C.ii 4:1–34 Apostolic ministry: teaching in parables


Jesus teaches in parables. The seed. Purpose of parables, explanation, and parables of kingdom.


A. 1:1–13 Preparation

B 1:14–3:6 Local ministry in Galilee

C 3:7–4:34 Apostolic ministry

C.i 3:7–3:35 Appointment of apostles
C.ii 4:1–34 Apostolic ministry: teaching in parables

Now the disciples are appointed, Jesus begins his ministry of parables explaining to them what sort of a kingdom he will bring. He teaches in the context of opposition and blindness (3:30) on entrance into and rejection of the kingdom, explaining the parables in private to his apostles and explaining their judgemental and divisive purpose. The parables of the kingdom explain its mysterious growth.

Things to talk about

Note: this is the most studied passage of Mark, and quite probably the hardest to talk about. I claim no particular accuracy, helpfulness, or imprimateur normally, but express particularly little confidence here.

3–8 When telling the parable of the seed, who was listening? [Hint: check the audiences in ch. 3.] His message is to a mixed audience of those who reject him and those who want to know more. Who is then the sower? We look to him for seed. Note below Mark's use of the shema. We like to think of these parables as very obvious and inoffensive. Why? Is there actually any challenge to his hearers and us in this story? Think about why the harvest is important.
10–15 These are hard verses, but the ground is laid in our understanding of the previous section.
11 Go slowly. What secret have they been given? [Someone, a special someone, has come and told them something which will bring their lives to fruition. What was it? Check 1:15.] But This might appear to say that the parables are only to those outside, but he is not saying that; group the clauses as (to you has been given, but (to those outside it is in parables so that they may see, but (not perceive lest they turn))).
12 Now we have the tough verse. Some commentators blunt the connecting words, but the passage clearly has so that and lest, and nothing weaker. Do not be tempted to soften it, but wrestle with it as it is (NIV and ESV are good here). To understand it, you have to combine various references. Start with pointing out that Jesus is making an OT point, and the context and place of the verse in Isaiah's ministry are integral to understanding what Jesus is saying. Turn to the Isaiah 6, read it all preferably, and discuss that. Who is Isaiah? What was his mission? What were the people like he was ministering to? Look at the relation between the text Mark/Jesus quotes and the original. The healing in 6:10 is clarified in Mark.

Jesus draws on a passage which ends in a very strong way; how might he have that end in mind too? He is claiming straight out that his teaching has the same function as Isaiah's, but Isaiah was waiting for its completion, when the holy remnant separated out would be blessed and restored once the apostate majority had been punished, and indeed at the end of his life his laments continue this theme as he sees the cities lying waste (64:10 as in 6:11; 63:17) but still no deliverance. He remained confident that it would come though.
Think also about judgement. Why is it deferred? Why does God not bring things to an end now? Is there any reason though why he must always act in mercy here and now? What does Isaiah think in the opening manifesto of his ministry in 1:18–26? Isaiah puts his commissioning iv ch. 6 into context with chs. 1–5, where he several times declares that Israel has abandoned her God. In 6:1, the Lord is on a throne; what do kings do from their thrones? Sealing Israel it her blindness, hardening her refusal to repent, is part of his kingly judgement.

So, what might Jesus too be warning about his teaching? Some of those listening will reject him, some will follow, but in those whose rejection is final, the Word completes the period of forbearance in Isaiah (cf. Acts 17:30–31) and will ultimately harden them.
Finally, how can you relate the coming of Isaiah's holy seed to the harvest in 4:8? Commentators disagree on whether the harvest has actually yet happened, but the point is clear that Jesus considers his ministry to be the end, and that it is his word and completion of the law and prophecies that will work to the ultimate harvest of the remnant, well worth the wait.
14 Now the parable is very clear. Given the identity of the sower, and the nature of the seed, what is Mark saying? Say it!
15–20 It seems hard to say much about these verses after the difficulty of the previous ones, but they are important. To really get nearer to the bottom of the previous sections, we had to analyse the whole structure and nature of Jesus' ministry. Was our understanding of the two groups of people right? Which verse confirms our understanding of Jesus' call? [Compare Is. 6:13 to 4:20.]
21–23 The first of the four parables of the kingdom is about the lamp. Where have we heard just recently He who has ears and about the coming but delayed revelation of the kingdom? The next few parables together continue to build up the understanding just given about the purpose of Jesus' teaching, and reassure the apostles it will work, and he is committed to effective revelation.
24–25 Here again previous teaching in reinforced. How does somebody's situation follow on from what has gone before? In the context, what is the most important thing being measured? [Who is being measured up?—if you will excuse the pun, not for its humour, but on the grounds of eisegesis.]
26–29 Key question: Does the kingdom growth described here consist in its spread to more and more people? To tease this out further: If not in those outside, in who else is the kingdom growing? Think about the previous section and v. 12 where on some level, to a certain underlying extent, those around have already made their choice. In this context, this is a tale of darkness to light and then fruit in each of us (note this parable is probably told to a select group of disciples, those around him with the twelve [11]). Is our life one of growth? What would it take for us to desire the harvest enough to work towards readiness, or commit ourselves to Christ for the first time?
30–32 In the fourth kingdom parable, Mark summarises with a parable very similar in message to the last one. Do not try to draw out too much in thin inferences, but stick to the plain encouragement that small, ignoble seed grows towards a final victory, which is certain and worth trusting in, since the work of growing it is ultimately not in us.
33–34 This is a chance to recap. the themes from before about the particular power of the parable to those on the inside, and the chosen way God spreads his kingdom through the church from person to person
(remember that Jesus is building the core of the body who will proclaim him to the world when he is gone; cf. 2 Cor. 5:20).

