14. Mark 4:1-34: Parables (I)

“Parables have typically been preached in North American churches as ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” That, however is exactly what they are not. Rather, Jesus is describing the sovereignty of God in the most concrete possible terms, using images that any illiterate peasant could understand. The genius of parables is that they offer recognizable scenarios, drawing listeners in, then throw surprise twists is order to challenge listeners’ assumptions about what is possible.” (Myers, Say to This Mountain, 39.)
The Parable of the Sower: More Jubilee (4:1-9)                                                            (See here Myers, Say to This Mountain, 39)
The parable of the Sower is its own parable. It does not require to be “explained” by vv.14-23. The intervening section, 4:10-12, puts that latter Sower parable in a new and different context than the first.
This first Sower parable announces the radical Jubilee agenda of God’s New Exodus movement. Jesus preached to peasants who toiled against the odds to eke out an existence on the marginal plots of land they were left by the wealthy.
This dry soil method of farming was well-known to Jesus’ hearers with its ¾ failure of the land to yield a crop. This meager output usually led to debt which led to taking a loan from a wealthy landowner which led to loan default which led to selling one’s labor. When Isaiah speaks of “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field” (5:8), this cycle is what he has in mind and was still the situation when Jesus came.
A six-fold yield was the very best a peasant farmer could hope for. A 30-60-100 fold yield was unthinkable! More than enough to bust the debt-loan-servitude cycle to smithereens for a whole village.
If one has “ears to hear” this is Jubilee language. Abundance for all. Freedom from debt. Communal well-being. Liberation in real life terms. This is the world God wants and in Jesus is bringing into being. This is good news, gospel, indeed!
The Purpose of Parables (4:10-12)
After this mind-boggling parable, Jesus retreats with the twelve. They were probably as dumbfounded by what Jesus just said as his other hearers. Not surprisingly, they pepper him with questions. Jesus’ answer: the “mystery” of the kingdom of God has been given to you. The mystery (which in the Bible always means something we would never know or figure out unless God tells us) of what God is doing in the world, mind-boggling as it is (as we have just seen), has been given to those who have committed to follow Jesus.
For those who have not committed to him, all they hear are parables, impenetrable riddles, because they remain obdurate and hard-hearted. Or, perhaps better, because they are obdurate and hard-hearted, all they hear from Jesus are impenetrable riddles, fantastical stories far-removed from any world they know and how it works.
Jesus cites Isaiah’s prophetic commission from Isa.6 as his rationale. Isaiah is commissioned:
“And (God) said, “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.”

People can only see and hear what they are willing to see and hear. Prolonged unwillingness to hear God’s word of judgment and call to repentance creates ear-lids and heart-guards that make gibberish of further divine words. This was the case with Israel in Isaiah’s time. So he was told to preach to them what they could not and would not hear as judgment against them. And that until the full consequences of their idolatrous preoccupations had reamed them empty (Isa.6:11).

If I may veer away from The Lord of the Rings for a moment, a scene from C. S. Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles seems apropos. In the Magician’s Nephew, Uncle Andrew, a pompous and arrogant scientist wants to use his science to ultimately rule his world. Through Narnian magic he finds himself in Narnia at the moment Aslan sings it into existence:

“When he first hears the roar of Aslan at the creation of Narnia, he recognizes that the sound is indeed a song. But he tells himself that the source of the noise is ‘only’ a lion, remarking for his own benefit, ‘Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ (MN, Ch. 10, p. 75) Lewis comments that Uncle Andrew ‘tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring, . . . [and] the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song.’ When at last Aslan spoke and said, ‘Narnia, awake!’ we find that Uncle Andrew ‘didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl’ (MN, Ch. 10, p. 75). (http://www.narniaweb.com/resources-links/why-uncle-andrew-couldnt-hear-the-animals-speak/)

This, I submit, is the best commentary we have on Isaiah and Jesus’ use of Isaiah here. Israel knows conflict with Rome is coming and the various groups (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots) are competing for the right to define the kind of Israel God expects his people to be. Jesus is among them as the “mystery” of the kingdom of God in person. His parables have the function of good news for those who can still hear (even as God assures Isaiah a remnant of faithful will remain for him in Isa.6:13), his followers, but for the majority, his riddles confirm them in their resistance to him. And Rome will be the consequence of that resistance!

Myers notes the Isaianic reference to a “holy seed” (6:13) may have been Jesus’ inspiration for his following application of the sower parable (41).


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