[May 2, 2010] The Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1) is the story of Jesus, His coming into the world. The Gospel according to Mark opens with Jesus taking the step of obedience and coming to John the Baptist for baptism and being revealed the Son of God by a voice from heaven. He is tested as such in the wilderness and comes out into the open, to Israel, and proclaims His own coming, the Gospel of God, saying that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Then in 1:15—3:19, we see Him doing this with the energy of the faithful and eschatological Servant of God, preaching to the crowds and touching and liberating people with the coming of the kingdom of God. He calls the fishermen and Levi and others to follow Him (2:15). And He sets apart the Twelve to be with Him so He can send them out later.
These all, those who form a circle around Him, are His mother and brothers and sisters, His true family, for by coming to Him they are those who do the will of God (3:31-35). In contrast to them there are others who harden their hearts against Him and are in danger of losing themselves completely as a result (3:20-30).
If Jesus had not come, they would not have sinned. His presenting Himself to people (as He did in 1:14—3:12) calls for a decision. He continues to present Himself today through the Word, through the Gospel which we proclaim. We can become His true family or we can harden our hearts against Him. It is as though His presence shines a light on us that exposes our condition. Our reaction to His presence exposes us. This is what the present section of the Gospel according to Mark (3:20—6:6a) brings out.
In the following verses (4:1-20), Mark follows the words in Matthew 13:1-23 very closely (see also Luke 8:4-15).
The Crowds (Mark 4:1-2)
The crowds are those who are undecided. As in Matthew, the picture of the crowd on the land and Jesus in a boat in the sea facing the land is itself a parable of what Paul describes in Romans 9-11. The land represents the people of Israel, the sea represents the Gentiles nations, and the boat represents the church. When the people of Israel choose not to believe the Gospel, Christ does not give them up. The church among the Gentiles becomes a sign to them that they may believe. Each of the gospels has a special interest in this issue which they each handle in their own distinct way.
In any case, the crowds also represent all people. As long as they do not believe the Gospel, they only hear in parables, they do not hear the thing itself. They heard parables but they do not know the reality to which the parables refer. Parables are stories that convey their message by symbolism. The first parable is not about farming. Jesus uses farming and the farmer’s seed to illustrate what happens to the Word (the Gospel). The terms (the sowing, the seed, the kinds of ground, etc.) refer to something outside of their initial, literal meaning.
In the same way, except when words refer to other words, all language is metaphorical. They refer to something beside themselves. The language of the Gospel is not the Gospel. It always points to a reality outside of language, and even outside of our heads, the realm of ideas and opinions. The language of the Gospel refers to, bears witness to, points the finger at the personal Presence of Jesus, the Son of God. To understand what the language means requires that you can “see” that to which it refers. This “seeing” is not something of which we are capable. It requires the revelation of God (see, for example, Matthew 11:27 and 16:17).
Apart from this, when people hear the Gospel, they often do not “get it.” What they hear are just parables, words, ideas, “beliefs.” In the parable of the sower, there are four kinds of ground that receive the seed of the Word. The first kind of ground dismisses the Word. The second and third kind attempt to do something with it but fail. Only the fourth kind of ground represents those who actually “hear” it. In spite of appearances, they are the only ones who truly believe.
The Parable of the Sower (4:3-9)
In all three gospels (Matthew, Luke and Mark) this first parable is the model parable (Mark 4:13). If you see how this one works—as a parable—you can see how the others do. It is also about how we hear the Word. The parables that Jesus tells are about how people respond to the Gospel, that is, to Jesus. They are always about this. They are not meant to convey—however interesting—other messages, whether moral, existential or cosmological.
This parable is about how the Word (which in Mark is equivalent to the Gospel, which is about the coming of Jesus) falls on different conditions of people and meets with varied results. The sower sows his seed indiscriminately. All kinds of people hear the Word. But the results are different, depending on who hears it. In fact, according to verse 9, although all these people “hear” the Word, not everyone really hears it. There is more than one kind of hearing.
Mark follows Matthew’s version of the parable very closely, but when he comes to the good earth he adds the words, “coming up and growing,” and he reverses the order of fruitfulness. Matthew has “a hundredfold, sixtyfold and thirtyfold,” but Mark has “thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” In other words, he emphasizes growth. One of the evidences of having really heard the Word is growth. If we are true believers, we do not remain in one place. We keep growing. In view of the hardships that the Christian faces in the world—which is a central concern of the Gospel according to Mark—growth is essential.
