Mark 4:1-2

TEACHING IN PARABLES

Mk. 4:1-2

Jesus began again to teach by the lakeside. A very great crowd collected to hear him, so great that he had to go on board a boat and sit in it on the lake. The whole crowd was on the land facing the lake. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he began to say to them, “Listen! Look! The sower went out to sow.”

In this section we see Jesus making a new departure. He was no longer teaching in the synagogue; he was teaching by the lakeside. He had made the orthodox approach to the people; now he had to take unusual methods.

We do well to note that Jesus was prepared to use new methods. He was willing to take religious preaching and teaching out of its conventional setting in the synagogue into the open air and among the crowds of ordinary men and women. John Wesley was for many years a faithful and orthodox servant of the Church of England. Down in Bristol his friend George Whitefield was preaching to the miners, to as many as twenty thousand of them at a time, in the open air; and his hearers were being converted by the hundred. He sent for John Wesley. Wesley said, “I love a commodious room, a soft cushion, a handsome pulpit.” This whole business of open air preaching rather offended him. He said himself, “I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way–having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” But Wesley saw that field preaching won souls and said, “I cannot argue against a matter of fact.”

There must have been many amongst the orthodox Jews who regarded this new departure as stunting and sensationalism; but Jesus was wise enough to know when new methods were necessary and adventurous enough to use them. It would be well if his church was equally wise and equally adventurous.

This new departure needed a new method; and the new method Jesus chose was to speak to the people in parables. A parable is literally something thrown beside something else; that is to say, it is basically a comparison. It is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Something on earth is compared with something in heaven, that the heavenly truth may be better grasped in light of the earthly illustration. Why did Jesus choose this method? And why did it become so characteristic of him that he is known forever as the master of the parable?

(i) First and foremost, Jesus chose the parabolic method simply to make people listen. He was not now dealing with an assembly of people in a synagogue who were more or less bound to remain there until the end of the service. He was dealing with a crowd in the open air who were quite free to walk away at any time. Therefore, the first essential was to interest them. Unless their interest was aroused they would simply drift away. Sir Philip Sidney speaks of the poet’s secret: “With a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale that holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney-corner.” The surest way to awaken men’s interest is to tell them stories and Jesus knew that.

(ii) Further, when Jesus used the parabolic method he was using something with which Jewish teachers and audiences were entirely familiar. There are parables in the Old Testament of which the most famous is the story of the one ewe lamb that Nathan told to David when he had treacherously eliminated Uriah and taken possession of Bathsheba (2Sam.12:1-7). The Rabbis habitually used parables in their teaching. It was said of Rabbi Meir that he spoke one-third in legal decisions; one-third in exposition; and one-third in parables.

Here are two examples of Rabbinic parables. The first is the work of Rabbi Judah the Prince (e. A.D. 190). Antoninus, the Roman Emperor, asked him how there could be punishment in the world beyond, for since body and soul after their separation could not have committed sin they could blame each other for the sins committed upon earth. The Rabbi answered in a parable:

A certain king had a beautiful garden in which was excellent fruit; and over it he appointed two watchmen, one blind and one lame. The lame man said to the blind man, “I see exquisite fruit in the garden. Carry me thither that I may get it and we will eat it together.” The blind man consented and both ate of the fruit. After some days the Lord of the garden came and asked the watchmen concerning the fruit. Then the lame man said, “As I have no legs I could not go to it, so it is not my fault.” And the blind man said, “I could not even see it so it is not my fault.” What did the Lord of the garden do? He made the blind man carry the lame and thus passed judgment on them both. So God will replace the souls in their bodies and will punish both together for their sins.

When Rabbi Chiyya’s son Abin died at the early age of twenty-eight, Rabbi Zera delivered the funeral oration, which he put in the form of a parable:

A king had a vineyard for which he engaged many labourers, one of whom was specially apt and skilful. What did the king do? He took this labourer from his work, and walked through the garden conversing with him. When the labourers came for their hire in the evening the skilful labourer appeared among them and received a full day’s wages from the king. The other labourers were very angry at this, and said, “We have toiled the whole day, while this man has worked but two hours. Why does the king give him the full hire even as unto us?” The king said to them, “Why are you angry? Through his skill he has done more in the two hours than you have done all day.” So it is with Rabbi Abin ben Chiyya. In the twenty-eight years of his life he has learned more than others learn in a hundred years. Hence he has fulfilled his life work, and is entitled to be called to Paradise earlier than others from his work on earth; nor will he miss aught of his reward.

When Jesus used the parabolic method of teaching, he was using a method with which the Jews were familiar and which they could understand.

(iii) Still further, when Jesus used the parabolic method of teaching he was making the abstract idea concrete. Few people can grasp abstract ideas. Most people think in pictures. We could talk about beauty for long enough and no one would be any the wiser; but, if we can point to a person and say, “That is a beautiful person,” beauty becomes clear. We could talk about goodness for long enough and fail to arrive at a definition of it; but every one recognizes a good deed when he sees one. There is a sense in which every word must become flesh; every idea must be actualized in a person. When the New Testament talks about faith it takes the example of Abraham so that the idea of faith becomes flesh in the person of Abraham. Jesus was a wise teacher. He knew that it was useless to expect simple minds to cope with abstract ideas; and so he put the abstract ideas into concrete stories; he showed them in action; he made them into persons, so that men might grasp and understand them.

(iv) Lastly, the great virtue of the parable is that it compels a man to think for himself. It does not do his thinking for him. It compels him to make his own deduction and to discover the truth for himself. The worst way to help a child is to do his work for him. It does not help him at all to do his sums, write his essay, work out his problems, compose his Latin prose. It does help greatly to give him the necessary help to do it for himself. That is what Jesus was aiming at. Truth has always a double impact when it is a personal discovery. Jesus did not wish to save men the mental sweat of thinking; he wished to make them think. He did not wish to make their minds lazy; he wished to make them active. He did not wish to take the responsibility from them; he wished to lay the responsibility on them. So he used the parabolic method, not to do men’s thinking for them, but to encourage them to do their own thinking. He presented them with truth which, if they would make the right effort in the right frame of mind, they could discover for themselves, and therefore possess it in a way that made it really and truly theirs.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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