Mark does something strange with his concentrated little section of parables. Rather than focusing on the primary content of Jesus’ teaching, Mark presents an integrated set of parables that seem self-conscious. That is, they are teachings about the dynamic of Jesus’ teaching. The first parable--the parable of the sower--is in fact the parable about parables. The following shorter parables support and develop the main theme of this meta-parable. So it is that Jesus paradoxically uses parables to teach about parables. This may seem a little confusing, but the section, once we grasp its underlying point, is where the challenge to the reader really begins.
The critical verse is 4:13. Its contention is that understand- ing the parable of the sower is the key to understanding all other parables. Why? Because being good soil, the hearer can receive the message of other parables and be productive. Mark’s masterful telling of the story reveals as much about the meaning of the parable as Jesus’ direct explanation does. Between parable and explanation is the disciples’ question about “the parables”--not this specific one but about parables in general. Undoubtedly, the question was, “Why are you speaking in riddles!? Don’t you want us to understand you?” Two points are vital. One, Jesus says that they have been given the the secret of the kingdom. Two, he says that for “those outside” everything comes in parables. Two observations follow. One, the disciples, whatever they had been given, still do not understand. Two, everything comes to them in parables as well, which is precisely why they don’t understand. Then follows the Isa. 6 quotation that seems to imply a rather dark idea of God’s intentions for those “outside.” In order to avoid getting sidetracked by questions of predestination and the like, it is best just to let the quotation do its rhetorical job, which is to force the questions the reader should be asking:What kind of soil am I? Am I inside or outside? Now Mark’s storytelling does its Job. The answer to those questions is not based upon whether I understand. Rather, we must ask what the actual difference is between the disciples and everyone else. And the only difference is simple. They seek understanding. They draw near to Jesus and ask for clarification. In this, they exemplify what it is to be good soil. There is a deep resonance between this parable and the well known exhortations to seek first the kingdom (Mt. 6:33) and to ask, seek, and knock (Mt. 7:7). This is about priorities. The Thus, 4:34 is simple restatement of the whole dynamic. It is the explaining that makes all the difference, which is to say it is the seeking explanation that makes all the difference.
Yet, the question of whether Jesus really wants to be under- stood remains. He could, after all, just speak plainly. And the Isaiah quotation heightens this doubt. The following parables
address the question head-on. Jesus’ message is light.
Is light to be hidden? No! Its point is to make things visible. The aim is that those who see should perceive and that hear should understand, not the reverse. Revelation is the intention. The key word throughout these parables is “hear” or “listen” (depending on your translation), and the statement that summarizes the entire section is found in 4:24. “Pay attention to what you hear!” or “Pay attention to how you hear!” (see Introduction). The burden is on the hearer to listen well, to strive for understanding; not on Jesus to make everything plain, simple, and easily accessible. That may seem counterintuitive given the desire that the message shed light, but Jesus’ way is not for the curious, the slightly invested, or the preoccupied. He will not make them get it just to watch their true priorities win the battle later. That happens enough as it is. Rather, he aims to draw in those whose priority is, from the beginning, the search. This is the logic of the saying in vv. 24-25. Those who invest to gain understanding will gain ever more. Those who do not will be left in the dark.
Readers with a reactive posture toward anything that threatens “grace” will balk at these ideas. Doesn’t saying “the burden is on the reader” make it a “work”? Is there grace for the sinner but not the bad listener? I prefer to let Jesus set the standard, however, and place such concerns under the scrutiny of the text. This allows us, as evangelists, to present the question that Jesus would put to any reader of Mark: How serious are you about hearing my kingdom message? Will you seek? Will you be good soil? The choice is the reader’s, because Jesus is certainly not trying to say that one’s “soil type” is predetermined. His point, just like Isaiah’s, was to provoke repentance, not to suggest that change is a foregone conclusion. Consider the fist three chapters of the story. Ponder the signs of Jesus’ identity. Now, decide whether understanding this man and his message is secondary to anything else--gratifying desires, avoiding persecution, fortune and fame, anything! That is the implicit demand of Jesus’ puzzling way, and it wisely lays the groundwork for the message of costly discipleship soon to follow.
As for the concern about going too far on the side of human doing, Mark appears to be aware of the concern. The following parable, unique to Mark, makes quite clear that none of us controls the growth. Not even the sower, who is Jesus himself in the parable of the sower! Even between a combination of Jesus-quality sowing and perfect soil, we cannot do the work of God. The kingdom is a place of divine-human cooperation. We do our part, and God does his.
The final parable continues in the same vein. Why do it this way? Considering the power clearly at Jesus’ disposal, why not a sky-sized banner announcing the truth? Given the dire situation Jesus has come to set right, given all that is at stake, why not the biggest, flashiest, most impressive, overwhelming display of evangelistic outburst possible? What is more, why go the opposite direction and make it even harder to grasp what is going on? If this is the kingdom of God, shouldn’t it out-shine Rome like the sun beside a candle? This is God’s kingdom we’re talking about. Where’s the might? Where’s the splendor? Where’s the glory? It’s still all about expectations. We can demand that God be Caesar, with his decree by fiat and its brutal enforcement; or we can allow God to be Jesus, with his manger and his cross and his terrifyingly resistible call. Yet, whatever our expectations, God’s kingdom is actually like a mustard seed. It may start off unimpressive, but it will grow far bigger than its humble beginning could have foreshown. This is about the very nature of the kingdom, and the means to Jesus’ end must be a reflection of its reality. It will the the kingdom that overshadows all others, but its character demands a certain way of beginning: among the sinner and the sick and the outcast, among those able by faith to see in the anticlimactic present the glorious future, among those willing to accept Jesus as he is. Much like the parables themselves, the kingdom calls for faith and hope than will not be sacrificed to the instant gratification of fulfillment and sight. Are we able to recognize God in this enigmatic Galilean?