On Parables: Some Observations on Mark 4:1-34

If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat! – Pink Floyd

Anyone who has listened to Another Brick in the Wall (part 2)1 will not forget the words the distraught teacher screams at the child. The teacher intends to maintain order (as well as control) by enforcing the rule: eat your meat, and you can have your pudding. What makes the scene funny—as well as tragic—is the man’s blindness to the absurdity of his full-throated enforcement of this petty rule. His behavior is absurd because he destroys the very thing his role as teacher requires him to preserve: good order in the classroom and healthy, flourishing children. The man has lost sight of the true purpose and meaning of his role and responsibility.

It takes a short leap of imagination to project the dynamic of this classroom fiasco onto the larger screen of society: the school becomes the society, and its rules are replaced by society’s laws, manners, and mores. “Eat your meat” becomes: Comply, and do the things that make these laws, manners, and mores second nature to you, and that will allow you to fit in and progress within the society (have your pudding). The problem that ensues, however, is the growing blindness to life’s larger, true purpose, which becomes obscured by the determination to gobble endlessly life’s petty puddings. Like the teacher, the child may develop into an adult who unquestionably shuts out the light that lies beyond the bricked-in cave that he and his society have unwittingly, absurdly chosen to inhabit. How do we reach those who see no further than their society’s ways (be it those of culture, tribe, or faith community), and have neither ability nor desire to think, feel, or see into the true realm of light and life?

Enter the parable.

11bAll these things are done in parables: 12That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

No more direct than this explanation is the method by which the parable does its work. Using guerilla tactics, the parable avoids the road of well-traveled and defended ideas, and travels alongside on a path forged by its own narrative. In metaphorical disguise, it draws close to what its hearers have refused to see and have kept hidden. Slipping past the guard of inward blindness, it presents a spiritual truth to be recognized and acknowledged: so that “they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them” (This verse [12] cleverly alludes to the resistance of the heart that is “fat,” the ears that are “heavy,” and the eyes that are “shut” [Isa. 6:9-10] to the person’s own best interest: i.e., that their sins be forgiven them. Such “heavy” resistance can be overcome through the parabolic ploy.)

Jesus uses the parable to teach of the mystery of the kingdom of God unto them that are without (11). Through metaphor, the parable functions to evoke a recognition of its hearers’ inward, spiritual condition. In verses 13-20, Jesus rehearses the particulars of the parable of the sower, which he’s given to the multitude, and shows his disciples each particular’s corresponding, inward condition. Point by point, he correlates the type of soil onto which the sower’s seed is cast to the kind of soul to whom the Word of God is preached.

The long parable of the sower and the equally long explanation of its meaning has been a lesson for his disciples on the objective and strategy of parables. This beginning 20-verse segment is then followed by a series of short, one- or two-verse parables or metaphors that quickly follow one upon another. It’s as if Jesus has patiently explained how parables work, and is now presenting example after example of their use in teaching of the kingdom “unto them that are without” (11).

The remaining verses in this passage (21-34) are cast into five segments. Four of the five begin with similar introductory phrases. “And he said unto them” is the phrase that begins both verses 21 and 24; “And he said” is the phrase that starts both verses 26 and 30. Each time one of these introductory phrases appears, the reader is cued a new parable or metaphor is beginning.

The first segment (21-23) begins:  

21And he said unto them, Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? And not to be set on a candlestick? 22For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was anything kept secret, but that it should come abroad. 23If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.

Both the sower parable that came before, and this candle metaphor call a person to take stock of himself: What is the condition of your soul (soil), the sower parable asks. Am I bringing forth light into the world, or am I hiding what I’ve been given, prompts the metaphor of the candle. In verse 22, however, Jesus opens the possibility that not only goodness and light are within; his reference to hiding, secrecy, and exposure (22) implies that darkness, not light, can prevail within. In this first segment, Jesus has moved from encouraging his hearers to warning them: whether it be good or evil, what resides within will become outwardly manifest.  

Capping this three-verse segment is the phrase “If any man have ears to hear, let him hear” (23). The statement introduces a new metaphor: “to hear,” meaning “to give one’s attention to.” He chides his audience to not excuse themselves from attending to his words.

