The gospel of Mark provides only a few examples of the many parables taught by Jesus (“Apart from a parable he did not speak to the crowds”). But in those few, the dominant theme is the kingdom of God that commenced in his ministry and has continued since whenever the gospel is proclaimed.
Jesus taught the Jewish people in parables, but only as they “were able to hear.” That aspect stresses the responsibility of the listener to hear and heed his words.
Those who have “ears to hear” acquire insight into his parables. Those who do not are unable to understand them. But in Mark, he does give explicit explanations “privately, to his disciples.”
The first one is a single parable comprised of two stories linked by the repeated clause, “he was saying to them.” Taught together, they highlight aspects of the Parable of the Sower and explain why Jesus teaches in parables.
- (Mark 4:21-25) – “And he was saying to them: Does the lamp come that under the measure it should be put or under the couch? Is it not that upon the lampstand it may be put? For it is not hidden, save that it may be made visible. Neither did it get hidden away, but that it might come into a place where it could be seen. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. And he was saying to them: Be taking heed what ye are hearing, with what measure you measure it will be measured to you and added to you; for he that has, it will be given to him, and he that has not, even what he has will be taken from him.”
The typical first-century lamp is an oil vessel with a floating wick. Many things can be used as “lampstands” to better illuminate a room, including something as simple as an overturned basket.
The “measure” translates the Greek term modios. It is a transliteration of the Latin word modius, the Roman grain measure of approximately eight quarts or one peck.
But the size and shape of the lampstand are irrelevant. Whether one conceals a lamp under a bushel basket or a couch, the point is the same. No one would do such a thing. To hide a lit lamp makes no sense.
Moreover, his question expects a positive answer and provides a clue to the parable’s meaning (“A lamp is not brought to be put under a measure, is it, or under a bed?”). Light is provided so those who enter a house are not left in darkness. Light reveals what is hidden in darkness.
Jesus refers to a “lamp that does COME.” The Greek verb rendered “come” indicates that the hypothetical lamp represents him. He is the light-bearer. The parable is not about judging others but concerns the man who has “ears to hear.” He must listen carefully since the standard for judging is the teaching of Jesus.
The “measure” one gives to hear is the measure of what one will receive. Individuals receive God’s blessing in accordance with how they respond to Christ’s word when they encounter it.
GROWING IN SECRET
The next story addresses the question: How can Jesus proclaim the kingdom yet not work more actively to bring it about? The issue arose because he was not implementing the kingdom in the manner expected by so many.
- (Mark 4:26-29) – “And he was saying: Thus is the kingdom of God. As a man may cast seed upon the earth, and be sleeping and rising night and day, and the seed is sprouting and lengthening itself, how he knows not. Of itself, the earth bears fruit; first, a blade, then, an ear, and after that, full corn in the ear. But as soon as the fruit yields itself up, immediately, he sends forth the sickle because standing by is the harvest.”
The story is told from the perspective of a first-century farmer who does not understand how seeds germinate and grow. He only knows that harvest results after sowing seeds. After planting, the farmer does little until the time of harvest. In the interim, the seeds germinate and grow of their own accord.
He likens the kingdom to the process of growth. Within itself, the seed contains life-giving power. Once planted, it sets in motion the process that will culminate in a large harvest, and at the appropriate season. The farmer cannot hurry the final harvest, but it does come to those who wait patiently for it.
Jesus also likens the kingdom to something banal, not to anything mighty or grand, namely, seeds. The mundane activities of planting and harvesting portray the paradox of the kingdom. Jesus sows the initial seed, an action that does not produce the spectacular results desired by many or results that are easily observed.
The inauguration of the kingdom began inauspiciously in the person, words, and deeds of Jesus. The “harvest” will come when the task of gospel proclamation is completed (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the inhabited earth, for a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” – Matthew 24:14).
THE MUSTARD SEED
The “mustard seed” is a proverbial representation of something that is especially small. It is approximately 1 millimeter in diameter. Later, Jesus also used it to represent a small amount of faith – (Matthew 17:20 – “Faith as small as a mustard seed”).
- (Mark 4:30-32) – “And he was saying: How shall we liken the kingdom of God, or in what parable shall we put it? As a grain of mustard seed, which, whensoever it may be sown upon the earth, is less than all the seeds that are upon the earth. And as soon as it is sown, it springs up and becomes greater than all garden plants and produces large branches so that under the shade thereof the birds of heaven can find shelter.”
The “mustard seed” is small and unimpressive to the human eye. But from it, a shrub grows that measures up to five meters high. And his question indicates what this parable is about (“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?”).
Many of his Jewish contemporaries expect the Messiah to usher in the kingdom with powerful signs, and perhaps also military might. But his ministry is small and unimpressive, though, in the end, it will become the full kingdom of God and fill the entire earth.
The description, the “birds of the air,” refers to ritually impure birds like ravens and hawks. The kingdom attracts individuals considered “unclean” outsiders by religious insiders. The reference anticipates the opening of the gospel to the Gentiles – (Psalm 104:12, Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6, Daniel 4:9-21).
WITH MANY PARABLES
The version of the parable in Matthew adds a quotation from the Psalms (“All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” – Psalm 78:2).
- (Mark 4:33-34) – “And with many such parables as these, he was speaking to them the word, according as they were able to hear. But without a parable was he not speaking to them. Privately, however, to his own disciples was he explaining all things.”
He teaches in parables but only as they “are able to hear.” This stresses the responsibility of the listener to heed his words. Only those “with ears to hear” are willing to hearken to his teachings despite popular beliefs and expectations.
A key lesson is that the “kingdom of God” does not come in obvious or expected ways. Additionally, it has been progressing in the world ever since the ministry of Jesus began in the backwater region of Galilee.
The kingdom advances in the world, largely unseen, whenever the “seed” is sown. As the gospel is proclaimed, hostile “territory” is conquered, and citizens are added to the kingdom. The process will conclude at the end of the age when God’s sovereign rule is fully established, and He subjugates all the enemies of His Son.
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