“You” and the “Outsiders” (4:10-12)
The parable was given to the crowd and it was about the crowd. Now we get a private interview with Jesus. Mark says, “when Jesus was alone” with “those around Him, with the Twelve,” the disciples ask Him about the parables. In Matthew they want to know why He is speaking to the crowd in parables.
Jesus draws a fundamental distinction. “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those outside, all things are in parables.” “You” refers to those who have come to Jesus, the circle around Him who are His true family. To them the mystery of the kingdom of God is “given.” In Matthew the mystery is plural, but Matthew deals with the kingdom in far greater detail than Mark. In Mark the mystery is singular. The mystery is that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near” (Mark 1:15).
The word mystery refers to something that one can only know if it is revealed. It is a secret that does not yield itself to the investigator. Unless the secret is “given,” it cannot be known. We cannot know the mystery of the kingdom on our own, no matter how much we try. Seeing we do not perceive and hearing we do not understand. It must be revealed by God. And if it is revealed by God, this means that we “see” the reality to which the mystery refers. Once we see the reality of it, the meaning of the mystery becomes clear.
But to those who do not “see,” “all things are in parables.” This means, we may understand the literal meaning of the words, but we do not “see” the reality to which they refer. They do not refer to themselves or even their initial, literal meaning. They refer to the reality of who Christ is—a human being who is the coming of God—a reality that includes His coming, His faithfulness and suffering, and His death and resurrection. We may understand the meaning of the ideas, but the reality is spiritual. If the spiritual perception is not “given” to us, we remain blind and deaf.
However, if the light comes through, we will “turn and it will be forgiven us.” This is what God told Isaiah in chapter 6 of that prophecy. Forgiveness depends on our “seeing” and “hearing,” for only when there is this breakthrough can we really “turn.”
But, you say, if the opening of our eyes and ears has to be given by God, then it is completely arbitrary and God has no right to condemn me. The gift has to be given by God, this is true, but the grace of God also creates the condition for its reception. When the seed sprouts, it is not arbitrary, but depends on the condition of the soil. This “conditioning” is not something that we can presuppose, for the grace of God that prepares the heart works invisibly. This is why the sower scatters the seed indiscriminately. We do not decide ourselves who is ready or not. We can only tell by the results, not beforehand.
If, on the other hand, you want to excuse yourself, in effect saying that you do not recognize the work of grace in your own heart, you are acting like the soil on the beaten path. Rather than hardening your heart, you should keep paying attention to the Word and see if it will take root in good soil.
Our soil is not good. Coming as we do out of the world, none of our soil is good. It is hard and full of rocks and weeds. This is our condition prior to the grace of God that works in our lives. So none of us can use this as an excuse. The good soil is soil that has been weeded and broken and turned up. This part of ourselves is often where it hurts the most. We may not know that any good is there. The weeding and breaking and turning over may be visible to us, but it all seems so destructive. We may not realize that something wonderful is at work deep inside. The working of God’s grace is often invisible to us. But there, where it is tender, where we cannot see anything good, is where the seed can take root and grow—something not from you (from your soul), but something from above, from God.
Let’s examine the kinds of soil that the seed falls on.
Those Who Have Heard It All Already (4:4, 15)
Some seeds fall “along the path.” There the soil has been trodden by traffic and the seed cannot penetrate. As the sower moves on, birds come down on the path behind him and simply pick the seed off the surface of the ground. These are people to whom everything is old. Nothing is new or fresh. They have already heard it all. As soon as they hear it, they figure it out and categorize it. As a result, they hear nothing at all. The Word is there for a moment, but “Satan comes and takes away the Word.” All that is left are the words, words that quickly get mingled with everything else a person has heard. They become indistinguishable from the words that the world constantly spews out. So Satan absorbs the words and the Word is lost.
When we hear the Word, we need to have a beginner’s mind. We need to try to hear it afresh, like it is coming to us for the first time. This requires a special attention. We need to remember that the Word is about the reality of a Person and not about ideas and beliefs (“words”). We need to try to see past the familiar words and see through them to the Word.
