Today we move on from the ministry in Galilee that is caught up in conflict and move to a section of the gospel featuring parables and miracles stories. Mark opens the gospel with the first three chapters to establish that Jesus’ main ministry is a battle with Satan and all the forces of evil.
Now that it is established we will understand the meaning of Jesus’ teaching and miracles. They too are part of his battle with evil. The battle against Satan and the forces of darkness is everything, and the teachings and actions of Jesus are seen and understood in this wider context.
Jesus is teaching from a boat cast out a bit from the seaside, and the first parable Mark presents is the parable of the sower. This is perfect because it sets the stage for all of Jesus’ teachings because his teaching is like casting seeds out onto the ground. Some will be able to hear his teaching and bring forth much fruit. Some will hear his teaching, it will spring up quickly then fade. Others will be the stony ground or the path or that which falls among weeds.
The parables are very important not just for the content of their preaching, but for us to understand Jesus mindset and way of thinking and seeing the world. He does so with a poet’s eye. A poet is always seeing into things, not seeing through things. A poet has a prophetical nature. He sees a deeper meaning in every detail of life. So it is not just a bird, it is a winged messenger of God–a visible angel. So it is not just a sower, but a person spreading the words of God. It is not just a fisherman. It is a fisher of men. The reason it is so important to understand this visionary way of seeing the world is because it links up with what we call the sacramental system. Jesus is trying to get us to see the world this way too.
He not only wants to teach us through the parables. He wants us to begin to see parabolically. This is important in coming to understand who he is, because as he sees extraordinary meaning hidden in the ordinary world, so he himself is extraordinary meaning hidden in human form. He is the Word made flesh. He is the meaning incarnate. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This truth helps us to understand the “Messianic Secret” in Mark. Jesus is hidden in the world in human form to reveal to us not only that he is the Son of God and the Word incarnate, but also to reveal the way God works in the world. He is not only the transcendent God “out there” somewhere, but he is also the immanent God “in here” embedded in his world and walking with us.
This also helps to explain the difficult passage which follows the parable. Jesus says, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that ‘they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.’”
It sounds like God is playing tricks with the intentional purpose that people will not understand, that the truth will be obscured in order that they might go to hell. We need to understand the language here. “That they may look and see but not perceive etc” sound intentional instead “so that” mean not “intentional” but “as a result.” They cannot see the truths that are hidden because they have no faith. They see only with their natural eyes and understand everything only with their rational ‘common sense’ utilitarianism. The spiritual truths have to be presented to them in parables because that is the best way for truth to be presented so they might experience it, not just give intellectual assent. The truth needs to be presented in a parable, but they can’t understand a parable because they have no faith. Therefor the result is they cannot be forgiven.
Think of it like this: the only way a person will understand love is to be presented with the beloved, but because they can’t understand love, they are not open to the beauty of the beloved. It’s a kind of catch-22 that Jesus is acknowledging. The only way the truth will really be understood is through a parable, but it is the parable is precisely what they can’t understand.
This bring us to another reason for the parables. When we hear a parable or a faith story we engage in it with our imagination and therefore with our heart. A bald, abstract statement of doctrinal truth does not engage our heart and will. Giving intellectual assent to a proposition is a very different process than hearing a story and engaging in it with our heart and our imagination. Thus parables, and we will see as we get into the miracles stories that Jesus’ actions are like parables: they are gestures with great meaning and actions with deeper significance. We can therefore only ever understand Jesus as we understand not just the meaning of the parables themselves, but the reason for the parables: that Jesus is the parable of God.
Jesus then goes on to explain the meaning of the parable, but now that he does the allegorical meaning he explains is true and beautiful, but the experience of these truths within ordinary life is what Jesus is really trying to get us to, and an intellectual analysis of the meaning of the parable is really only a means to get there. We are to see and understand and attempt to be the rich soil in which the seed of the Word of God may grow.
There is a deeper meaning. What or who is the Word? Jesus is the Word made flesh remember? So Jesus the teacher may be the sower, but he is also the seed for if the seed is the Word and he is the Word made flesh, then he himself is being sown in the world, and it is Christ himself who needs to take root and grow in our hearts.