Monday, September 29, 2014

010-Power to Redeem and Recreate

The New Creation begins with Jesus. 

The next section of Mark, 4:35-5:43 includes three or four miracles stories. (NICNT counts the first two as a single exorcism story, making the total count three.) These four stories are all related in that they deal with the realm of the unclean and the dead. Together they picture Jesus’ power over impurity, disease, and demons.

Calming of the Storm and Sea

imageThe first story of this session’s passage is about the calming of a storm on the sea. The context is that the sea and storm represent the forces of chaos attempting to overtake and destroy Jesus and his family, his disciples. The demons are responsible and present in the winds of the storm. In response Jesus rebukes the wind. The language Mark uses represents that of an exorcism. The result is that a “great calm” settles on the sea.

In ancient mythology, only deities had the kind of command over nature that was displayed in this story. The disciples see and experience this, and their response is fear. They are starting to realize that Jesus is the Creator of the Genesis 1 account. Through his command over nature, Jesus demonstrates that all creation is under his command. All the damage sin has caused to the world, Jesus demonstrates that he has power to recreate. Jesus foreshadows the full realization and recreation of his future kingdom.

This story also bears some similarities and also striking differences with the Jonah account. What is important for Mark’s audience are the differences. In Jonah, God is outside the human trial, and not only that, he is portrayed as the one sending the storm to punish Jonah for his disobedience. In Mark’s storm account, God (in Jesus) is present with his people in the storm and it is not God, but demons, that are shown to be the cause of the storm. I see Mark correcting misunderstandings about God through this account.

The Demoniac and the Pigs

imageIn the second story of this session we read the longest narrative in Mark. In a writing style known for directness and terseness, Mark expends a large amount of ink providing numerous details.

In this account we are given a picture of what evil and demons seek to do to people. With the demoniac, they have almost succeeded. From all appearances, he is no longer a human being. He cannot speak for himself and all his actions are self-harm.

Where all other people fear this man, Jesus has no fear of him. Jesus sees the kernel of humanity that is still present, and the potential that is still there. He removes the demons from oppressing the man.

The demons are allowed to complete their work of destruction through the herd of pigs. I believe Jesus allowed this to occur because his disciples and the former demoniac needed to see that the demons returned to their source, their abode – the sea – and perished, no longer able to wield their power over them.

The townsfolk were understandably upset and afraid. They too, like the disciples, probably recognized divinity in Jesus. In their legends and myths, the presence of a deity on earth is never a good thing, and it is understandable that they wanted Jesus to leave.

Jesus does not insist on staying but commissions the former demoniac as his first apostle to the Gentiles. He has no doctrine or creed to teach, but simply a testimony of God’s mercy. This is the heart of evangelism. This is the seed of the gospel that, when planted, will bear fruit.

This is Mark’s retelling of the second creation account of Genesis 2. The demoniac is recreated and given back his dignity of a human being. He is commissioned and given a task by God to sow seeds (to garden?) of the gospel in the lands given to him to steward. Jesus demonstrates his power to recreate humans beings in God’s image. Nothing unclean or evil can stand before him.

Again I see some parallels with the Jonah account. They are not exact parallels, but both Jonah and Jesus go to minister to Gentiles in non-Hebrew lands. Both are stories of God’s mercy. I see Mark using the second part of Jonah’s story to emphasize that Jesus’ actions follow historical precedent.

Illustrations of Jesus’ Teachings

Through these stories of Jesus’ power, Mark illustrates the “seed parables” of chapter 4. The gospel’s power is found not in the words of teaching, but in the testimonies of God’s mercy shown to his people.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

009-More Seed Parables

Evangelism is about letting go of our human desire (need?)
to maintain control, especially over ministry.

This session continues and concludes Mark’s example of how Jesus taught the people that came to him. By comparing the words arranged and recorded by Mark in this section to where these appear in the other Synoptics, we get an understanding of the methods and intent of the gospel writers.

The aphorisms from which this section has been constructed are traditional in character and occur elsewhere unrelated to each other… By inserting this block of material into the discourse on parables he sheds light on his distinctive understanding of these words of Jesus.[1]

Mark did not record a specific instance of Jesus’ teaching, but arranged together what one might have looked like to communicate Mark’s own understanding of the gospel. In other words, what is recorded may not be what Jesus originally intended his words to say, yet still remains true and faithful to the gospel intent. Truth does not depend solely on factual or historical accuracy or precision.

A Collection of Sayings

imageVerses 21-25 are a collection of various proverbial and parabolic sayings of Jesus placed together to make the point that hearing and heeding Jesus’ words are of vital importance. It matches the corresponding “C” section of verses 10-12.

