The Marcan Parable Sequence: Mark 4:1-34 1

1 And he began again to teach by the lakeshore; and an immense throng gathered close to him, so that he boarded a boat and sat on the lake, while the whole throng remained on the shore close to the lake. 2 2 And he would teach them frequently with riddle-talk 3 and would tell them in his instruction: 3 “Pay heed. 4You see, the sower went out to sow, and in the course of his sowing, some fell beside the path, and birds came and ate it up, 5 and some more fell on rocky ground without much soil, and it sprouted right away since the soil wasn’t deep; 6 and when the sun came up, it burned and withered for lack of roots. 7 And some more fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it produced no crop. 8 and other seeds fell onto good soil and kept bearing fruit that sprouted and grew and yielded thirty-fold and sixty-fold and a hundred-fold.” 5 And he would say, “Anyone with ears that can hear should pay heed.”

10 And when they were off alone with him, his followers, including the Twelve, 6 put to him the question of the riddle-talk. 7 11 And he would tell them, “Yours is this gift: the hidden truth of God’s reign, but for those outsiders everything comes in riddle-talk, 8 12 so that they won’t see what their eyes can see, and won’t hear what their ears can hear, and won’t understand, and so will never come back to God and be forgiven.” 9 13 Then he said to them, “You don’t understand this parable? How then will you grasp any riddle-talk at all?” 10

14 “The sower sows the seed, 15 and here are people beside the road 11 where the message is sown, and when they hear it, Satan comes right away and takes away the message that was sown in them. 16 And here are others sown on rocky ground: when they hear the message they accept it happily, 17 but they have no roots of their own-they respond to circumstances, and so, when hard times or persecution arises because of the message, right away they find all manner of difficulties. 18 And others over here are ones sown among thorns; they have heard the message, to be sure, 19 but concerns of the moment and the lure of riches and wanting everything else crowd in and choke off the message so that it goes fruitless. 20 And over there are the ones sown on good soil, who hear the message and welcome it and produce fruit thirty-fold and sixty-fold and a hundred-fold. 12

21 And he would ask them, “Does a lantern get put beneath a basket or under the bed? Surely not, but on a lampstand. 22 No secret gets kept for any reason other than to be told; nothing gets hidden away for any reason other than to get revealed. 23 Anyone with ears that can hear should pay heed.” 13 24 And he would urge them, “Pay attention to what you’re hearing. You’ll get back just as much as you put in and even more. 25 It’s the one who has it in his grasp that will get more; the one who doesn’t have a grip on it will let get away even what he is holding.” 14

26 And he would say, “The reign of God is just like a man casting seed upon the ground 27 and sleeping and waking with the passage of nights and days, and the seed sprouts and grows tall without his understanding how. 28 The soil bears fruit of its own accord, first the blade and then the ear, and then the full grain in the ear. 29 and when the crop is ready, right away he sends out the reaper, because the harvest is at hand.” 15 30 And he would say, “Is there anything quite like the reign of God; Can we imagine anything approaching it? 31 It’s like a grain of mustard-seed: when it is sown in the ground, it’s smaller than any other seed on earth 32 but once sown, it sprouts and grows larger than any other plant; it puts out leaves so enormous that birds of the sky take shelter beneath them.”

33 And with lots of riddle-talk like that he would proclaim the message just so far as they could hear and grasp it; 34 he would not speak before the throng without using riddle-talk, but privately he would disclose everything to his own disciples. 16

35 And when it got late that day he said to them, “Let’s cross over to the far shore.” 36 And they left the crowd behind and took him along, as he was in the boat, 17 and other boats were with him. 37 And a great wind-storm arose and dashed up the waves into the boat, so that the boat was soon filling with water. 38 Jesus himself was at the prow asleep on a pillow, so they roused him and said to him, “Rabbi, don’t you care that we’re sinking? 39 At which he rose and spoke sternly to the wind and said to the lake, “Be calm and hush!” At this the wind dropped and a great calm came over the lake. 40 Then he asked them, “Why are you cowards? Do you still not trust? 41 Then they were terrified utterly and began asking each other, “Who is this man then, that both wind and water heed his commands?” 18

