In the parable of the lamp we can see the work of Mark the editor. He clusters along with the image of the lamp and lamp stand some pithy sayings of Jesus. They are clustered by the thoughts or images that link them together.
First is the image of the lamp. We often think of the parables as extended stories like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. More often they were simple lessons from ordinary objects in everyday life. Sometimes the parables were just pithy sayings that connected with everyday life. What makes them parables is not that they were complete stories, but they were memorable spiritual parallels to ordinary things and actions. The reason the parable of the lamp (and its collection of sayings) follows after that of the sower is because Mark is still trying to explain why Jesus teaches in parables. The lamp he is referring to is a clay vessel filled with oil with a little wick extending from the end. A lamp isn’t hidden, but set up so it can bear light to the world, and so that with that light everything else can be seen clearly. So it is with Jesus’ teachings. They shed light on everything.
Finally, to interpret the parables correctly we must always dig deep and see where Jesus is in the parable. In the parable of the sower he was both the sower and the seed. Here he is both the lamp–the clay vessel (his humanity) that bears the light to the world. Jesus is also, as he teaches later, the light of the world. “Light from Light” we say in the creed. That everything hidden must be revealed is also a reference not only to the fact that at the final judgement all will be revealed, but that he is now the revelation of God coming into the world. St Paul says he is the “mystery hidden from the beginning of time which is now revealed in the church.”
If we are to see clearly, then we are also to listen carefully. Jesus command that “those who have ears to hear should hear” echoes the Hebrew mini-creed called the “shema”–“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, heart and strength.” His next mysterious teaching, “To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” cuts across our logic and sense of fair play as did his teaching about the parables being given so that “they will not be forgiven.” Jesus is speaking radically and dramatically in the tradition of the prophets. He is recognizing that those who have faith will be able to hear and see, and so they will receive increasing blessings. Those who do not have faith will be blind and deaf and continue to receive less.
To consolidate his point Jesus returns to the image of seeds growing. This time he point out that the seed grows with no effort of its own. Along with faith, for a person to truly hear with the ears of his heart and see with they eyes of faith he must receive God’s grace. He can’t try very hard to have faith. He can’t try very hard to understand who Jesus is. He can’t try very hard to grasp the things of God. We see this time and again when evangelizing. People just don’t “get it” then suddenly we see their eyes open and they have an “aha!” moment when faith begins to come alive in their lives. Then the seed begins to grow.
He continues using seeds to illustrate his point. The kingdom of God is the reign of God in our hearts. This life of faith is like a mustard seed–a tiny little seed that is planted in one’s life. Elsewhere he compares faith to a mustard seed. “If you had faith like a mustard seed you would tell this mountain to rise up and be thrown into the sea.” That tiniest seed of faith is the unexpected, hidden quality of the Christ life. It is so tiny and insignificant, and yet it eventually grows into a glorious tree full of life.
Once again, we see Jesus himself in the parable. Jesus is the most insignificant person. Just a carpenter from a nowhere village in the back of beyond in the great Roman Empire. To all appearances, just another wandering preacher–just another radical, seemingly misguided idealist. He will be crucified, thrown into a grave and forgotten. But like the little mustard seed, he comes to life by God’s power and his body the church grows into the greatest of all trees–full of life and love and power and light for the world.
This passage ends by reminding us that he only taught through parables, and the parables remained mysterious for most of his hearers. So caught up in the ordinary level of life, they did not have eyes to see more deeply and understand his teaching. They had the same response to him who was the parable of God. They couldn’t see past his outward appearance, and could not comprehend who he really was.