In the earlier set Jesus told his disciples that the secret of the kingdom was being revealed to them, but was being hidden to everyone else. In this session’s “C’” section Mark tells us, through Jesus’ words, that the hiding is not forever, but for the precise reason that the kingdom will be revealed in the future. Most of the people are not yet ready to hear and see the full revelation, and so its unveiling is being done through parables.

The disciples are being given an early preview of the kingdom. Through their hearing and appropriating of the words, they will be given additional wisdom and knowledge. They will be given the opportunity to participate in the revelation of the kingdom.

Precisely because there is going to be an unveiling which unravels the enigma and reveals the mystery [of the kingdom of God], hearing with true perception is important now… If the word of proclamation is appropriated with eagerness and joy, in like measure a rich share will be received in the eschatological revelation of the Kingdom, and “even more shall be given…” What will ultimately be received in the Kingdom of God will depend upon that which a man possesses of it now. Present possession depends upon hearing, upon appropriation or rejection of the word of the Kingdom that has been scattered like seed… Only those who penetrate the mystery in the present will share in the glory which is yet to be revealed.[2]

Parable of the Growing Seed

imageMark returns to giving an example of Jesus’ public teaching with the second parable involving a seed. What is of most interest in this parable is not what is there, but what is missing: the work of the farmer between sowing and harvesting.

This is a parable that hits at the center of human desire: to do something to make something else happen. It hits at the heart of church and evangelism. It tells us that beyond sowing seed, the church cannot control anything. In fact, as the first parable shows, the church cannot even control where the seed lands. The church can do things to possibly influence the environment to encourage sprouting, growth, and harvest, but it cannot control the environment.

And that’s okay. That’s the other message of this parable (as well as all three of the seed parables). Success of the gospel is quite guaranteed apart from any effort on the part of Christians and the church. The power of the gospel is inherent in its message. When it finds receptive ears, it will sprout, grow, and bear fruit, quite apart from anything the church or Christians do or don’t do.

This theme of God's reign as gift, not achievement, is present in the parable of the seed that grows automatically. The farmer merely sows the seed. After that, all he does is “sleep and rise,” not knowing how the seed is growing, not calculating what the result will be. This certainty of success parallels the first parable in which abundance results despite the failure of many seeds to mature.[3]

In regards to this parable and how it might apply to the modern church, the commentary Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, has some vital warnings.

We have not been commissioned to manipulate, dominate, or coerce people to join our fellowship of believers; neither is it necessary for new converts to accept a particular political perspective. Further, we must not reduce evangelistic efforts to culturally limited recruitment of members who ‘look like us…’[4]

The kingdom of God produces its fruit by its own internal power, a power that the sower does not understand and does not control. The process is mysterious, hidden, ambiguous, and sometimes stressful and frustrating. Clergy (pastors, teachers, evangelists, missionaries) do not control how the kingdom grows…[5]

The kingdom of God grows because of its inherent God-given nature, not because of the efforts of its custodians… This relieves the church of an immense burden. It can do nothing to hasten the coming of the kingdom… It is impossible to rush the kingdom. It will take its own time, and its advance is ordinarily imperceptible…[6]

Parable of the Mustard Seed

imageThis third parable of the seed is one that has been heard and interpreted frequently. It probably makes allusion to the vision of a mighty cedar of Ezekiel 17:

On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. (v.23 ESV)

It should be noted that both Luke and Matthew write of the mustard seed growing into a tree. In regards to this difference Feasting: Mark notes,

In light of that expectation [a great, conquering kingdom], Luke and Matthew appear ill at ease with Mark’s diminutive expectation. Luke forces the parable into Ezekiel’s mold and says that the mustard seed grows into a tree (13:9). Matthew, on the other hand, combines Ezekiel and Mark, and explains that “when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree” (Matt. 13:32). Mark, the most spare, and the most botanically accurate, says the seed becomes a shrub… Agnes Norfleet, in an unpublished paper on this text, notes that “by keeping it a shrub Mark is differentiating the kingdom Jesus proclaims from past prophetic dreams of glory and hope to be like the other nations.”[7]

This parable is often interpreted to be about small beginnings of our ministries and evangelistic efforts, and how if we work hard we will someday see a good result. Or it is about how our ongoing work for God, no matter how small, will have large results. The focus is often on the smallness of the seed.

But is this parable about us? No!

Mark records an extended introduction to this third parable where Jesus wonders and ponders how the kingdom of God can be explained. Thus the parable is not about us or our work, but about the Christ and the kingdom.

The parable’s point is that the kingdom of God will never make a splash in the world, that it will never make sense in human/worldly terms, that it will always look fragile and with apparent insignificance.

