Jesus taught several parables about the kingdom of God, its unexpected ways of expansion, and its status in the world – Mark 4:21-34.
The Gospel of Mark provides only a few examples of the many parables taught by Jesus, his primary method of teaching – (“Apart from a parable he did not speak to the crowds”). While they cover several topics, in Mark, the overarching theme is the “Kingdom of God,” the reign of God that commenced in the ministry of Jesus and continues as the gospel is preached.
Jesus taught the Jewish people in parables, but only as they “were able to hear.” This idea lays stress on the responsibility of the listener to hear and heed his words. Those who had “ears to hear” acquired insight into the parables, though he gave explicit explanations only “privately, to his own disciples.”
THE LAMPSTAND is a single parable containing two stories that are linked by the repeated clause, “he was saying to them.” Taught together, they highlight aspects of the Parable of the Sower, and they explain why Jesus taught 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 was an oil vessel with a floating wick. Many things could be used as “lampstands” to better illuminate a room, even something as simple as an overturned basket. The “measure” translates a Greek term, modios, which is a transliteration of the Latin word modius, the Roman grain measure of approximately eight quarts or one peck.
But the size or shape of the lampstand is irrelevant to the story. 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 made no sense. And 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 was hidden in darkness.
Jesus referred to a “lamp that does not come.” The verb indicates that the hypothetical lamp represents Jesus, the light-bearer. The parable is not about judging others but about the man who has “ears to hear.” He must listen carefully because the standard for judging is the teaching of Jesus.
The “measure” one gives to hear is the measure of what one receives. Individuals receive God’s blessing in accordance with how they receive or respond to the word when they encounter it.
SEED GROWS SECRETLY. The next story addresses the question: How can Jesus proclaim the kingdom yet not work more actively to bring it about? It arose because he did not implement the Kingdom in the manner so many expected.
- (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, 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 the first-century farmer who would not understand how seeds germinate and grow. He only knew that harvest resulted after sowing seeds. After planting, the farmer did little until the time of harvest. In the interim, the seeds germinated and grew of their own accord.
Jesus likened the Kingdom to something banal, not to something mighty or grand, namely, to seeds. The mundane activities of planting and harvesting portrayed the paradox of the Kingdom. Jesus sowed the initial seed, an action that did not produce the spectacular results desired by many, nor ones easily observed.
He also likened the Kingdom to the process of growth. Within itself, the seed contained life-giving power. Once planted, it set in motion the process that culminated in a large harvest, and at the appropriate season. The farmer could not hurry the final harvest, but it did come to those who waited patiently for it.
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” became 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” was small and unimpressive to the human eye. But from it a shrub grew that measured up to five meters in height. 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 Jews expected the Messiah to usher in the Kingdom with powerful signs, and perhaps with military might. But his ministry was small and unimpressive, although, in the end, it would become the consummated 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 the religious insiders. The reference may anticipate the future opening of the gospel to the Gentiles – (Psalm 104:12, Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6, Daniel 4:9-21).
WITH MANY PARABLES. The version 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, 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.”
Jesus taught in parables, but only as they “were able to hear.” This stresses the responsibility of the listener to heed his words, for only those “with ears to hear” are willing to hearken to his teachings.
A key lesson from his words is that the “Kingdom of God” does not come in obvious or expected ways; and secondarily, it has been progressing in the world ever since the ministry of Jesus began in the obscure territory of Galilee, whether anyone understood it then or now.