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Mark 4 Notes

1 The Marcan parable sequence is a remarkable piece of literary craft; here the Marcan Jesus addresses readers/listeners (for this book, like all ancient books, was intended to be read aloud and listened to) directly so that they are called upon to ponder the questions posed by the disciples about “riddle-talk,” the so-called “parables” of Jesus which are here said to be a means of insuring that the right listeners understand what is said while “outsiders” fail to grasp what is meant and the saving power of what is being said in it. Although the nature of God’s reign (ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ) may appear to be the focus of his sequence-and could well be argued to be the focus of the parallel sections of Matthew and Luke, yet the focus here seems rather to be on the very reception of Jesus’ message, how it is heard, how it is heeded or taken to heart, how it never takes root in some while in others it blooms and bears fruit beyond measure. Worth noting as well is that the introductory verb of each section of the sequence is in the imperfect tense, suggesting that what is presented here is not the content of a day’s teaching but rather a review of repeated and consisted themes of Jesus’ teaching.

2The pressure of the crowd about Jesus as he preaches on the lake-shore has progressed beyond the precaution mentioned in 3:9; now the boat separates and protects Jesus from the crowd and becomes his rostrum for teaching.

3“with riddle-talk” (Grk ἐν παραβολαῖς): While the conventional word, “parable,” may suffice to designate individual stories told by Jesus when the word παραβολή is singular, the Marcan use of the plural seems distinctive in reference to a use of these images and analogies by Jesus to teach in a way that communicates a message clearly to some even as it inhibits others from grasping its intent. This problem comes most sharply into focus in verses 10-13. While “riddle-talk” may not be very satisfactory English for Mark’s plural παραβολαί, it may suffice if what has been said here is taken into consideration.

4 The verb ἀκούω appears 10 times in the parable sequence (4:3,9,12,15-16,18,20,23-24,33); repeatedly Jesus challenges the listener (and of course the evangelist charges the reader/listener of his text) not just to listen but to attend carefully to what is being said. In this instance the admonition frames the parable itself: “Pay heed … Anyone with ears that can hear should pay heed.”

5 This particular parable may have conveyed a different message in a different context; certainly it is consistent with the two parables told in verses 26-29 and 30-32: the growth of a seed is miraculous and unpredictable; even if the sowing seems wasteful or fruitless or the seed seems insignificantly small, the crop and fruit in season may be enormous in God’s providence. If the seed is the message proclaimed by Jesus, then the analogies will hold true for it too.

6 The phrase, which is literally translated “those around him with the Twelve” (οἱ περὶ αὐτὸν σὺν τοῖς δώδεκα), recurs throughout the τοιgospel.

7“put to him the question of riddle-talk”: The phrasing indicates two aspects of the query: (1) What does the parable just re-told by the evangelist mean (since Jesus himself notes that they need an explication and proceeds to offer it)? and (2) Why does Jesus use riddle-talk in his teaching?

This is an extraordinary antithesis: on the one hand, Jesus’ entourage are privileged to have been given (by God) the hidden truth of God’s reign; on the other, “outsiders” hear only the riddle-talk; they don’t understand what is being said. This is remarkable because (1) the privilege granted the disciples doesn’t seem to have worked to their immediate benefit, inasmuch as they need to have the parable of the sower explained to them; (2) it seems odd that Jesus would address the riddle-talk to the throngs of “outsiders” with the express intention that they should not understand what he is saying. There is considerably more at stake here than is evident on the surface.

9Jesus cites Isaiah 6:9-10, although not exactly in identical formulation and not necessarily with the same intent. What is jarring in Jesus’ words is the suggestion-if it is not an outright assertion-that the “outsiders” are not intended to understand the riddle-talk, the understanding of which would lead to their repentance and forgiveness-and salvation. Somehow it seems intolerable that the surface sense of this Jesus-saying is what Mark means to affirm about Jesus’ intention; if it is, then these privileged few in Jesus’ entourage are initiates to an esoteric lore while the masses outside their number are destined for ignorance and damnation. Yet again, the fact that these “insiders” must ask for the meaning of the parable is the first of many Marcan indications of their obtuseness, not merely as individuals (although Peter and the sons of Zebedee will come to show exemplary obtuseness) but as a group. We are led to suspect that perhaps “insider” and “outsider” should be defined and distinguished in terms of successful hearing of the message of Jesus; if that is so, then the privilege of “the hidden truth of God’s realm” is not exclusively given to the disciples or to the Twelve.

