Mark 4:3-9

FROM EARTH TO HEAVEN

Mk. 4:3-9

“Listen! Look! The sower went out to sow. As he was sowing, some seed fell along the roadside; and the birds came and devoured it. Some fell upon rocky ground where it did not have much earth; and it sprang up immediately, because it had no depth of earth, but, when the sun rose, it was scorched, and it was withered away, because it had no root. Some fell among thorns; and the thorns crowded in on it until they choked the life out of it, and it did not yield any fruit. And some fen on good ground; and, as it grew up and grew greater, it yielded fruit and bore as much as thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

We leave the interpretation of this parable until we come to the interpretation Mark gives us, and for the moment we consider it only as a specimen of Jesus’ parabolic teaching in action. The scene is the lakeside; Jesus is sitting in the boat just off the shore. The shore shelves gently down to the water’s edge, and makes a natural amphitheatre for the crowd. Even as he talks Jesus sees a sower busy sowing seed in the fields beside the lake. “Look!” he said, “The sower went out to sow.” Herein is the whole essence of the parabolic method.

(i) Jesus started from the here and now to get to the there and then. He started from a thing that was happening at that moment on earth in order to lead men’s thoughts to heaven; he started from something which all men could see to get to the things that are invisible; he started from something which all men knew to get to something which they had never as yet realized. That was the very essence of Jesus’ teaching. He did not bewilder men by starting with things which were strange and abstruse and involved; he started with the simplest things that,even a child could understand.

(ii) By so doing Jesus showed that he believed that there was a real kinship between earth and heaven. Jesus would not have agreed that “earth was a desert drear.” He believed that in the ordinary, common, everyday things of life men could see God. As William Temple put it: “Jesus taught men to see the operation of God in the regular and the normal–in the rising of the sun and the falling of the rain and the growth of the plant.” Long ago Paul had the same idea when he said that the visible world is designed to make known the invisible things of God (Rom.1:20). For Jesus this world was not a lost and evil place; it was the garment of the living God. Sir Christopher Wren lies buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, the great church that his own genius planned and built. On his tombstone there is a simple Latin inscription which means, “If you wish to see his monument, look around you.” Jesus would have said, “If you wish to see God, look around you.” Jesus finds in the common things of life a countless source of signs which lead men to God if they will only read them aright.

(iii) The very essence of the parables is that they were spontaneous, extempore and unrehearsed. Jesus looks round, seeking a point of contact with the crowd. He sees the sower and on the spur of the moment that sower becomes his text. The parables were not stories wrought out in the quiet of a study; they were not carefully thought out and polished and rehearsed. Their supreme greatness is that Jesus composed these immortal short stories on the spur of the moment. They were produced by the demand of the occasion and in the cut and thrust of debate.

  1. J. Cadoux said of the parables: “A parable is art harnessed for service and conflict…. Here we find the reason why the parable is so rare. It requires a considerable degree of art, but art exercised under hard conditions. In the three typical parables of the Bible the speaker takes his life in his hands. Jotham (Judg.9:8-15) spoke his parable of the trees to the men of Shechem and then fled for his life. Nathan (2Sam.12:1-7), with the parable of the ewe-lamb, told an oriental despot of his sin. Jesus in the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen used his own death sentence as a weapon for his cause…. In its most characteristic use the parable is a weapon of controversy, not shaped like a sonnet in undisturbed concentration but improvised in conflict to meet the unpremeditated situation. In its highest use it shows the sensitiveness of the poet, the penetration, rapidity and resourcefulness of the protagonist, and the courage that allows such a mind to work unimpeded by the turmoil and danger of mortal conflict.”

When we bear in mind that the parables of Jesus were flashed out extempore, their wonder is increased a hundredfold.

(iv) That brings us to a point we must always remember in our attempts to interpret the parables. They were, in the first instance, not meant to be read but to be heard. That is to say, in the first instance, no one could sit down and study them phrase by phrase and word by word. They were spoken not to be studied at length and at leisure, but to produce an immediate impression and reaction. That is to say, the parables must never be treated as allegories. In an allegory every part and action and detail of the story has an inner significance. The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Faerie Queene are allegories; in them every event and person and detail has a symbolic meaning. Clearly an allegory is something to be read and studied and examined; but a parable is something which was heard once and once only. Therefore what we must look for in a parable is not a situation in which every detail stands for something but a situation in which one great idea leaps out and shines like a flash of lightning. It is always wrong to attempt to make every detail of a parable mean something. It is always right to say: “What one idea would flash into a man’s mind when he heard this story for the first time?”

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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