Mark Week 3

Purposeful Parables: Mark 3:7–4:34

By Laura C.S. Holmes
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Mark 3:7-4:34


Week 3
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Answers Before Questions: Mark, Meet Jeopardy!™

In our introduction to Mark, we noted how Mark does not always present material in a straightforward manner. Mark encourages his readers to consider the mysteries in the life of a disciple, and the unknown and inconceivable aspects of the way God is working in the world. This emphasis on ambiguity and enigmas is definitely apparent in Mark 3:7–4:34.

Each section of this part of the gospel is connected by an overall question, but Mark does not reveal that question until the very end of these passages. In some ways, this particular method of presenting the gospel resembles the modern American quiz show Jeopardy!. In Jeopardy!, the host, Alex Trebek, displays an answer, and contestants are asked to come up with the corresponding question. Similarly, Mark describes or narrates five different components of an answer, letting his audience ponder the related question.

Here we see Mark again describing Jesus’ relationship with the crowds, his disciples, and now his family. We also see Jesus in conflict with opponents again, this time scribes from Jerusalem. The way in which he argues with them, however, is new: Jesus will respond to the scribes’ objections by telling parables. It is significant to understand both the reasons for teaching in parables and the content of these parables. Each component of the question’s answer continues to emphasize how Jesus seeks to redefine his audience’s expectations of the kingdom of God.

Answer Part 1: The Old but New Israel (3:7–19a)

Mark introduces the first part of these answers by summarizing some of Jesus’ ministry, just as he does at the beginning of the gospel (see 1:14–15). In Mark 3:7–12, we see Jesus teaching both his chosen disciples (3:12–19) and the crowds by the Sea of Galilee. Escaping the crowds, however, Jesus goes up to a mountaintop and begins a new phase of his ministry. Jesus explicitly “appoint[s] twelve” with specific tasks: they are to “be with him” and “be sent out” (3:14), preaching and having authority to cast out demons (3:15) [see Author’s Note 1].

Mark lists the names of these men after noting that there are 12 of them. This number echoes the number of the 12 tribes of Israel, used throughout the Old Testament (and in the New Testament; see James 1:1) to describe Israel as a whole. In this way, Jesus seems to be reconstituting Israel, especially Israel during the glory days of King David, when all the tribes were united.

However, a sense of glory for this “new Israel” is short-lived for the reader of Mark, who barely hears of Judas Iscariot’s name before acknowledging that he betrays Jesus to those same authorities who are scheming at the end of the previous passage (3:6). One thing is clear: if Jesus is going to re-form Israel’s foundations, it is not going to be based on the merits of these disciples any more than the first Israel was formed on the basis of its tribes’ worthiness (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:6–11).

Answer Part 2: Opposed to Satan’s Dominion (3:19b–30)

Continuing to lead his readers on a quest for the appropriate question, Mark gives the next part of the answer in a controversy between Jesus and some scribes. These scribes claim that Jesus’ authority to perform exorcisms is due to his own possession of a greater demonic force. Of course, Mark’s readers see the irony of this claim: the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism (1:10), not an unclean spirit. In a parable (3:23), Jesus claims that it would be nonsensical for Satan to cast out himself; indeed, it would prove that his kingdom is at an end (3:24–26).

This conclusion may strike Mark’s audience as odd: while they know that Satan is not casting out himself, it would appear — through Jesus’ authority in performing exorcisms — that Satan’s reign is somehow ending. It is here that Jesus changes the metaphor. Jesus is not going to cast Satan out of the “house.” Instead, he will go inside the house, bind up the strong man (presumably Satan; 1:7 identifies Jesus as the “stronger one”) and then be able to take what was in the house (3:27). Through these parables, Jesus claims that his ministry is bringing about Satan’s defeat, but not in the way that the scribes expected.

In fact, the last part of this section demonstrates that the scribes have committed an “eternal sin” by “blasphem[ing] against the Holy Spirit” (3:29). In other words, by attributing Jesus’ work to Satan rather than to God, the scribes have turned the world upside down, and will presumably be held accountable for this choice.

At the same time, one of the mysteries of Mark’s gospel is surely found here: while Jesus pronounces that eternal sins never receive forgiveness, he also proclaims that “all sins” and “blasphemies” will be forgiven (3:28). The tension between this universal offer of forgiveness and the specificity of its exclusion is not resolved, but left to stand. Jesus’ ministry produces Satan’s defeat, but redefines it by associating Satan’s downfall with the forgiveness of humans (see also 2:1–12).

Answer Part 3: One Family, Not Many (3:30–35)

Before Jesus tells these parables to the questioning scribes, he is confronted by his family, as some claim that he is out of his mind (3:22). Having attracted a sizeable crowd (3:20), Jesus is apparently assessed as a danger to himself and to others, and therefore should be “restrained” (3:21) [see Author’s Note 2].

