but rather that they are the ones who recognize that they do not understand and ask for greater wisdom. He does not say, “If you do not understand, that’s too bad. You must not be chosen.” He teaches. He explains. He demonstrates the answer to his own question. How will they understand all of the parables? Through teaching. Those who have the ears to hear are the ones who recognize their lack of understanding and pursue wisdom. God will give wisdom to those who seek it.
The Second Through Fifth Parables
After Jesus explains the parable of the sower to the small group around him, he proceeds to share four more parables. All four seem to be revealing various facets of God’s Kingdom: it is something to be shared, it is something by which men should measure themselves (they will measure themselves against something, regardless), it is self-creating, it may appear insignificant but will grow to be mighty, substantial, and protective.
Mark does not share Jesus’ explanation of these parables, but he does tell us that Jesus does explain them to his disciples. I think it is safe to assume that Mark is not just speaking of the twelve here but is including those few who would come to Jesus to seek greater wisdom as with the first parable.
I started this post pointing out that this passage of parabolic teaching appeared to be purposefully set apart from the rest of the gospel account surrounding it. First of all, it is an island of parabolic teaching in a sea of healings and exorcisms. Secondly, these teachings are further separated from the accounts surrounding it by references to water (just as the entire book of Mark itself is framed by references to the water of baptism). So, why did Mark set this passage apart? What was so important?
Mark was stating, unequivocally, Jesus’ divinity.
Mark does this using a three-fold reveal:
- Jesus shares a parable and speaks like a prophet and even quotes Isaiah. Maybe Jesus is a prophet? Yes, but there have been other prophets.
- Jesus explains the parable to a small group of disciples. Maybe Jesus is a teacher? Yes, but there are other teachers. In fact, the twelve he chose he chose for the purpose of preparing them for ministries of teaching and healing. (3:14-15)
- Jesus stops the storm and calms the sea. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, WEB) There has only been One known to bring order from chaos and bring order to the waters above and the waters below (Genesis 1:1-10).
When Jesus was going around healing and casting out demons, those he healed and the demons knew who Jesus was, but Jesus commanded them to be silent and not reveal his identity. That would have been akin to explaining parables to those without ears.
In Mark 4, Jesus reveals himself to his disciples slowly. He is living the parable. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.