The second segment (24-25) begins:

24And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given. 25For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.

Jesus continues to warn of looming, inevitable justice: what one hears, i.e., what one attends to, will determine not only one’s behavior but the content of one’s inner being. The true substance of being—the Truth as it is in Christ—is worthy of attention, and attending to that Truth guarantees its beneficial increase. Conversely, attending to that which is without substance—lies from the father of lies—will leave one empty and bereft of existential meaning, even the meaning that one has self-generated. Whatever spirit one harbors will grow or spread within consciousness, eventually to subsume one’s entire being: one’s will, emotion, mind, and body.

The third segment (26-29) begins:

26And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; 27And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. 28For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. 29But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.

With this new parable, Jesus focuses once again on the benevolent “kingdom of God.” As in the previous segment, he stresses the incremental growth of life within, and here offers an illustration: through stages, the seed grows into “the full corn.” Man “knoweth not how” this growth comes to be: thus Jesus draws attention to the One who is beyond comprehension, who reigns and enables our growth, and we are both the harvest and its beneficiaries: His creation and His image. 

The fourth segment (30-32) begins:    

30And he said, whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what comparison shall we compare it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: 32But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.

Building upon the previous segments’ teaching of incremental growth, this new parable tempers the idea by warning not to ignore small promptings: it “is less than all the seeds that be in the earth.” The spirit of Truth doesn’t assist one in acquiring the goods – both material and immaterial – that society worships, and is therefore usually overlooked or bypassed. Yet if tended to, the seed of Truth grows into a tree “shoot[ing] out great branches” in which the restless flight of being can “lodge.”

In the last segment (33-34) of this passage on parables, the narrator himself speaks:

33And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. 34But without a parable spake he not unto them; and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.

The narrator has provided readers with a summary of Jesus’s teaching method: with the crowd, he uses figurative language: parable and metaphor; with his disciples, he explains the spiritual meaning of his stories and images. A storyteller or artist of any kind must inwardly sense the nature of the substance he would make visible or sensible to others, and he must faithfully assess whether his expression is true to that inward sense: if he is, in fact, meting that measure (24). Jesus’s parables bear an exactitude to the Spirit that testifies to the clarity and strength of the inward vision bestowed upon him. This passage in chapter 4 of Mark is rich and alive with wisdom from above. To enter into its language and thought is to be replenished with the power and beauty of the mind of Christ.

1 Pink Floyd, The Wall: Another Brick in the Wall (parts 1, 2, and 3), Columbia P2T36183, 1979, cassette.

2 The King James Version of the Bible has been used throughout this essay.

One Hundred Guilder Print by Rembrandt, 1649
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2 Responses to On Parables: Some Observations on Mark 4:1-34

  1. Thank you for this, Patricia!
    Pity the fat-hearted, heavy-eared, shut-eyed souls that “don’t get it” because nothing in their experience has yet prepared them to “get it:” but a parable, planted in their heart while they are still spiritually asleep, like a nursery rhyme planted in early childhood, may yet sprout within them after a long delay. Until then, their spiritual immaturity may protect them from full culpability for their follies: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required… (Luke 12:47-48).”
    Jesus wisely likens parables to seeds; he would have known, of course, Jotham’s parable of the trees (Judges 9:7-20), and Nathan’s parable of the poor man’s cosset-lamb (2 Sam 12:1-12). A good parable has the power to jolt the hearer into wakefulness, as a sprouting seed — sprouting at its own destined time — breaks through the ground into the light of day.
    I like to think that some of those in Jesus’ audience (who, significantly, were standing firmly on the land, while Jesus taught from on the water, Mark 4:1) who “couldn’t get it” and felt insulted when they heard that Jesus had spoken scornfully of their dim wits and consequent ineligibility to have their sins forgiven (4:11-12), were outraged enough by it to have the flash of anger needed to open their ears to really hear him. One can at least hope!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, John. I hadn’t known the Jotham parable but reading it in Judges, I found it evoked thoughts of today’s political trend toward authoritarian governments.

    I think we all love stories from the time we’re young children. They not only entertain but give lessons about life, and Jesus’s parables do the same for adults: provide lessons about Life, if we ponder them in our heart.


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