As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been listening to Rikk Watts’ lectures on the Gospel of Mark. Watts is well-versed in Mark’s Gospel, and he’s currently writing a commentary on Mark in the NICNT series.
When it comes to the parables, there is a wide range of views on what Jesus was trying to convey. What is a parable? Is it pure allegory? Is there only one meaning? Are there multiple meanings? Many think that parables are an “earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” but that places too much of a dichotomy in Jesus’ words as if he had a Gnostic ideal where we were to shed our earthly self to reach our heavenly life.
In the Beginning…
We must first ask the question, “Why did Jesus speak in parables anyway? What purpose did they serve?” The first use of “parable” in Mark is in 3.23, “And [Jesus] called them to him and said to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’” Jesus poses this question against the Jerusalem leaders who believed that the miracles he performed were really the works of Satan.
In Isaiah 6 (esp. vv8-13), Isaiah’s call initiates the judgment that the people have brought on themselves (Isa 1-5). Because they have rejected Yahweh, Isaiah’s preaching would cause the hearts of Israel to be hard. In Mark, the Jerusalem leaders have called judgment upon themselves by grouping the actions of the Messiah with that of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.
Sowing the Word
In Mark 4 Jesus begins with the Parable of the Sower, which contained themes that would likely have been familiar to his audience. 4 Ezra 9.26-37 (a pseudepigraphical work) speaks about Yahweh sowing the law after the first exodus out of Egypt. The Jewish fathers received the Law from Yahweh, but they didn’t follow it. As a result, they went into judgment and exile (2 Kings 24-25) which would require a second exodus (Isa 40-55).
Watts argues that Mark shapes his Gospel around Isaiah’s second exodus, and here the words of Jesus, Yahweh in human form, are having the same affect as they did in the book of Isaiah. Those who reject Jesus will end up in exile (Mk 13) and judgment (Mt 25).
In Mark 4.3, at the beginning of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus says, “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.”
Watts points out that Jesus doesn’t say “Listen!” often. The critical point is that you must listen, and if you don’t understand how this works, then you won’t understand how the others work (v13).
According to Watts, the point of the parables is: (1) to reveal the mystery of the Kingdom, and (2) to reveal the nature of JC’s hearers’ hearts. This is what the whole Gospel of Mark is doing. Mark is teaching his readers about the promised kingdom of God which is coming through the Son of Man (Dan 7.13-14, 15-27), and you are being shown whether or not you care as you read Mark’s Gospel. In reading and listening to his Gospel, Watts contends that we are being put on trial. How will we respond to Mark every time we read his Gospel?
The response to Jesus’ parables passes judgment on the hearers (e.g., David’s response to Nathan’s parable [2 Sam 12], Israel’s response to Isaiah’s vineyard parable [Isa 5]). Starting from the Garden of Eden, Israel has a long history of thinking they are better than they really are. They say, “I’ll trust God… as long as it makes sense.” Adam and Eve didn’t think God’s word made much sense when it came time to take their test (Gen 3.1-6). The same goes for Israel immediately after the Exodus (Ex 32.1).
However in Mark’s Gospel no one understands Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make sense. Even his disciples have trouble understanding him, yet they still follow him despite they’re lack of understanding. The only way to deal with your arrogance and self-reliance is to follow Jesus even when he doesn’t make sense.
Idolatry and Hard-Hearts
The nations ask, “Where is their God?” (Ps 115.2). And we reply, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps 115.3). “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Ps 135.6). Those who turn to and follow after lifeless idols become ones who cannot see, hear, nor speak.
4 Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
8 Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
(Ps. 115.4-8; cf. 135.15-18)
Rather than following lifeless idols and becoming like them, we follow the one who does whatever he pleases. We can be like him. He gave us his word for us to know and to use wisdom so that we may live in a way that glorifies him. Humans are made in the image of God, but when we worship idols, we lose our humanity. We lose our ability to perceive and know how to live.
Watts calls Christianity the true humanism. It is only by being Christians, by trusting in Jesus as our Savior, that we can be who we were truly created to be.
Parables take away our security blankets. Parables show us what we really think about Jesus and his message.