10 Oddly, Jesus seems surprised that his entourage does not grasp the meaning of the parable of the sower; if so, that doesn’t keep him from explaining it to them. But he does put to them a pointed question: “If you don’t understand this one, how are you going to understand riddle-talk as a whole?” Literally the Greek says, “If you don’t know this parable, how will you know all the parables?” But what that implies is surely that every parable Jesus speaks is going to be riddle-talk for them and will need an explanation-and that is precisely what the evangelist tells us in the conclusion of the sequence, verses 33-34: he would use the riddle-talk frequently in his discourse to the crowds and in fact wouldn’t talk to them at all without using it, but “to his own disciples he would disclose everything.”

11The interpretation of the parable of the sower, although perfectly intelligible, is awkward in its phrasing in that categories of listeners to the word are now described as if they were themselves the seeds sown as well as the types of soil upon which the seed has been sown. The evangelist uses demonstrative pronouns (οὗτοι hOUTOI, ἐκεῖνοι EKEINOI) as if pointing to different locations in the field where the seed has been broadcast.

12Upon analysis it becomes clear that the parable of the sower, insofar as it is to be understood by Jesus’ disciples, directly concerns their own behavior as listeners to his message: how deeply do the seeds of what he tells them root in them? Will they be the ones who will bear thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and a hundred-fold. Or will the seed die or be choked in them? Verse 17 best describes the behavior of these disciples who abandon Jesus and flee when the guards come to arrest him (14:50) even as he had predicted they all would (14:27).

13These verses are surely inconsistent with any interpretation of verses 9-12 holding that Jesus spoke to the crowds in “riddle-talk” in order not to be understood; the gospel proclamation, even if its message is not altogether self-evident, is meant to be out in the open and accessible to all: it is not to be understood as the esoteric lore of an elite who would view it as their private domain. Yet once again the formulaic “Anyone with ears that can hear should pay heed” serves as an admonition that attentiveness is required, that even for those to whom “the hidden truth of God’s reign” has been given it is not delivered on a silver platter but calls for alertness and acuity on the part of the recipient.

14These seeming paradoxes are intelligible in the light of what has been said about paying close attention: one whose mental gaze is sharply focused on “the hidden truth of God’s reign” should gain ever deeper insight into it, while one whose vision or hearing-or attentiveness is unfocused-or focused elsewhere-will find that the vision and sound fade away beyond one’s grasp.

15As in the first parable, that of the sower, so here and in that which follows immediately, sowing, mysterious growth in prodigious measure, and reaping or wondrous magnitude of full growth are eschatological images drawn from the realm of Palestinian agricultural practice that would be readily intelligible to the original listeners. In all they give expression to Jesus’ distinctive unstinting confidence in God’s loving care and providence and in the sure fruition of God’s will.

16 The parable sequence concludes with a recapitulation of what we were told in verse 2 and then again in verses 9-12; Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables, in “riddle-talk”-but he explains all the “riddle-talk” to his disciples privately. We are left with two questions: The first is: at what point following the explanation of the parable of the sower (verses 14-20) does the narrative return to the instruction given the crowd? Should we view verses 21-25, the sayings about secret lore revealed and attentiveness, as addressed to the disciples privately, and then look upon verses 26-32 as addressed again to the crowd? Or might the evangelist here be less intent upon telling us a story about Jesus, his disciples, and his original audience and far more intent upon his readers/listeners, i.e. upon ourselves ?

17Despite the fact that every segment of the parable sequence has been introduced by a verb in the imperfect tense indicating that these were stories and advice given repeatedly by Jesus, the external narrative resumes in the context indicated in 4:1 with Jesus in the boat talking to the crowd on the lakeshore. Hence the boat simply pulls out from the shore with Jesus (and his immediate entourage) aboard, although we are told that there are other boats “with him,” nothing being said about those boats other than that they come along.

18 The focus of this narrative is in the bewilderment of the disciples who have no conception of who Jesus is, even if they have (at least those whose call was actually described) responded immediately to his call by leaving everything behind and coming after him. In verses 10-13 they showed their failure to understand Jesus’ teaching in parables or “riddle-talk,” now they show that they have no confidence even while they are with him in face of “concerns of the moment” (cf. verse 19). The impure spirits are more discerning than these disciples.