Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Mark 4, Layer 1

This chapter purports to be instruction on how to understand Jesus's parables. But this creates an awkward situation. Is there "secret knowledge" that only the enlightened attain? That was the basis of the gnostic heresy. Alternatively, is Mark illustrating how dense the disciples are, that even though they have the knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven that permits them to understand the parables, they don't? Neither explanation is completely satisfactory, but we are later told that Jesus had to explain His parables to the disciples.

Even stranger, Jesus tells His disciples that He speaks in parables to prevent those who don't already have insight into the Kingdom of Heaven from repenting and being saved. So, in Mark's telling, Jesus is no longer preaching John's gospel of repentance, but a gospel of winnowing.

At any rate, Jesus tells of the farmer (the preacher, inspired by God) who sows the seed (the Word of God) to people, some of whom are unlucky and so the bird (Satan) eats the Word, some of whom are unfaithful (shallow-soiled) and fall away, some of whom are beleagured with worries (amid thorns), and a few of whom are fruitful, and return so much that the planting is successful.

Next is the parable of the lamp, in which Jesus says everything is meant to be known.

In a wisdom saying, He also tells us that we are given more of whatever we give. And if we consider what have to be too little to give to others, that little will be taken away. In a related parable, He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to the spontaneous creation of crops from sowing. So the farmer "gives away" his seed grain, but gets back more than he gave. Or perhaps, He says, the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, very small, but capable of growing to be a large weed.

The chapter closes with a miracle. A small flotilla, including Jesus and the disciples, sets off for the other side of the lake. Jesus falls asleep. His disciples have to wake Him when a storm sets in, and He commands the storm to cease. He asks the disciples why they are afraid and if they lack faith. We are told the answer: they are terrified because they have no faith at all, not even recognizing God sitting before them.

One last matter. The chapter says that Jesus preached from a boat. There's no obvious practical reason for this. Even if the shoreline bends, one wouldn't get a larger audience than could be obtained on land, and the noise of the water would be likely to make it harder to hear. Perhaps Jesus was trying to prevent His audience from touching Him.

So, this chapter leaves us with more questions than answers:
1. Is Jesus trying to conceal saving knowledge by using parables?
2. Is there a secret knowledge in the rest of Mark, to which this chapter alerts us?
3. How does Jesus's use of parables square with the parable of the lamp?
4. Why, really, did Jesus preach from a boat?


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