Sermon September 29: Parables

This week I want to look more at Jesus’s teaching, and particularly His practice of teaching in parables. Not that there’s a lot of parables in Mark’s gospel, in comparison to the other gospels. Jesus often taught in parables, and there are 65 parables in the four gospels, but only seven of them are in Mark. This is a bit puzzling, because we saw from the first two chapters how Jesus stressed the importance of His teaching, making it clear that His healing work, even miraculous healing, was less important than His teaching work, yet Mark, who obviously knows this, gives us less of Jesus’s teaching than any other gospel. Now it’s true that it is the shortest gospel, and Mark intended it to be a summary of Jesus’s ministry rather than an exhaustive description of it, but the fact that he gives us more of Jesus’s miracles than His sermons still requires some explanation, in view of the apparent contradiction with Jesus’s own emphasis. A couple of things come to my mind concerning this. One is that Mark was an evangelist, and the people who heard Mark preach—the evidence suggests that he preached from his own gospel in Rome and later in Alexandria—were just like the people who heard Jesus preach, and they wanted to hear about, as Jesus’s hearers had wanted to see, the miracles. The second is that Jesus used His miracles as teaching moments, as we saw with the paralysed man, so Mark may be content to meet the demand for miracles, knowing that Jesus’s teaching can be learned from them, if people really want to learn. And that is a key point, as we’ll see.

Look at 4.10: when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parables. He said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven”’. One scholar has called these verses ‘the most difficult and the most discussed verses in the whole of Mark’s gospel’, and they are a challenge. The current consensus among Biblical scholars seems to be that Jesus taught in parables so that those who chose to reject Him could reject Him easily: since parables make their point without actually saying what they’re referring to, their point can be easily rejected if you don’t like it. ‘Sower? Seed? I don’t know what he’s talking about, seed fell here, seed fell there, this happened to it and that happened to it, I’m not a farmer—what’s it got to do with me? I can’t make sense of it, I’m not going to bother with it.’ So those without interest need not be disturbed. But there is also the implication of Jesus’s comment in 4.22, For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. The Greek is very clear here, things are hidden in order to be known. Sounds like a contradiction, but there is a side of human nature to which it may be responding. If we think someone has a secret, we often go to great lengths to find it out, just out of curiosity. If the information you think is important seems unavailable, you will work all the harder in order to find it; if you believe Jesus has the word of life, or if you’re even willing to consider the possibility that He has the word of life, you’ll come back to His word again and again in order to hear His words to you. Which is why He adds v 23, If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. V 24 continues the theme: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. If you read the Bible and dismiss it as incomprehensible, you can be sure you will not understand it; read it knowing that God wants you to hear its message, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. By the way, I think Jesus’s words here have to be put side by side with what is sometimes called the ‘messianic secret’ in Mark; if you were here a couple of weeks ago you’ll remember all those places where Jesus charged [the disciples] to tell no one about him, and people whom He had healed to tell no one. And three times, you’ll remember, Jesus sternly or strictly ordered this. We looked then at some of the theories that have been advanced to explain this; it begins to look now as though Jesus is just using his knowledge of human nature, and urging concealment because He knows it is likely to lead to revelation.

The word ‘parable’ is actually a Greek word that means ‘comparison’, and what the parables actually are are stories that make a comparison, that say ‘this is like that’—but only by saying ‘this’. The hearer has to decide what ‘that’ is, what is actually being compared. The Hebrew word translated ‘parable’ means ‘riddle’ as well as comparison. So in the first parable Jesus tells, about the sower, Jesus just says ‘a sower went out to sow, and this is what happened to the seed.’ The hearer, or today the reader, has to decide what the sower or the seed is being compared to—only on two occasions does Jesus spell it out for us. Parables make their point in a way that is easy for us to miss, as I said, and if we’re not really determined to learn from Jesus, we will misunderstand them. The first step in understanding any parable, or any miracle, is the belief that Jesus has something to teach us which only He can teach us, and the desire to learn it from Him. Perhaps Mark himself is using this ‘riddle’ approach, incidentally: look at his use of the word ‘alone’ in v 10, given the number of people Jesus is with at this point!

