First Act. Presentation of Jesus: Mark 1.14-8.30
Scene 4. Stories about God’s Rule: Mark 4.1-34
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Then Jesus began to teach again beside the sea. Such a large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while the entire crowd remained beside the sea on the shore. He began teaching them many things in parables. While he was teaching them he said, “Listen! A farmer went out to sow. As he was sowing, some seeds fell along the path, and birds came and ate them up. Others fell on stony ground, where they did not have a lot of soil. They sprouted at once because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, they were scorched. Since they did not have any roots, they dried up. Others fell among thorn bushes, and the thorn bushes came up and choked them out, and they did not produce anything. But others fell on good soil and produced a crop. They grew up, increased in size, and produced 30, 60, or 100 times what was sown.”
He added, “Let the person who has ears to hear, listen!” When he was alone with the Twelve and those around him, they began to ask him about the parables. He told them, “The secret about the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside, everything comes in parables so that
‘they may see clearly but not perceive,
and they may hear clearly but not understand,
otherwise they might turn around and be forgiven.’”
Then he told them, “You don’t understand this parable, so how can you understand any of the parables? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like the seeds along the path, where the word is sown. When they hear it, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others are like the seeds sown on the stony ground. When they hear the word, at once they joyfully accept it, but since they don’t have any roots, they last for only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes along because of the word, they immediately fall away. Still others are like the seeds sown among the thorn bushes. These are the people who hear the word, but the worries of life, the deceitful pleasures of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word so that it can’t produce a crop. Others are like the seeds sown on good soil. They hear the word, accept it, and produce crops—30, 60, or 100 times what was sown.”
Then Jesus told them, “A lamp isn’t brought indoors to be put under a basket or under a bed, is it? It’s to be put on a lamp stand, isn’t it? Nothing is hidden except for the purpose of having it revealed, and nothing is secret except for the purpose of having it come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen!
He went on to say to them, “Pay attention to what you’re hearing! You will be evaluated by the same standard with which you do your evaluating, and still more will be given to you, because whoever has something, will have more given to him. But whoever has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.”
He was also saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seeds on the ground. He sleeps and gets up night and day while the seeds sprout and grow, although he doesn’t know how. The ground produces grain by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, he immediately starts cutting with his sickle because the harvest time has come.”
He was also saying, “How can we show what the kingdom of God is like, or what parable can we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. Although it is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, when it is planted it comes up and becomes larger than all the garden plants. It grows such large branches that the birds in the sky can nest in its shade.”
With many other parables like these, Jesus kept speaking his message to them according to their ability to understand. He did not tell them anything without using a parable, though he explained everything to his disciples in private.
My dad was a barber in a small town in Central Florida. When customers came in for a haircut, he had a captive audience. He had the only barbershop in our small town that was air-conditioned. This attracted folks to come in and sit to cool off on those hot and muggy Florida days. Some just came and sat while he gave a haircut and listened to the stories that he would spin about the trips that he had taken with his family. If anyone ever wondered what his family was like, they could learn a lot by just listening to his stories. He also told stories of things that happened to him as a barber like having a customer die in his chair between the time he turned to set his electric razor down and pick up his scissors. In that brief moment, the customer moaned and was gone. He never told the story quite the same way but the essence of it was always there: customer in his chair, a razor to scissors, moan, dead. Stories are the spice of life. In this section, Mark shows Jesus telling stories about the kingdom of God. So, if one wants to know what the rule of God is like, one can learn it from the stories about God’s rule.
Observing Mark’s Story
In Mark, Jesus previously told two short parables to make his point about binding the strong man. Now Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God in parables. He begins with the parable of the sower (Mark 4.1-20); then, the lamp on a stand (Mark 4.21-25); the growing seed (Mark 4.26-29); the mustard seed (Mark 4.30-32); and many parables (Mark 4.33-34).
Interpreting Mark’s Story
The Sower (4.1-9)
In Palestine, plowing came after sowing.
There are two concepts in this passage that are important: the act of sowing and receptivity. The parable of the sower is explained in 4.13-20 and should be understood against the background of agricultural life in first-century Palestine. The sower is not a careless person because he scatters the seed along the path, among the thorns, or on the ground that had no soil depth. He does so intentionally. The path that the villagers have made by walking and the thorns that lie withered in the soil will be plowed up to receive the seed. In Palestine, plowing came after sowing. This historical detail that plowing follows sowing is important for a correct interpretation of this parable. It serves to caution us that less attention should be given to the various kinds of soil, and more attention given to the act of sowing and reception. Thus, the act of sowing is the key to its understanding. This parable teaches that the rule of God was breaking into the world, just as the seed being sown was breaking into the soil.
A Difficult Passage (4.10-12)
Verse 9 gives us the key to understand the interpretation of the sower that follows, which is that new ears can hear while the old ears cannot. The word secret simply means to be understood by the initiated ones, the disciples of Jesus. The purpose of the parables was to instruct the disciples without pushing those who were not initiated further away from the truth. This is a good lesson for us, a design to follow if you please. Those who are outside the Christian faith have no possibility of understanding spiritual truths. That sentence may come as a complete shock to you. But, often we push outsiders expecting that they will accept, when, in fact, they don’t have the capacity to understand or accept. This passage has often been misunderstood to say that God would not forgive someone who turns to him. Some translations have obscured the meaning. Here is a better translation from Today’s English Version. “They may look and look, yet not see, they may listen and listen, yet not understand, For if they did (understand), they might turn to God and he would forgive them.”
