PARABLES – INSIDE AND OUTSIDE
Mark 3: 7-35
Mark 4: 1-34
Session Three began with another transition to an expanded ministry (Mark 3:7-12). In a viral spread of popularity, Jesus began attracting crowds from all over – Idumea (south of Judea, west of the Dead Sea), Perea (east of the Jordan River), and Tyre and Sidon (north of the Sea of Galilee on the Mediterranean coast in Phoenicia). He continued to teach, heal, and cast out demons. The crowds became so thick that he had to teach from a boat offshore, separating himself and his close followers from the huge crowds. We begin to see a division between the “insiders” and “outsiders”.
Jesus went up into the mountains where he selected twelve apostles or companions, including the previously called fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Simon he named Petros or Peter, the Rock. This group became the ultimate insiders, the ones that stayed with him, and who learned to preach and to cast out demons.
In Mark 3:19b-35, Jesus went home, where another crowd gathered outside the house where he was unsuccessfully trying to eat – too much commotion. This passage provides another example of Mark’s intercalation technique. In the outer frame 3:19b-21 and 3:31-35, we have a story about Jesus’ family outside the house – his mother and brothers, who are concerned that Jesus is out of his mind. Inside this frame (3: 22-30) is a story in which some scribes, inside the house, think Jesus is possessed by Satan.
The scribes’ claim is that only someone in league with the demonic hierarchy (Beelzebub/Satan) could so easily drive out demons, a task Jesus has done repeatedly. Jesus responded with a series of short propositions:
<A> If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
<B> If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
<C> If Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand.
Jesus has made assumption that Satan is alive – in agreement with the scribes. That is, Satan is still standing, and therefore Satan cannot be sponsoring Jesus’ casting out of demons. If the scribes deny what Jesus says, they are at odds with their own accusation that Satan is standing. If they agree with Jesus that Satan is still around, then they contradict their own accusation of Jesus being in league with Satan. Either way they lose.
If it seems that Jesus is talking in riddles, it is because he is. Jesus goes on with three more propositions that are even less easily untangled:
<D> To plunder a strong man’s house requires first tying up the strong man.
<E> People will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.
<F> Blasphemies against the Holy Spirit constitute an eternal sin and are, therefore, unforgivable.
Jesus is claiming in “D” that he has bound Satan (the strong man) so that he can thwart demonic powers (plunder the strong man’s house). He hasn’t yet destroyed Satan, but the process has begun. With propositions “E” and “F”, he is saying that aligning Jesus with demonic forces is tantamount to a sin that cannot be released – an unforgivable sin. He is accusing the scribes of an unforgiveable sin. These riddles are difficult to solve, but once understood, perhaps even more difficult to comprehend is the harshness of the sentence Jesus imposes.
We then turn back (in Mark 3:31-35) to Jesus’s mother and brothers who have been standing outside calling for him. This is the family that in verse 21 had said Jesus was “out of his mind”. (We can immediately see the parallel with the scribes’ claim that Jesus is “possessed by Beelzebub” [v. 22].) Jesus replies that his family is the group surrounding him. “Whoever does God’s will is my mother, brother, and sister.” His redefinition of family is as scandalous as implying the scribes committed unforgiveable blasphemy.
Chapter four begins with Jesus climbing into a boat and teaching the large crowd assembled on shore with parables. We often think of a parable as an allegory, a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, often using symbols to represent something other than how they first appear. In Mark, the parable may be thought of as a riddle. C.H. Dodd described it this way, “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” One objective of a parable is to make us think.
Here again, Mark uses intercalation or framing, sandwiching stories inside the frame of other related parallel stories:
<A.> Introducing the Parable (Mark 4:1-2)
<B.> A sower’s seeds (Mark 4:3-9)
<C.> Parables and perception (Mark 4:10-12)
<D.> The seeds’ reception (Mark 4:13-20)
<C.’>. Disclosure and reception (Mark 4:21–23; Mark 4:24-25)
<B.’> Other sowers’ seeds (Mark 4:26-29; Mark 4:30-32)
<A.’> Concluding the parables (Mark 4:33-34)
Jesus told the now familiar parable of the sower of seeds to the crowd (Mark 4:3-9). Saying that results varied depending on where the seeds fell, he concluded with the admonition to “pay attention!” Later, alone with his disciples and close followers, he gave an explanation. The secret of God’s kingdom had been given to those close to Jesus, but the outsiders only get parables (Mark 4:10-12). Putting aside a clear lack of evidence that the “insiders” understood this “secret” they had been given, Jesus further baffles us by saying that the parables are intended to blind and deafen the “outsiders”, “Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven.” Mark’s view of the parables tends toward predestination – those who do not understand, cannot understand, by God’s design. This is reminiscent of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to Moses’ demands in Exodus.
In Mark 4:13–20, Jesus goes on to explain the parable. “The seed” stands for the “the word” in verse 14 (NRSV) – probably meaning “the gospel” about Jesus Christ, derived from Paul’s use of the phrase. Beginning with 15b (NRSV), “the seed” seems to mean “those who are outside the path” (“the way” in later Christian usage).
Jesus then told the parable of the lamp under a bushel (verses 21-25), again giving a somewhat cryptic explanation – there are indeed things hidden away, the purpose of which is to ultimately make them known. So, “pay attention”. Concluding this section, we have more parables of sowing seeds. The human sower has a role in the process, but it is God that makes the seed grow. Finally, consider the tiny mustard seed. Compare the size of the seed with the tree whose branches protect the vulnerable. Those who understand God’s mystery have received it as a gift, not from internal insight. Here we have glimpses of God’s kingdom, but like the disciples we hardly have a clear description. Is Mark asking his readers to look at Jesus himself as parabolic? In Mark, Jesus is never exactly what he appears. Like his parables, he defies explanation.
Primary Text: Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), by C. Clifton Black
Coming in Session 4: Mark 4: 34-41; Mark 5; Mark 6; Mark 7: 1-23