Friday, November 18, 2011

Questions for going deeper with the Scriptures for today, November 20th

Today’s passage of Mark contains the first major teaching passage included in the gospel.  Several times Mark has emphasized Jesus’ teaching prowess and the way in which his teaching has an authority that many have never yet witnessed (examples include Mark 1:21-22; 1:39, 2:1-3).  Jesus tells a parable in response to the concluding verse (35) of chapter 3.  “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”  So how do we know what’s God will is?

structure of the text – what’s in a parable?

The first teaching narrative is a parable.  It’s a Greek word that has taken on a new meaning because of the gospel and is used in most modern languages.  So what is a parable?

·       Is it a detailed analogy, a way of saying something poetically?
·       Is it an allegory used to explain complicated things,
in which each image represents something in particular?
·       Is it a traditional proverb that serves to reinforce
the status quo or cultural conventions?
·       Is it a comparison or comparative illustration,
a rhetorical story told to persuade someone about something?
·       Or is it something else?

A parable is more than just a rhetorical device or a pretty way of saying something deep.  It’s intended to be unsettling, disturbing, ominous, shocking, transformational. It’s a radical word birthed in a simple story that’s about the new and disturbing thing that God is doing in our midst.  But God is doing that new thing through a reversal of our expectations, values, social standings and roles in society.  It’s not always obvious what they’re about.  Parables are meant to be wrestled with.  They tease us into active thought.  As we wrestling with them, hoping to “get” the parable, we ourselves are changed.  Parables don’t just tell us about God, somehow they become a process through which the Dominion of God is midwifed in our lives as individual and a community.  It’s through parables that we can experience the Kingdom of God.

Today’s passage includes the telling of the parable in verses 1-9, followed by an explanation of the parable by Jesus to the Twelve in verse 10-20.  Some scholars argue that verse 10-20 are Mark’s footnotes, his interpretation of the parable as he seeks to explain it to his audience of the first Century, early Christians facing religious persecution in the time of Roman Emperor Nero.

Is it about the soil, the seeds or the farmer?

On one hand Mark seems to be structured around two principal parables: this one (Mark 4:1-20) and also the Parable of the Heir of the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-12).  Do they summarize the mission of Jesus?  As a teacher, and as the rejected heir to the kingdom?

What is today’s parable about?  If it’s not just an analogy or a narrative illustration of something, what is it?

What are the types of soils?  What does that mean for us today?  When Mark wrote down the gospel (probably in the 50-60s of the common era) he’s
addressing version of the good news of Jesus to his church, one that is being heavily persecuted throughout the Roman Empire under Emperor Nero.  What might this parable say to people who are persecuted and suffer for daring to believe in Jesus?  What might the path, or rocky soil, or thorns mean to and for them?

Historians tell us that in Jesus’ day a 10-fold harvest would be considered to be a very good one.  A 30, 60, or 100 fold harvest would be nothing short of miraculous.  Is that possible for us?  Or is Jesus talking about an eschatological event, a definitive revealing of God’s power in the world?

Why does the sower so the way that he does?  He’s crazy, throwing seeds not just into good soil, but everywhere?  That’s not sustainable agriculture.  Who is the sower?  Where do we fit in?  Are we the seeds?  The soils?  Sowers or farmers still to come?

On a first read the parable is simple, yet then it’s complicated.  Even Mark felt the need to explain it.  Jesus is revealing secrets about the eschatological reign of God.  To understand those mysteries requires close attention and an open heart.  Verse 12 points back to Isaiah 6:9-10 & Ezekiel 12:1-2 in which God directs the prophets to talk to a hard-hearted people.  But here the people Jesus is talking to want to be faithful, they’re listening to him in the midst of the struggle, oppression and persecution that they face as the hoi polloi (or 99%), and as Christians.  There seems to be tension around listening to God and hearing God’s will.  Baggage can get in the way. The disciples are recipients of special knowledge but they lack the spiritual insight and understanding. So what is Jesus saying to them then?  What is Jesus saying to us today?

Next week: Mark 4:21-34. Look for a study of the text
on Monte’s blog at
during the week to prepare for Sunday.

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