Those with No Depth (4:5-6, 16-17)
Some seed fall where there are lots of rocks. The Word gets a joyful reception here, but it has no penetration. So it sprouts up right away, before it can even take root, but then when trouble comes, whether hardship or the judgment of others (persecution), these people give up—they wither.
Why does the seed remain close to the surface and not take root? It is because underneath the surface are rocks. Rocks are even harder than the beaten path! But these rocks are unseen, covered over by a thin layer of soil. Perhaps this means they are unconscious. So what are they? We receive the Word with joy but something of which we are not aware gets in the way. These rocks are those places inside ourselves of which we are in denial. We cannot really examine ourselves because we are afraid to look, to admit what is there. Instead, other people bother us and we judge them for the things we are afraid to admit about ourselves. This denial, always blaming and judging others, and not taking real responsibility for ourselves, prevents the Word from going deep. As long as we live this way, we are superficial and the Word has no root in us.
What can we do about this? This takes a great deal of bravery. It means accepting God’s judgment of us in all its severity. We cannot really do it unless we know we are forgiven. We cannot really look at ourselves unless we have this sense of safety in God’s presence. Then we can see our reactions to others for what they are: a mirror of our soul. The world around us becomes our mirror, and the light of the Word shows us what to see. We may feel like we are losing ourselves, we may cry out, “What’s left?” but in reality it is only by losing ourselves that we can really find ourselves.
The Preoccupied (4:7, 18-19)
Some seed falls into thorns. As the seed begins to sprout, weeds, thorns in fact, sprout up at the same time. They use up the nutrients in the soil and, because they grow faster, they crowd it out and block the light. These thorns represent the anxieties of the age and the deceitfulness of riches and the lust (desire) for other things. Anxieties come from our fear of losing what we have or what we are trying to get—we feel so vulnerable—and the deceit of riches is what they seem to promise and what we expect from them (security and ease). We desire to have things. Desire in itself is not wrong. It is what makes life enjoyable. But when they become ideas they preoccupy us as anxieties and things we need to hold on to or pursue. These things are like hands gripped around the neck of the Word. In this kind of mental environment, the Word is suffocated and cannot bear any fruit.
We let them get this foothold in us because we do not trust God. We do not think things will be okay because we do not know God as our Father. When Jesus invites us to Himself and we enter His sphere, His Father becomes our Father. Then we can live in His presence with an awareness of the present, as children who trust their Father to care for them. This frees us from our preoccupations, our concern for survival.
The Word needs an open space inside of us. We need to not be overwhelmed with concerns and things we are running after. The Word needs to be our occupation without any pre-occupations. Then everything else will fall into place as we take our place as disciples.
The Good Soil (4:8, 20)
The good soil is soil that is without rocks and weeds that has been broken up and turned over. When this kind of person hears the Word they are able to receive it. The Word falls into this kind of soil and it is able to take root and find the nutrients it needs and it can come up and grow in spite of hardship. In fact, what characterizes this kind of soil is that the seed keeps growing. At first it bears fruit thirtyfold, then sixty fold and then a hundredfold, a full head of grain. When that happens, it is ready for harvest.
Fruit is the evidence of faith. This does not mean that we should become judges of one another, examining each other’s fruit. Rather, it is to let us know that it is not our feelings or opinions that matter but rather our fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control. The head of grain reminds us that our fruit is also our producing seeds for sowing so that we can have “children.” Our spiritual children are our fruit. The head of grain is also food for others. Our fruit is also our ability to feed others with what the Word has produced in us. Having spiritual children and feeding others reflect what it means to be a disciple in the world and in the church.
“Whoever Has Ears to Hear, Let Them Hear” (4:9)
Let us pay attention to how we hear, for not all hearing is the same. What makes the difference is the condition of the soil. What kind of soil are we giving to the Word? When we hear, are we really hearing? This requires more than an enthusiastic but superficial response, and it requires more than our “squeezing” it in among all the other things we think we are supposed to be doing. It needs to get our honest and undivided attention. It is a living and delicate thing. We must not take it for granted, but really pay attention to how—and what—we hear (verse 24).
What we are looking for is the action of God’s grace inside of us. What we are looking for is for God to open our inner eyes so we can really get a glimpse of this reality, the reality that the words of the Gospel are pointing us to.