June 8, 2005

“Unexplained” Parables

Category: Bible - NT - Mark :: Permalink

At the end of Mark 3, Jesus identifies two categories, insiders and outsiders. Those who are seated around Him are the insiders, the true members of His family. But those who do not come to Him and listen to Him are the outsiders, in spite of their physical relationship to Him. Mary and Jesus’ brothers are left outside while tax gatherers and others are inside.

That distinction is emphasized when Jesus starts telling parables. When His followers, with the twelve disciples, ask about the parables, Jesus tells them that they have been given to know the mystery of God’s kingdom, but “to those who are outside, all things come in parables.” The insiders get the knowledge; the outsiders get everything in parables. Jesus then goes on to explain the parable of the soil to His followers.

At the end of the parable section in Mark 4, Mark tells us again that Jesus did not speak to the crowds without using parables, but that He explained everything to His disciples. That is what we have already seen in this chapter: the outsiders got only the parable of the soil, but the insiders get the explanation, too.

As readers of this Gospel, we get the explanation of the parable of the soils, which suggests that we are being treated as insiders. But what about the other explanations? It sounds as if Jesus also explained His other parables — the parable of the seed’s growth (4:26-29), for instance, and the parable of the mustard seed (4:30-32) — but we don’t get to hear the explanation of those parables.

Why not? My guess is that Mark wants us to grow in wisdom so that we are able to figure these parables out on our own. And my further guess is that Mark wants us to realize that the explanation of these parables depends, not only on our knowledge of God’s previous revelation (which we call the Old Testament) but also on the rest of the story he’s telling, namely, the Gospel of Mark itself.

If we read the Gospel all the way to the end, we should realize, for instance, what it means for the kingdom to start like a seed being thrown down on the ground and then to rise in a new and more glorious form.

We should also realize what it means for the kingdom not to come all at once, for Israel not to be ready for the harvest but to need planting, and for there to be a period of slow growth before the sower sends out the sickle to reap the harvest. In fact, Mark probably assumes that we’ve read Matthew and we know that Jesus taught His disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out reapers (Matt. 9:37-38; cf. Luke 10:2).

The parables appear to be left unexplained, but Mark hasn’t left us in the position of outsiders who receive only parables. He also hasn’t simply handed everything to us so that we no longer need to struggle and grow. Rather, he treats us as insiders and gives us an explanation, but the explanation he gives is the rest of the story.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:44 pm | Discuss (0)

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