Tuesday, July 16, 2019

According to Mark: The Purpose of Parables

The heart of Jesus’ teaching is found in His parables. These stories use mundane elements to tell spiritual truths, but not usually so that the connection is obvious. It takes work to understand them, and a willingness to seek out the answers. This is the primary lesson to discover in Mark 4:1–34, one of the largest blocks of the Lord’s teaching in this gospel. We want to be sure we have “ears to hear” (Mark 4:9, 23).

As we go through the parables in this chapter, there are certainly other things to learn. But as is usually the case, it is a good idea to acknowledge the context. Some of what we know about these stories is determined by their placement in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The words of Jesus have multiple levels of meaning, and He more than likely told the same story on different occasions to different effect. This is reflected in the variations in the way the synoptic (“same-view”) gospels record them. So, since this is a study on Mark, we will try to restrict ourselves to the messages Mark wanted to send. It does not mean one version is better or more accurate to Jesus’ original meaning than the others. It just means that we can potentially take a fresh look by focusing solely on Mark, rather than reading Matthew and Luke into it.

Why Speak in Parables?

Before looking at the parables themselves, then, we need to understand the editorial comments about their use. Mark 4:10–12 says,

When He was alone, those around Him with the Twelve, asked Him about the parables. He answered them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that ‘They may indeed look, and yet not perceive; they may indeed listen, and yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back and be forgiven.’”

And the concluding paragraph says in Mark 4:33–34,

He was speaking the word to them with many parables like these, as they were able to understand. He did not speak to them without a parable. Privately, however, He explained everything to His own disciples.

The point these comments make is twofold. The first element of it is that Jesus was attempting to create obscurity. Why would He do that? Why make His teaching harder to understand? It is a difficult question to answer every time it comes up in the Bible, including the passage from Is. 6:9–10 that Jesus references.

Probably the most useful example to make sense of it is the one provided by the pharaoh who contended against Moses. Exodus 8:15 says that Pharaoh “hardened his heart” against the commandment of the Lord to let the Israelites go. Then, in Ex. 9:12, it says that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This goes back and forth a few more times over the next few chapters. Sometimes it is Pharaoh doing the hardening, others it is the Lord.

What this illustrates for us is that humans can decide whether they will be receptive to what the Lord offers them. If they refuse, they run the risk that He will actively increase their resistance so that they can be used in spite of themselves to advance His plans. In other words, their rebellion is their choice, but God locks them in it to ensure their defeat and His glorification.

As for those listening to Jesus, then, this means that His teaching was given in parables in order to give them a chance. If they wanted the truth, they could pursue it. If they were uninterested, then Jesus’ difficult stories would demotivate them from listening further.

Which, of course, points to the other element behind Jesus’ use of parables. His opponents did not want to see the meaning, but His followers did. In order to do so, though, they had to go to Him for it. It was not automatic just because they were friendly to the Lord. They still needed instruction.

The ongoing application should be evident. None of us just automatically understands the Bible or what God wants for us. We have to go to Him and actually put in the work to find the meaning He offers to those willing to seek it out. That means reading the Scriptures regularly and devotionally, studying the insights of faithful thinkers, learning in communities of other believers, and most of all praying for the Lord to open our eyes.

Understanding the Parables

This describes the primary meaning of the parables in Mark 4 in a nutshell (which I guess is a pun, given the agricultural background of most of them). This is most obvious in the large parable and its explanation in vv. 1–20. The issue here is not really one of who is saved and who is not, or on what criteria. Receptiveness is in view. That can occur in degrees. Some people do not care about the gospel at all, others nibble at it, but those who benefit most from it—and are the most benefit to others— are those who are actually prepared to listen to and learn from the Lord.

Personally, I think that is a little harder to see in vv. 21–22. My mind wants to make the parable into one about judgment and the revelation of human secrets, which is probably just my way of reading John 3:20 into it. Here in Mark, though, the focus is still on reception to the gospel. The light of God’s truth is shining. Eventually, everyone is going to understand it. In fact, they can understand it now if they want to. It is not really all that hidden, particularly since the resurrection of Jesus is so well attested. But again, it takes that willingness to look into the light. The choice always exists to turn to the darkness instead. This would seem to be what Mark had in mind by making this parable part of this collection.

The Parable of the Measure in vv. 24–25 provides another example of how we can potentially miss the point by applying another passage we know. Matthew 7:2 could make us think Jesus is talking about being judgmental here. That is not an unfair way to take the parable. God is merciful to those who show mercy (Ps. 18:25; Matt. 5:12). Or, we could make the lesson one on how we need to put forth the proper effort in kingdom work, as the Parable of the Talents does (Matt. 25:14–30).

Mark wants us to stay focused on receptiveness, though. What we put into understanding Jesus is what we get out. Those who do not listen at all, or just barely sample the truth of Christ, will not experience a lasting impact. We want to take a full helping. Really digging in, committing ourselves to Him, is what makes it possible for us to see the extent of His love. Then we find that it has a constantly multiplying, transformative value.

The last two parables move a little bit in a different direction, but still do so with reference to the larger theme of being willing to accept the gospel. The message of Jesus has a purposefully obscure beginning. It comes with persuasion, not coercion. That means it starts small, whether we are talking about the founding of the Church 2000 years ago or the impact of individuals today.

No one can be forced to respond to God. That is not what He wants. His desire is for people to come to Him willingly. That, after all, is what a relationship requires to be a loving one. We cannot guarantee how people will respond as a result. All we can do is tell them that God loves them, and what He has done to prove it. Then we leave it up to them to decide what to do with it.

The growth of the church can seem like an uncertain thing, and to us it is. It is so subtle that we can wonder what kind of impact it is possible for us to have. But God does not wonder. It is not a mystery to Him. It is His purpose. He has made it this way because He knows people will listen, He knows who they are, and He is drawing them to Himself through us. We should not doubt that we can have an impact. Even a small one can grow to have an influence on the fate of nations. That has already been the history of the Church. It should encourage us to see the potential of its future.

The parables of Mark 4 require work to understand. Once we do, we see that was the lesson they were actually intended to teach. Knowing God is not easy in the sense of being obvious. But it is well worth it, for us and for the people around us. And the Lord will help us in it. That, after all, was why He came.

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