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02.13.11 Parables of Mark, Mark 4:10-12, 21-34; Mark 12:1-12 Sermon Summary

by on February 18, 2011

Summary Points

  • The nature of a “parable”
  • Our responsibility in relation to the parables
  • Mark’s hard teaching concerning the parables
  • Two Kingdom Similitudes (“parables”)

Scholars tell us that Jesus may have been the first to tell the kinds of parables he did. Such parables don’t appear in the rabbinic literature until after Jesus’ parables as recorded in the Newer Testament. The first such record is the Gospel of Mark, and for Mark, Jesus’ parables serve a particular function. If we are to understand Jesus, we have to understand how Mark uses his parables.

As a prerequisite, we have to acknowledge that the parables contained in Mark’s gospel are not originally his. By the time he writes them down, they have been performed over and over again in his community. This means that they are also not originally Jesus’. This comes as a shock to many people, but it makes sense once we realize that the parables have the same life cycle as a joke. Once a joke is told, it begins to change as each person tells it. By the time it’s written down, it has evolved, though the basic components remain.

What this means is that the parables in Mark are already an interpretation. Mark records them with a particular application to his own time and audience in mind. And because this is true, we who read the parables in our time are responsible for interpreting and applying them in our circumstances.

As another prerequisite, we need a basic understanding of the nature of the “parable.” The great scholar C. H. Dodd offered this now very famous definition of a parable: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” But even this great definition doesn’t tell us all there is to appreciate about parables.

Most of us instinctively begin to interpret parables in the allegorical sense. This means we try to find a one-to-one correspondence between the elements of the parable and reality. Mark has such a parable in chapter 12. Here the “meaning” is obvious, and Mark wants us to get it, as the religious leaders “realized Jesus had told the parable against them.”

But “parable” also includes the genres of proverb, riddle, taunt, and wisdom saying. Mark 4:21-25 includes two of Jesus’ wisdom sayings which Mark presents as parables.

Parables also include metaphors, as Dodd identified, which are comparisons created by side-by-side placement. And example is when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). We’re left to figure out why this is true. Are we the preservatives of the earth? The flavoring? Are we powerful only in a large group? The metaphor doesn’t tell us.

Parables include similes, which are comparisons made with the words “like” or “as”. Mark’s parable chapter ends with two similitude parables about the Kingdom of God which we’ll look at below.

What is the purpose of the parables? For Mark, the purpose appears to be obscurative. Mark presents this in 4:10-12. Jesus tells the disciples that they have been given the secret of the Kingdom, but that for everyone else he speaks in parables so that they do not understand. For if they understood, they would repent and be forgiven. As it is, Jesus appears to intend that some not understand, repent, and be forgiven. This is such a difficult teaching that Matthew and Luke, who used Mark as a source for their gospels, change this passage from one of intent (“I mean to do this”) to observation (“I do this, and this is what happens, for some other reason”).

This obscurative purpose of the parables serves Mark’s peculiar interest in keeping the true identify of Jesus secret. Recall that throughout Mark, Jesus is constantly trying to protect his identity. The way Mark uses the parables of Jesus heighten this secrecy. For even though the disciples have privileged access to Jesus, even though “the secret of the kingdom has been given to them,” even still they don’t fully understand who Jesus is. The very next verse Jesus shows his frustration with the disciples: “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?”

Mark uses Jesus’ parables to caution the disciples that they should not arrogantly assume they know everything there is to know about the God revealed in Christ. Another example occurs in Mark 7:14-23, where Jesus utters a rather clear if profound statement about what defiles a person. The disciples come to him and ask for an interpretation of the “parable” (Mark’s usage). Jesus criticizes them for not understanding. Even disciples get it wrong.

I think in these examples Mark is also trying to mitigate the determinism taught in 4:10-12 by showing that the disciples still have to work for their understanding. This scene exemplifies Jesus’ wisdom saying of 4:24-25, that those who have will be given more, and those who do not have, even what they have will be taken away. God gives, and by our efforts we either loose the gift or increase the gift. It is a balance of grace and free-will.

Finally we can consider the two Kingdom similitudes (“parables”) that close the chapter in 4:26-32. The first presents a sower who plants seeds and simply waits for the harvest. It comes in tension with the parable of the sower that started the chapter. This second parable gives no consideration to the soil or any preparation of the soil. However, Jesus’ original hearers would have realized that this was a Sabbath year for the field, a time when the sower couldn’t cultivate the field. And still it produces the harvest. It is a parable depicting the grace of God.

The second similitude presents the mustard seed that grows into so large a shrub that the birds find shelter in it. When one compares the way Mark presents the parable with Matthew and Luke, it is obvious Mark’s emphasis is on the process of something so small becoming so impressively large. But we are left with some questions. Is the seed the kingdom? Is the process the kingdom? Is the blessing to the birds the kingdom? All these things?

Understanding Mark’s use of Jesus’ parables is so important because the whole gospel is shrouded in secrecy. Mark is “teasing us into active thought” through the parables and through his gospel. I also believe Mark is inviting us into a deeper, more active faith by challenging our minds and our cozy assumptions about God. We’ll see this idea planted earlier in the Gospel of Mark next week when we consider Mark’s first use of the word “parable” in chapter three.

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