The Interpretation of the Sower (4.13-20)
George Ladd has written that “The kingdom has come into the world to be received by some and rejected by others.”[ref]George E. Ladd, A Theology of the Kingdom: Revised. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 93.[/ref] The seed that has been sown is the good news about the kingdom. The parable shows a diversity of response to the proclamation of the word concerning the kingdom.
Response #1: Path
There were those folks that were well-beaten down and walked on in there day to day life. The religion of the day had brought folks into bondage instead of freedom. They were looking for an unreal kingdom. Jesus’ ministry delivered to them what they did not expect. Satan comes and robs the good news of the in-breaking of the rule of God into lives before the plowman can turn the message into the soil to take root. This message is still relevant today.
Response #2: Rocky Soil
There were those folks who rejected the rule of God because of allegiance to the world. Their faith was marked by enthusiasm and emotion, but they have no grounding, no roots. They have no study to make them sturdy. Folks were being destroyed for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4). We often get mixed signals from ChurchWorld: some teachers telling us that we don’t need more knowledge, only more action. Others tell us that the actions of the characters in the Second Testament vanished, poof, gone, when Scripture was recognized as having been completely compiled. All we need then is more knowledge. Posh (a good theological term) on both their heads! We need both the words and the works of Jesus active in our lives.
Response #3: Thorns
There were those folks who rejected the kingdom because of cares of the world got in their way. This condition may be the result of a wrongheaded life-focus on the temporary things of this present evil age that chokes our life under the rule of God.
Response #4: Good Soil
There are those folks who do the following three things: First, they listen and hear the word. Second, they accept the word into their life. Finally, they produce a crop by acting on what they understand about the kingdom. The good news is that God determines their production. They do not!
In this parable, Jesus is the sower. The seed is the good news that God’s rule has arrived. Satan will rob some. Some will reject, while others will accept the present rulership of God into their community and personal lives.
The Lamp on a Stand (4.21-25)
Four sayings herein to remember:
- Saying #1: The Thought of Hiding (4.21). We should not hide the message of the kingdom that has been rooted in our soil. Put it under a bowl or bed and the message will cease. Neither action will accomplish the purpose of the lamp, which is giving light to the room. The kingdom is meant to be seen.
- Saying #2: The Act of Hiding (4.22-23). The kingdom cannot ultimately be hidden. It may be refused or suppressed, but it will prevail in the end.
- Saying #3: The Standard of Giving (4.24). A person’s reception will in every case be determined by his or her giving. The same is true for a community of faith.
- Saying #4: The Law of Increase (4.25). The more the kingdom flows through your life, the more it will increase. The less the kingdom flows through, the less you will have of it to use. Of course, this is predicated on being an open conduit so that his gracelets flow through you to others.
The Growing Seed (4.26-29)
- This parable is only in Mark. There are four things to note.
- First, growth is imperceptible. One cannot perceive growth on a day-to-day basis. The seed grows over time.
- Second, growth is constant. It grows night and day.
- Third, growth is inevitable.
- Finally, growth has consummation. There will be a harvest. For the seed to grow, there are three things needed. First, patience: while living day to day, we must learn to be calm. Second, hope: while he is doing his part, we must follow through and do our part in delivering his gracelets to others. Finally, preparedness: we must be ready at any moment for the Spirit to do his kingdom work through us.
The Mustard Seed (4.30-32)
The presence of the kingdom of God is now only a small taste of what the final future reality of the kingdom will be like.
The key in this parable is the contrast between the kingdom in this present evil age and the age to come. Jesus suggests that the kingdom of God is like what happens to the mustard seed. He compares the small mustard seed as it grows into the large shrub or tree. The presence of the kingdom of God is now only a small taste of what the final future reality of the kingdom will be like. Our present experience of the kingdom is only a partial experience of what it will be like in the kingdom’s future fulfilled. We should never be discouraged by small beginnings. Somebody must start everything. Everything has a beginning. Nothing ever emerges full-grown.
Many Parables (4.33-34)
The teaching of Jesus in parables is an expression of grace and of judgment. Parables were and still are an expression of grace that allowed his first listeners and us as his present listeners time for reflection of his appeal to us to work as his conduits. Parables were an expression of judgment upon their lack of preparation to receive directly the word of the kingdom of God.
Living Into Mark’s Story
- Which of the four responses to the sowing of the good news about the kingdom of God fits your present lifestyle and the present lifestyle of your community of faith (Mark 4.13-20)?
- Which of the sayings in the parable of the Lamp on a Stand cuts into your present lifestyle and the present lifestyle of your community of faith? What do you need to do to change? What does your community of faith need to do to change (Mark 4.21-25)?
- Which of the parables do you need to grow into in your life or that your community of faith needs to grow into: patience, hope, or preparedness? (Mark 4.26-29)?
- What ministry have you started lately to which the parable of the Mustard Seed brings encouragement (Mark 4.30-32)?
- Read Mark 4.35-5.43
Easy to Understand
Tom Wright. Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone [Paperback]
Winn Griffin. Gracelets: Being Conduits of the Extravagant Acts of God’s Grace [Paperback]
Ben Witherington III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.
William L. Lane. The Gospel according to Mark: The English Text With Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)