There are three parables in chapter 4 of Mark, and if we’re to learn all that Jesus has to teach us in them, we read them carefully and frequently, thinking about the points each parable makes, and also what they mean when you take all three of them together. If Mark is only giving us a handful of the parables Jesus actually taught, you can bet he chose them carefully, and that in some way they stand for or sum up all of Jesus’s teaching, or present His most important teaching. I have time to give only the most cursory survey, but here are a few points to consider.

The parable of the sower is at one level a parable about parables; that’s why Jesus says to the disciples, before explaining it (v 13), Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? Jesus makes this the first of His parables, so that we can understand how parables work, and understand the other parables more easily. The comparison is given in v 14: The sower sows the word, the logos. The Greek word can mean ‘comparison’ as well as ‘word’, so in this context the seed is first of all the parable that Jesus is telling. But the word logos also means teaching, or explanation, and is sometimes used in Mark (eg 2.2, 4.33) for all Jesus’s preaching, and for the Bible as a whole, the word of God (eg 7.13). So there is a deeper sense in which what Jesus says of parables here applies to all His teaching, and to God’s word as a whole. That deeper sense, and many others, and some things deeper still are the reward of coming back to the Word of God over and over, of being determined to understand.

The two parables that follow, vv 26ff and 30ff, have some obvious things to chew on. Jesus gives us a hint in these two about the object of the comparison: The kingdom of God is as if etc, and With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? Many scholars will say that because these parables are about the kingdom of God, they are not about what the parable of the sower is about. And yet the fact that they are based on the same comparing image, that of the sower and the seed, cannot be an accident. The first of these two parables is only in Mark, but Matthew tells the second, and in his gospel too it comes immediately after the parable of the sower, which means it’s likely that Jesus Himself put them together, and it seems pretty clear that the image of the seed must stand for Jesus’s teaching in all three parables, even if the second two also say something about how God’s will is done (which is what the Kingdom is— the scene of God’s will being done). So there are questions to be asked here about how the word builds the kingdom of God, and any thinking about that you do will, I assure you, repay the effort.

The rest of the parables in Mark are all told by Jesus during the Passover week in which He was crucified, and have their most immediate reference to the events of that week, and we’ll look at them more closely towards the end of the semester, when we get to that part of Mark’s gospel. Today, though, let me end by coming back to the parable of the sower and drawing out one of its implications. By their nature, parables can’t be pushed too far in terms of the points they make; the main points of comparison here are the sower and the seed—Jesus the sower, and His teaching the seed. But I think it’s also well within Jesus’s use of the parable to ask about the soil, and what it says or might be saying about us— because in the parable the soil is the receiver of the seed, and in any application of the parable must stand for the receivers of Jesus’s teaching, ie us. I don’t think it’s pushing the meaning of this parable too far if we see our selves in one of these soil conditions. I don’t think many of us think we’re the path—the paved surface where nothing can grow. But we’re almost certainly not the good soil, yielding even thirty-fold, and we might need to think a bit about how much our own rocks and thorns come between us and God’s word. But I think we can assume that the sower in the parable is interested in improving the soil, just as any farmer is. We may hope, therefore, that we can be better soil, with God’s help. The One Who sows the seed is also the One Who prepares the soil, and most farmers are eager to have the biggest possible acreage of prepared soil under cultivation. I remember when I was the minister in an agricultural parish hearing someone looking at a wheatfield next to the church comment that every year the wheat seemed to come a little closer. The farmer was trying to cultivate every inch he could—even the church’s soil, if we let him get away with it! The heavenly sower is like all sowers, looking for the biggest possible harvest. Land that was uncultivated last year may be prepared for planting this year. And the seed is sown again and again as the seasons roll round; the land that bore nothing this year may see a rich harvest next year. If we haven’t borne much fruit this year, let’s offer our hearts to Him again, asking Him to break up and remove the rocks, to burn and plough under the weeds, so that we may be part of the harvest, gathered into His barn. Let us do what we can to offer a heart that is in submission to God, an obedient heart, a heart which can truly pray ‘not my will but Thy will be done’. That’s why we begin our service by confessing our sins, so that we can have a heart right towards God as we listen to His word.

And it’s in faith that God is at work in us to that purpose that our service continues with the Apostles’ Creed…

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