Monday, October 17, 2011

“Parables reveal people’s inability to respond; they do not cause it.”

Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that

“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Mark 4:1-20, ESV
The phrase everything happens in parables ([Mark 4:11] – rather than ‘is spoken in parables’) suggests that it is not only Jesus’ teaching in view but his whole ministry …. The whole Jesus movement is, in this sense, ‘parabolic’. Its significance is not to be grasped by the casual onlooker or dilettante. Its understanding is a matter of revelation, a ‘secret’ which not all have yet come to share.

So there will be insiders and outsiders, as long as there are some who have not responded to the good news of the kingship of God in the ministry of Jesus. It is not Jesus’ parables in themselves which cause this division, but rather his whole ministry with its revolutionary challenge. But it is in people’s response to the parables that the division is most clearly demonstrated, as their basic orientation is revealed by their ability or inability to see things from God’s perspective. The division is not caused by the parables; it is already there. This perspective is surely built into the parable of the sower, where the problem lies not in the seed, but in the fact that the condition of some of the soil is already unsuitable. So it was for Isaiah [6:10], and so it was for Jesus and may be expected to be for those who continue to preach God’s kingship in a world which does not want to know.

* * *

If the insight which the kingship of God demands is ‘given’ to some and not to others, whose fault is it that they do not understand? Those who are not let into a secret can hardly be blamed for not knowing it.

This is not the place to attempt an answer to the age-old problem of selection in the dealings of God with his people. But I think our discussion of Mark so far allows some relevant comments to be made. First, our study does not support the simple view that Mark presents Jesus as choosing to teach in parables as a means of keeping people out of the kingdom of God. Parables reveal people’s inability to respond; they do not cause it. The problem lies further back than that. Nor is it simply the teaching method per se which has this result, but rather the whole character of Jesus’ message and ministry as a challenge to abandon natural human insights and to see everything in the new perspective of God’s kingship. Such a change takes divinely given insight, ‘to know the secret of God’s kingship’.

The aim of Jesus’ preaching throughout Mark’s Gospel so far has been to attract people to God’s kingship, not to repel them. And he has had remarkable success. The ‘insiders’ to whom he is speaking in 4:10ff. were not always insiders. They had no more natural ability to penetrate the secret than ‘those outside’. But through Jesus’ ministry it has been ‘given’ to them. So if to them, why not to others? And indeed Mark offers us indications at other points in the Gospel that the division between insiders and outsiders is not a gulf which cannot be crossed (e.g. the scribe who is ‘not far from the kingdom of God in 12.34) and that the category of ‘insider’ may be more inclusive than some of his followers thought (e.g. the exorcist who ‘was not following us’, in 9.38-9, leading to Jesus’ pronouncement that ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’, 9.40-1). If ‘outsiders’ can never become ‘insiders’, then the whole mission of preaching the good news of God’s kingship is a cruel hoax. It can and does produce results, as the parables of chapter 4 make clear. The seed is sown and produces a crop beyond all expectation. But how the result is achieved is beyond human understanding, as we see in the parable of the growing seed (4.26-9). It is the work of God, not the result of the successful application of an approved technique, not even the use of parables.

But does the structure of chapter 4 offer at least the hint of another answer to the problem of selection? C.F.D. Moule believes it does. He notices the unusual description of the ‘privileged’ audience of verse 10; they are not ‘the twelve’, or even ‘the disciples’ (though cf. ‘his own disciples’ in v. 34), but ‘those who were about him with the twelve’. This, says Moule, ‘is not a closed group but a chance gathering’. They are characterized as a group who ask questions, and it is this that differentiates them from ‘those outside’. It was precisely such questions which the parables were designed to evoke, and they have succeeded. Some of the seed has fallen on good soil. While some were not interested to pursue Jesus’ teaching beyond an initial hearing, others (who naturally included, but were not confined to, the twelve) wanted to know more. So they came and asked Jesus, and in so doing constituted themselves ‘insiders’; to them, because they wanted to know, the secret was given. The division is the result, then, not so much of divine predestination as of self-selection.

I find this argument attractive, as far as it goes. I think it is based on a true perception of how parabolic teaching functioned in Jesus’ ministry (and indeed still does), even though I suspect that Moule lays too much emphasis on the fluidity of the groups represented, in view of the clear divisions already emerging in chapter 3, the use of peri auton in 3.32, 34 to distinguish Jesus’ circle from his puzzled family, and the specification in 4:34 that it was only to ‘his own disciples’ that Jesus explained his parables.

But even if Moule’s argument is correct, this merely moves the same basic problem one stage further back, and we must still ask what it is that makes some ready to seek for new enlightenment when others are not. I do not think that chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel answers this question, nor do I think it was intended to do so. It shows how people respond to the message of the kingship of God, and clarifies the divisions which are already there in people’s responsiveness to divine revelation. Some have ‘ears to hear’ and some have not. But chapter 4 does not attempt to explain how some soil comes to be good and some bad, beyond the general principle of the parable of the growing seed that God’s work is achieved in God’s way, not by human planning or effort. That God does turn some outsiders into insiders is the message of the whole New Testament, but this chapter does not allow us to investigate the process of selection.

If this seems an unsatisfying conclusion, it is, I hope, at least an exegetically honest one. Mark chapter 4 presents the selective revelation of the secret of God’s kingship as a fact, but solutions to the problem of divine selection must be sought elsewhere. In so far as Mark 4 offers us any perspective on this problem, it lies in its insistence that an understanding of God’s way of governing his world is never likely to be achieved by unaided human observation and logic. Experience confirms that such understanding is ‘given’ rather than achieved by argument.
R.T. France: “Divine Government: God’s Kingship in the Gospel of Mark” (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, ©1990, pgs 39-42).

Regarding this passage, Beale and Carson (Eds., “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament”, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2007) say, “Jesus’ message to Israel was unexpected and thus mysterious, as was Isaiah’s to Judah. And it occasioned, as crystallized in the stubbornness seen in the final synagogue confrontation (Mark 3:1-6) and the climactic Beelzebul controversy, the same rejection (as also in Isa. 40-55). Soteriologically, in this respect the parables are neither esoteric nor rigidly predestinarian, but rather are revelatory of the kingdom and the hearers’ hearts. They are the judicial response from the one who inaugurates God’s kingly reign to stubbornness of heart and blasphemous rebellion. As such, they are also a warning to those who, perhaps like Jesus’ family [Mark 3], are less hostile but nevertheless still on the outside" (155)

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