Handy notes

3, 9 Mark frequently references the shema, the injunction from Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord, is One." This was (and is) central to Jewish worship and ceremonies, and Mark references it a few times directly, and many times obliquely as he presents Jesus filling that Oneness.
5 Apparently in shallow soil, the shoots may reach the surface sooner than in thicker soil where the seed can be ploughed in deeper.
9 The word here hear is the same as listen in v. 3.
12 The key point to remember I suggest in discussion of this verse is that the openness or not to Jesus is already there, even before it is apparent or consciously know. As Isaiah came to bring promise and confirm judgement, so are Jesus' parables signs of the completion of the wait for judgement and blessing.
15 Satan's real role mentioned here is conspicuously the opposite to that in 3:22.
24 measure The same word as in 21, literally a measuring basket or bushel[-measure].
26 The little phrases like and he said introduce usually a teaching delivered on a different occasion, or some time later in the conversation. There is a thematic continuity with the rest of Mark's block of teaching, but there is a break with the previous passage. There should be no confusion between the sower here and the previous one.
32 There are a couple of OT passages this quotation could come from (though most translations will not put a footnote in it). The message from Ezek. 17:23 is most unambiguous. The Lord's blessing to his chosen nation will be a blessing for the whole world, though not until the tree has grown a bit, after Jesus' earthly ministry.
33 We have a return here of the message to hear, as in v. 3 (same word as listen). There really is a power in the presence of God's word.

For ourselves

1 Whole crowd We can make the parables too deep and subtle sometimes! Nevertheless, read the above and try to place Jesus' teaching in a Jewish context and think about what this parable is about in its relation to the OT.
3 Concerning the shema, the acceptance of God's truth for the Israelites was dependent on God's action in their past history (see Ex. 20:2). The Jews accepted Moses theoretically because he was sent by the Lord, who was One, the real God, and who got involved in their history and identity as a people and hence personally as each individual did or did not persist in faithful trust of God. Mark is telling Jesus' teaching into this context, as he has been acting as the Lord and has been demanding a response and commitment. Israel's history is full of the story of groups rejecting the Lord, and here Jesus is in continuity with the prophets in characterising his ministry as a re-iteration of the promises and covenant of God, calling the people back to repentance and to return to the Lord; however, by identifying himself so closely with the genesis of the law in for example 2:23–3:6 and his other halakhas (rulings made on a point of conduct by weighing the Torah and Nevi'im given and applying them to a particular situation).
9 Note that this parable is the longest in Mark, so he clearly considers it important. Try to struggle with the crowd for a bit on these verses before leaping on to the next chunk.
12 Preaching the gospel is perilous, because we deepen the fault in those around us by sloppy ministry. Hearing the word places a heavier adjuration on them. Before, they knew God little; having heard his word, how much more ought they not to respond? This is why we have to be serious when we go about mission, and follow through with everything we do. The duty to convert is not ours, but the duty to apply the gospel in its fullness is.

For example, if we only say once in a while "Jesus is cool, so why not read this book about him. How is your sister getting on?", then we treat the gospel with levity. On the other hand, when we bring the gospel to bear, without having to talk for long or in a heavy-handed way, we can still take our message seriously. "Well, I love Jesus, who is the only way I can come into a closeness with God and please him. I have this book I would like to read to find out more. Could you tell me how you get on with it? I heard too about your sister..."
When we take up our charge to be involved, however it may be, in God's mission to the world (a theme in Mark to be discussed later), we need to be wholehearted, and do even little actions well. Preaching the gospel is perilous.
25 Our sin can reinforce patterns of ungodliness, just as setting our hearts and minds on Christ leads to growth in fruitfulness. For an illustration, see Heb. 12:15.
29 We mentioned before the two meanings of the harvest, whether it signifies Jesus' first or second coming. What would the implications of this parable in each direction?