Scripture Week 1
March 6 Psalm 25.1-10
March 7 Mark 2.18-28 focus 2.18-22
March 8 Mark 3.1-19 focus 3.13-19
March 9 Mark 3.20-35 focus 3.20-30
March 10 Mark 4.1-20 focus 4.1-9
March 11 Mark 4.21-41 focus 4.35-41
March 12 Mark 8.31-38
Mystery of parables
The scriptures in this reading establish the authority with which Christ spoke and went about his ministry. He was being questioned, called crazy, and even condemned as a demon by those who did not understand who he was, or objected to who he claimed to be. They questioned him about fasting or not fasting, working or not working on the Sabbath, and tried to discredit him. Jesus had to explain that he was not bound by earthly relations, but by God’s will when he said “Whoever does God’s will is my sister and brother and mother” (Mark 3:35).
Why did Jesus teach in parables? It is puzzling to me. Some references suggest Jesus spoke in parables because people would not understand them. But why would he want to confuse people? It has been suggested that he wanted them to listen and then make an individual decision about that which they heard. In other explanations I see two conflicting reasons: one, is that parables take an everyday life situation, making it easier to understand a deeper message. In contrast, it is suggested that they were not meant to be understood, that they were “non-answers” in order to conceal Jesus’ identity for a time.
I pondered the “puzzle” of the parables for several days. My research led me to N.T. Wright’s book, Mark for Everyone (pages 41-50), and to My pastor. Wright refers to the symbolism and “coded” images Jesus used (which he says are likely taken from Christ’s biblical background) in parables. But why the need for codes?
Wright says, “The problem—and this seems to be the main reason Jesus taught in parables—is that Jesus’ vision of how God was sowing his word was, as we would say today, politically incorrect” (43). While at the time, any reference to a kingdom other than the Roman or heavenly one would have been dangerous. What made it even more dangerous was that the heavenly kingdom Jesus spoke about was radically different than what was expected. So Jesus spoke in “code” in his parables, but explained their actual meaning to his disciples. Wright also speaks of the “mystery” of the divine secret or revelation of the parables that are only understood with belief and trust.
My pastor refers to Jesus’ “strange” teaching in Mark 4:10-12. He says:
We forget (if we’ve ever known) that all of Jesus’ teaching likely sounded familiar to his hearers on the surface, on first hearing, but was actually strange, and always turned out to be misunderstood, shocking, and usually offensive. They had ears but did not hear. This is certainly true for us today, being at a 2000 year time distance and a social-cultural distance that cannot begin to be calculated.
Still, we’ve been told all our lives that if we’ll just be “open,” we’ll get it. In fact, Jesus helps by teaching in parables. He has basically dumbed it down for us by telling stories that everyone can relate to. Each parable is an “earthly story with a heavenly message,” meant to be easily understood, even by a child. It’s up to each person whether to accept and believe what Jesus is saying; but there’s no way anyone can fail to hear it and understand it.
However, Jesus’ own teaching about his parables in Mark 4 obviously doesn’t support this explanation. He says that his parables are intended to blind, or to keep blind, those who are “outside,” so that they won’t understand and won’t turn and be forgiven. This is not only a strange teaching; it is also a hard teaching.
Some interpreters explain that Jesus may have been evasive and obscure, effectively hiding his teaching in these stories, because it’s yet time for his identity and mission to be made known widely. Parables were coded messages for his closest disciples, to whom he was giving in advance “the secret of the Kingdom.”
I have a different take. I believe Jesus himself, his deeds, and his words are all incomprehensible (we’ve forgotten this, if we’ve ever known it)—unless or until the Spirit opens human eyes to see and ears to hear, minds and hearts to receive and be transformed. God must grant the power and the capacity of perception and understanding. Revelation is always of mystery that cannot be grasped naturally or normally. Even when given and made knowable, revelation always remains cloaked in its own mystery. And, at the same time, in a real sense, the medium, while being used for facilitating the revelation, always obscures it. In other words, Jesus himself, his deeds, and his words, largely because they are familiar, keep people in the dark—unless or until the Spirit causes people to see what they don’t see, and hear what they don’t see, and to realize how strange and incomprehensible this is, but then, how revelatory of truth and salvation this is. Remember: the home folks in Nazareth rejected Jesus because they had always seen and heard him. they knew him. Today, we don’t comprehend him because we think we do, because we’re too familiar with him (or at least who we have perceived him to be, which is not who he truly, fully is).
I think his parables are a “sneak attack.” Tell a story that draws hearers in, and then confound them with a turn they don’t expect, that, under the influence of the Spirit, might cause them to turn and receive deeper sight and insight; to turn and be forgiven. Turning for such conversion is not self-initiated, as we think. It is by election, or calling. Jesus told his disciples that he had called them (not them him) in order to give to them “the secret of the Kingdom,” which the prophets and many righteous people had longed to hear and hear, but didn’t, because Jesus had not been sent to them to teach them. (Matthew 13:116-17) Still, his teaching, both then and today, is never exactly what even we disciples expect or think it is. There’s always “more.”
N.T. Wright and My pastor implore us as Christians to pay attention. Both impress on us the need to read God’s word, dig deep into it for more, and warn us against false teachings that are pushed out as the new, improved narratives that continue trying to make Jesus’ messages now, as in Bible times, “politically correct.” As we read the parables in the scriptures for this week, may God give us eyes to see and ears to hear. More than ever, we need to know God’s promises and heed His warnings.
We are so prone to stray from your Word. Help us to turn to you through intentional Bible reading, prayer, and worship. Help us to pay attention to your promises and warnings, so that through your Spirit, we may hear and see. Gird us with your strength, and have mercy on us as we repent from our ways and seek yours. Thank you for forgiveness of our sins.