This parable is concerned with the enigmatic present manifestation of the Kingdom as embodied in Jesus' person. Its appearance may be characterized by weakness and apparent insignificance—but remember the mustard seed. The day will come when the Kingdom of God will surpass in glory the mightiest kingdoms of the earth…[8]

For Jesus’ listeners that certainly expected a splashy, mighty, conquering kingdom, this parable was a severe correction that would have mystified and baffled them.

For us, particularly in a nation (United States) that has always been friendly to Christianity, that has had Christians in the social majority for much of its history, it also provides a very necessary corrective. If we are looking for growth and greatness, we are looking for the wrong thing. If we are hoping that by our efforts we can make this into a “Christian nation” (not that it ever was), our efforts are disastrously misguided. If we are hoping that by encouraging everyone in our churches to go and witness so that we can have a grand revival, this set of parables tells us it won’t happen.

The Message of the Parables

These three parables reveal the nature of God’s kingdom in this world. It will not look like anything humans expect or desire. It can only be apprehended through faith. The growth of the kingdom does not occur through any human effort, but through the inherent power within the gospel itself. The work of the church is to sow seeds of the gospel. The church is not to force or coerce growth, because it can’t (and may only harm the growth if an attempt is made).

Just as Jesus spoke in parables to provoke thought and mystery, our gospel proclamation, in both words and deed, ought to leave plenty of room for questions and mystery. We need to leave room for God to work so that the seed is allowed to sprout when it is ready, to grow on its own schedule, and to bear fruit when it is fully ready.

Churches and Christians can set aside worries and fears that they aren’t doing enough or working hard enough, because success of the gospel is assured. We can relinquish our need to control the results of ministry and evangelism. We can rest assured that even when we see no growth, or even what appears to be retreat, the gospel is still advancing and growing.

Our task is to remain faithful to Christ, to imitate his character and actions more and more, and in so doing we sow seeds that will sprout, grow, and bear fruit on God’s schedule.

[1] NICNT: Mark, 4:21-25 introductory text.

[2] NICNT: Mark, 4:24-25.

[3] Reading Mark, 4:1-5:43, discussion of B-B’.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 4723.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 4744.

[6] Feasting: Mark, locations 4660, 4686.

[7] Feasting: Mark, location 4879.

[8] NICNT: Mark, 4:30-32.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

008-The Main Parable

The Gospel is One Big Parable.

imageUp to this point in the Markan account, the audience has not seen the contents of Jesus’ teachings. In chapter 4 we are provided with a sample of Jesus’ teachings. Through these few examples Mark gives his readers a taste of the ways in which Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God.

The material of 4:1-34 is arranged chiastically as shown here:


This session concerns A, B, C, and D. As such all conclusions remain tentative.

The following is the summary of the parables of 4:1-34.

The author of Mark uses the parables and sayings of Jesus to explain why the proclamation of God's reign is meeting with resistance and to assure the audience that despite the apparent lack of progress, God's reign will eventually burst forth in amazing fruitfulness.[1]

The parable of the sower (or seeds or soils) is frequently interpreted parenetically; i.e., as exhortation or warning to believers. Some of these interpretations include:

  • That we’re to cultivate and weed the soil (i.e., mission field)
  • That we’re to strive to be fertile soil (i.e., work hard to produce fruit)
  • And we’re to avoid being one of the unproductive soils (i.e., avoid the attractions of the world)

But the parable and its explanation are best understood to be descriptive.

… The allegorical interpretation is not parenetic in character… Neither seeds nor soil can change their nature, and the failure of the seeds to take root, or to flourish once they have taken root, is attributed to the influence of Satan, as we have seen. The Markan Jesus is not warning the disciples to be good soil; rather, he is warning them (and the overhearing audience) that even as the reign of God takes root and flourishes in some quarters, it will provoke opposition, persecution, and seduction from the forces of evil. It is the nature of the reign of God to provoke opposition; it cannot be otherwise.[2]

The context in which this parable is to be read and interpreted is that of the immediate circumstances in which Christians were facing trials, persecutions, and possibly death. Perhaps some were being forced out of their homes and away from their families while some who once worshiped together were renouncing the faith they had once received with joy and eagerness. Through this parable the early Christians understood that the very same gospel that draws people to Christ can also elicit opposing responses.

imageThere is nothing in the parables to exhort people to become better soil, to grow, or to bear fruit. Rather the only exhortation is to listen and understand the parable itself: that the gospel elicits different kinds of judgment from the people that come into contact with it, and that it is not the fault of the gospel nor the ones who sow, but rather it simply is.

The parable must also be understood in the context that the gospel is a hidden secret, a mystery, until the Passion and Resurrection. Even then, the gospel remains a mystery to those who refuse to exercise faith.

The parable of the sower is a description, not an exhortation.

[1] Reading Mark, 4:1-34.

[2] Reading Mark, 4:1-34.