Mark has told us nothing about Jesus’ family at the beginning of the gospel (contrast Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2). In fact, Mark is unique among the gospels for his fairly negative portrayal of Jesus’ immediate family (see also 6:3). They “send” and “call” for Jesus (3:31), the same actions Jesus took in “calling” his disciples and “sending” them out (3:13–14). In this way, Mark seems to suggest that Jesus’ family tries to demonstrate that they too have authority — namely, authority over his actions.

However, Jesus rejects their attempts at authority. Instead, just as he redefined Israel by appointing 12 disciples, and describes Satan’s downfall in a surprising way, now he redefines who makes up a family, telling the crowd that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Family, as we noted during the first calling of the disciples (1:16–20), is defined no longer by blood but by unity of purpose.

In this case, the purpose is broadly defined as “the will of God.” Jesus does not bother to define what God’s will is at this point in the narrative, but the phrase will come up again, most notably at Gethsemane (14:32–42). No longer a part of one family among many other families, however, Jesus claims that by uniting themselves with one purpose, the crowd can be one family — mothers, sisters, and brothers with one Father, God.

Answer Part 4: Expressed Best in Parables (4:1–2, 10–12, 21–25, 33–34)

We can find the fourth part of our answer to the missing question based on Jesus’ manner of teaching, while the fifth part of the answer focuses on what Jesus says in his instruction. Mark opens Chapter 4 by alluding back to the scene of teaching by the Sea of Galilee, a chapter earlier (3:7–9). Also, similar to Jesus’ interactions in Mark 3, Mark tells us that Jesus is teaching this crowd in parables (3:23; 4:2). With these parables, more redefinition is at work.

Given that we do not often teach or speak in parables, it is worth noting what a parable is and from where it originates. Essentially, parables are comparisons. Some of them seem straightforward, comparing something from “nature or common life,” like the growth of a seed, to something unusual, like the kingdom of God. Of course, parables themselves may not be easy to understand, either for the disciples (4:10) or for modern readers; indeed, they can be puzzling as they “tease [the mind] into active thought” [see Author’s Note 3].

This tendency towards enigmas and mysteries is provocatively highlighted by Mark 4:10–12, possibly the most difficult verses in the gospel to interpret. Many volumes have been written to attempt to explain these verses, which quote Isaiah 6:9–10 and seem to indicate that God does not want people to turn and be forgiven (4:12), in contrast to the summary of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel (1:14–15). There is space to notice only a few details relating to these verses.

First, it is noteworthy that Jesus claims that the “secret” (New Revised Standard Version) or, better, “mystery” of the kingdom of God is given “to you,” an undefined group around Jesus that includes “the Twelve” as well as others (4:10). This demonstrates God’s generosity, and indeed, grace. The mystery is clearly God’s, as it concerns God’s kingdom, and is God’s to give. Furthermore, surprisingly, the gift of this mystery seems to make no difference to its recipients’ ability to understand Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ identity, or the overall kingdom of God, as we will see.

Often readers are less bothered about God’s giving the mystery of the kingdom to the disciples and others, and more concerned about Jesus’ claim that “everything comes in parables” so that people may see and hear, but not understand, and therefore not repent and be forgiven (4:12).

It is important to remember that this proclamation is a paraphrase of verses from Isaiah, and has a long history in the biblical tradition. In Isaiah 6, the imagery of blind eyes and deaf ears is connected to hardened hearts, which we have already seen in Mark (3:5). Hardening hearts is first mentioned in the Bible when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to redeem Israel from slavery in Egypt.

The purpose for Pharaoh’s hardened heart is revelation: God wants Pharaoh to know who God is (e.g., Exodus 14:4). In Isaiah, Israel’s heart is hardened as punishment for the sins Israel has committed (see Isaiah 1–5). However, it is clear throughout the book of Isaiah that the same God who hardens hearts can also soften them.

There are two things that are significant to remember about this passage in Mark. When God hardens hearts, there may be at least two purposes for it: the revelation of God’s glory and/or punishment for the recipients’ sins. Furthermore, the hardening of hearts is not an absolute proclamation that cannot later be reversed, despite the severity of its punishment. We will return to this theme, as Mark does, later in the gospel.

Ultimately, it is clear that Mark claims Jesus teaches in parables precisely because they are enigmatic and puzzling. The fact that Jesus presumes that parables are the best way to teach the crowds and his disciples about the kingdom of God implies that the enigmatic and the mysterious are a central part of this kingdom, at least until all is revealed at the end (4:21–22). Redefinition is still in progress, and clarity is not a requirement for the time being.

Answer Part 5: A Sower Sowing and Seeds Growing (4:3–9, 13–20, 26–32)

Finally, we should consider the content of these parables of the kingdom. The first parable in Mark 4 is the parable of the sower (4:3–9) and its interpretation (4:14–20), while the second two parables are about the growth of individual seeds (4:26–29, 30–32).

