SYNOPSIS – 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 his parables covered several topics, his overarching theme was the “Kingdom of God,” the reign of God that commenced in his ministry.
Jesus taught the people of Israel in parables, however, only as they “were able to hear.” This stresses the responsibility of the listeners to hear and heed his words. Those “with ears to hear” were the ones who were willing to hearken and, therefore, attained insight into his parables. But he did give explicit explanations of his parables “privately, to his own disciples.”
(Mark 4:21-25) – “And he was saying unto them—Doth 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 any one hath ears to hear, let him hear. And he was saying unto them—Be taking heed what ye are hearing:—with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you, and added unto you; For he that hath, it shall be given unto him, and he that hath not, even what he hath shall be taken from him.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
This is a single parable comprised of two stories linked by the repeated clause, “he was saying to them.” Taught together, they highlighted aspects of the Parable of the Sower and explain why Jesus taught in parables.
The typical lamp used in first-century Palestine was an oil vessel with a floating wick. Many different things functioned as “lampstands” to better illuminate a room. It could be something as simple as an overturned basket.
The “measure” translates a Greek term, modios, which itself is a transliteration of the Latin word modius – A Roman grain measure that held sixteen sextarii, or approximately eight quarts (or one peck).
In the version of the parable in Luke, a different Greek word is used – skeuos – with a more generic meaning of “vessel.” Its size or shape 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 – (Luke 8:16).
The question Jesus posed expects a positive answer and provides a clue to the Parable’s meaning – (i.e., “A lamp is not brought to be put under a measure, is it, or under a bed”). Light is provided in a home so those who enter will not be left in darkness. Light enables one to see and reveals what is in darkness. Light exposes secrets and so, likewise, the “light” of the gospel reveals those who have ears to hear and those who do not.
In his opening sentence, Jesus refers to a “lamp that does not come.” The verb rendered “come” indicates this hypothetical lamp represents Jesus, the light-bearer. The parable is not about judging others but, rather, the man or woman who has “ears to hear” – He or she must listen carefully because the standard for judging is the teachings 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.
The Seed Growing Secretly
(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 be sprouting and lengthening itself—how he knoweth not: of itself, the earth beareth fruit—first, a blade, afterwards, an ear, after that, full corn in the ear; but, as soon as the fruit yieldeth itself up, straightway, he sendeth forth the sickle, because standing by is the harvest.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
This parable addresses the question – How can Jesus proclaim the kingdom yet not work more actively to bring it about? The question arises because he did not implement the Kingdom in the manner so many expected.
The pictorial story is told from the perspective of a first-century farmer who would not understand how seeds germinate and grow. He only knew that after sowing seeds a harvest resulted. After planting, a 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 portray the paradox of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. He sowed the initial seed, an action that did not produce the kind of results desired by many, nor ones easily observed.
Jesus also likened the Kingdom to the process of growth. The seed contains within itself life-giving power. Once planted, the seed sets in motion a process that culminates in a large harvest at the appropriate season. Farmers cannot hurry the final harvest, but it will come for those who wait patiently.
The final sentence is reminiscent of a prophecy from the book of Joel and may allude to it – (“Whenever the fruit is producing, straightway he is sending the sickle, because the harvest has arrived”). If Jesus intended this connection, the implication was that he inaugurated the Kingdom by sowing the gospel and, moreover, he would bring it to its intended consummation at the appropriate time:
(Joel 3:12-13) – “Let the nations be roused and come up into the Vale of Jehoshaphat—for there will I sit to judge all the nations on every side. Thrust ye in the vintage knife, for grown ripe is the vintage—Go in, tread down, for full is the winepress, flow over do the vats, for abundant is their wickedness.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The inauguration of the Kingdom began inauspiciously in the person, words, and deeds of Jesus. The harvest will come when the task of proclamation has been 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).
Parable of the 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 springeth up and becometh greater than all garden plants, and produceth large branches, so that under the shade thereof the birds of heaven can find shelter.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The “mustard seed” became a proverbial representation of that which is especially small. It is approximately 1 millimeter in diameter. Jesus also used the mustard seed to represent a small amount of faith (Matthew 17:20 – “Faith as small as a mustard seed”).
Thus, this “seed” was inauspicious, small, and unimpressive to the human eye. However, from this tiny genesis, the mustard seed would grow into a shrub two to five meters in height.
His question indicates what the 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, all-encompassing signs, even with military might. However, if anything, the ministry of Jesus was small and unimpressive. But in the end, it would become the consummated Kingdom of God that filled the entire created order.
References to the “birds of the air” refer to ritually impure birds (e.g., ravens and hawks). The Kingdom attracts individuals considered to be “unclean” and outsiders by the supposed religious insiders. The reference here 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”
(Mark 4:33-34) – “And with many such parables as these was he speaking unto them the word—according as they were able to hear; but without a parable was he not speaking unto them—privately, however, unto his own disciples was he explaining all things.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The account in the gospel of 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”). Compare:
(Psalm 78:2) – “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Jesus taught the people of Israel in parables but only as they “were able to hear.” This stresses the responsibility of the listeners to hear and to heed his words. Those “with ears to hear” are the ones who are willing to hearken and, therefore, attain insight into his teachings.
A key lesson from the words of Jesus is that the “Kingdom of God” does not come in obvious or expected ways and, secondarily, it has been progressing in the world since the ministry of Jesus in Galilee.