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Mark 4

Scripture: Mark 4:1-41

Overview:

  • Jesus is teaching on the lake in a boat because there was such a large crowd
  • Jesus tells the crowds a story about a farmer, like this:
  • A farmer tosses his seeds out on the ground. Some seeds fall on the path where the birds eat them up. Some fall on rocky soil but they don’t take firm root. Some fall into the thorns and get choked out. And some fall on good soil and grow like seeds are supposed to.
  • The disciples act cool, but are really confused, so later, when no one else is around, they’re like, “Jesus. What’s up with the farming story?”
  • Jesus tells them that they’re special because they’re starting to get what the Kingdom of God is really about, but that others in the crowd are not, and the stories are a way to make that distinction even clearer
  • Then Jesus interprets the farmer’s story like this:
  • The seeds are the message. The soil is the people. Some people just don’t get God’s message at all. Other people act like they get it, but their understanding only lasts a little while, and when things get rough, they bail. Some people get God’s message, but they have other concerns in life and the message gets lost. Some people totally get it and they produce fruit with their lives.
  • Jesus then tells more storied analogies about the Kingdom of God: One about a lamp (don’t hide it, that’s not what it’s for); another about a growing seed (it grows by God’s power); and another about a mustard seed (looks small, but grows big)
  • Later, Jesus and his disciples are headed across the sea in a boat when a serious storm kicks up
  • Jesus is peacefully sleeping through the storm while the disciples are panicking
  • Once woken up, Jesus tells the storm to chill out, and it does
  • Jesus then questions his disciples’ faith
  • The disciples are like, “Whoa. Did you see that storm-calming thing. Seriously. Who is this guy?”

Historical Context:

Parables

A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which is generally fictitious and designed to teach a lesson through comparison.

In Greek, “parable” means “comparison, illustration, analogy.” It was the name given by Greek rhetoricians to an illustration in the form of a brief fictional narrative. The Greek word “parable” is also most likely a substitution for the Hebrew word “mashal” which usually means “a riddle.”  The use of parables by Rabbis was a common teaching method during Jesus’ time. (Wikipedia)

The parable is not an allegory. Every detail in the story doesn’t have to have an analogy. A parable is more condensed than an allegory. It rests upon a single principle and a single moral, and its intent is that the hearer reacts to its main lesson.

A parable is a narrative that means more than what it seems to say on the surface. It can mean different things to different people. It is a speech whose meaning demands inquiry and insight. Parables puzzle as much as enlighten. They shock and challenge rather than give comfort and moral platitudes. (France)

Questions to ask when seeking to understand parables:

  • What does this parable reveal about what God is doing to establish his kingdom (either here on earth now and/or in the future?)
  • What does it say about who will be in the kingdom?
  • about how they will get there?
  • about what those who are there or are going to be there look like? (bible org)

Mark indicates that Jesus taught in parables as a means of drawing a dividing line between the insiders and outsiders based on how each group heard the story. Those who had no real desire to obey God failed to understand what Jesus spoke about. The parable in effect, hid the truth from them. (Easy)

In Mark, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:10 to explain why he taught in parables–for just as Isaiah, the prophet, was called to teach in a way that divided the faithful from the unfaithful in Israel before God’s judgment came (i.e. the Babylonian invasion and the fall of Judah), so Jesus would teach in such a way as to only attract those who believe before the coming judgment. The use of Isaiah also implies that the ultimate outcome of a prophet’s teaching falls within God’s purpose. God’s will is achieved in both the rejection and the acceptance of a prophet’s message. Human decision does not override the purpose of God. (France)

Note, however, that it is not one’s ability to understand the parable that divides the faithful and the unfaithful, but the pursuit of the answer. Jesus spoke in parables so that only those who really cared would come to know the truth. (Bible.org)

Approximately one third of Jesus’ recorded teachings are parables. In the Gospel of Mark, there are nine parables, one of which is unique to Mark (the Growing Seed – 4:26). There are no parables in the Gospel of John

Mustard Seed

Mustard seeds are small and round. The seeds are usually about 1 or 2 mm in diameter. Mustard seeds may be colored from yellowish white to black.  The plant referred to in Mark is generally considered to be black mustard, which grows to be around 9 feet tall.

Observations:

  • The disciples’ lack of understanding and perception echoes Mark’s theme of ignorance in the face of enlightenment.
  • Note how Jesus doesn’t interpret every part of the Parable of the Sower. No explanation of the varying harvests, the harvest itself, the identity of the sower, or of how the various soils came to be the way they are. The soils are types, but no particular group of people is identified as such (i.e. Pharisees, Herodians, etc.). The parable, even once interpred remains open-ended in terms of it’s application. (France)
  • The mustard seed is an unlikely figure of speech for God’s domain in Jesus’ original parable. His listeners would probably have expected God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small and insignificant. (Funk)
  • Note how the disciples waited until they were alone with Jesus to ask about the parable. They were apparently embarrassed to ask questions in public. (Bible org)
  • The “secrets of the kingdom of God” are “secrets” because people cannot discover them for themselves through their own intuition. Understanding the plan God has for mankind requires a revelation from God.
  • Birds in the branches of the mustard plant are likely illusions to Ezekiel’s cedar tree parable (Ez. 17:23) and Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dn. 4:9). These two references imply growth of impressive empires, ones that would span over other empires. In Ezekiel the birds are directly interpreted as the great nations who enjoy the benefits of the one overarching empire.
  • The lake Jesus and his disciples went out on is below sea level and there are mountains on both sides. The wind is known to rush down the valley without warning and make the lake very dangerous. Some of Jesus’ disciples used to catch fish in this lake and so they knew about these sudden storms. They knew how easily a boat might sink. (Easy)
  • The disciples awakened Jesus most likely because they wanted him to do something mundane, like help bail out the boat. (Turton)
  • “Only here in the New Testament does Jesus sleep.” (Coffman)
  • The story of the calming of the sea draws a parallel (and departure) from the story of Jonah. Both Jesus and Jonah were asleep on a ship at sea in a storm; both were awakened; both were vital to the safety of their vessel, Jonah being a danger to his and Christ the security of his; both produced a great calm, Jonah by being cast overboard, and Christ by his command; the calm was instantaneous in both cases. (Coffman)
  • Jesus rebukes the storm using the same types of commands as when he casts out demons. The calming of the storm is viewed by some as a sort of exorcism.

Discussion:

  • Why does Mark set up the Parable of the Sower as important in interpreting all others? How does Jesus interpret it? What can we learn from it?
  • What titles would you give these parables? Should it be the Parable of the Four Soils? The Parable of the Unexpectedly Small Beginnings?
  • What do you think is the one central truth for each of the parables?
  • What does Jesus’ calming of the storm tell us about our own tumultuous life experiences? When we ask Jesus to do something about the storms raging our life, is it to help bail water or to miraculously calm things down? Why? Why not?

References:

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