The parable of the sower primarily focuses on the reactions of “listeners” to “the word” (4:14) [see Author’s Note 4]. The word is generously given to all groups, though, from an agricultural perspective, this action seems unprofitable. It is extremely unlikely for rocky ground to yield a crop. In fact, this may very well be the point: God’s economy may very well appear to be a waste from our perspective.

Interestingly, though, this parable does not demonstrate rocky ground miraculously yielding a crop. Instead, a bountiful crop is harvested from the good soil, the soil expected to yield a crop. We are not to base the failure or success of the kingdom of God on the reactions to the word: instead, we are base it on the faithfulness of God, who produces a harvest.

The second set of parables (4:26–32) seems to pick up a similar theme: do not lose hope, though the kingdom may not look like what you expect. The first parable notes the steady growth of a seed into a plant, though the farmer does not understand how it grows. Humans will participate in the growth of this kingdom of God, though they may be ignorant of their precise roles.

The second parable, the growth of a mustard seed, is particularly significant for Mark. While this parable is repeated in Matthew and Luke as well (Matthew 13:31–32; Luke 13:18–19), Mark’s is slightly different. This parable is normally summarized by the statement, “the smallest seed grows up to be the largest tree” (e.g., Luke 13:19). However, as Mark notes, this is not biologically correct. Mustard seeds grow to become large shrubs, about five feet tall.

Granted, this is a significant growth from a tiny seed, but that does not seem to be Mark’s main point. Instead, this mustard seed, growing to be “the greatest of all the shrubs” [see Author’s Note 5], will still provide shelter for the birds of the air (4:32). It may not look like a great tree, but it will still serve the purpose of one.

The kingdom of God may not look like what is expected, but it will still accomplish its purposes. These parables offer pictorial representations of Jesus’ actions, all of which point to a redefinition of the kingdom.

What’s the Question?

With five clues to the answers, perhaps now we know the question for Mark’s version of Jeopardy!™. Simply said, Jesus poses the central question of these passages in these final two parables: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” (4:30). We can compare the kingdom of God to the foundation of Israel, as 12 tribes turn into 12 disciples (3:13–19).

We can compare the kingdom of God to the dominion of Satan, as long as we know that the kingdom of God means Satan’s downfall, not Satan’s continuation. We can compare the kingdom of God to families, knowing that the kingdom of God is one family united in God’s will. We understand that comparisons, or parables, are the best way to describe the kingdom of God, because it is so different from the way the world works.

Finally, we get a glimpse of the very different economy of the kingdom demonstrated through the agriculture presented in the parables, as seed is sown carelessly and yet a harvest still comes, and mustard seeds grow into shrubs that do the job of cedars. With redefinition coming from all directions, the kingdom of God is mysteriously compared to all these things.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. In Jesus’ parables about Satan’s activity, he implies that he is the stronger man, tying up the “strong man,” Satan, and plundering his house (3:27). What do you think this means? Do you think it has already happened, or is currently happening? Provide evidence to support your perspective.
  2. What do you think Mark 4:10–12 means? What does it say about God, Jesus, the disciples, and “those outside”?
  3. Why did Jesus speak in parables, according to Mark and the Lectio writer? Do you think this reason is also true for some of the more famous parables in Matthew and Luke (e.g., the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Matthew 13:24–30; the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25–37)?
  4. The Lectio writer highlights the theme of redefinition for this section of the Gospel of Mark. What is being redefined? Why do you think this redefinition is necessary, and why might Jesus have used parables to communicate it?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

It is not a contradiction that Jesus wants his disciples to be with him but also be sent out. In some ways, this is a summary of their three descriptive names or titles in Mark’s gospel: these 12 people are called disciples, which means learners, learning from a teacher. They are called followers, as they are called to follow Jesus (1:17; 2:14). Finally, they are called apostles, meaning “sent ones.” Throughout the gospel’s narrative, we will see them fulfilling those roles, as well as calling others to participate with them.


Author’s Note 2

Mark will often “sandwich” stories together, beginning with one theme, inserting a second, and then concluding with the first. He embarks on this story-telling technique here, resuming his comments about Jesus’ family after Jesus has been teaching the scribes. Scholars call this technique intercalation, and we will see it again in Mark 5:21–43.


Author’s Note 3

C.H. Dodd, a prominent New Testament scholar of the 20th century, defined a parable 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 [the parable’s] precise application to tease [the mind] into active thought (Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961], 5).

While Jesus may be the most well-known parable-teller, teaching with parables has a long history. The Hebrew equivalent for “parable” (mashal) can refer to an illustrative story or comparison, but it can also refer to a riddle, an enigma, or a puzzle. This second set of meanings highlights the ambiguous nature of teaching in parables: by their very nature, they reveal something about their content (the kingdom of God, in this case) but they also are able to “tease the mind into active thought” because their meanings are not directly apparent.


Author’s Note 4

Notice how many times Jesus exhorts “hearing”: 4:3, 9, 15, 16, 18, 20. The “word” has previously been defined as Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God (1:38; 2:2).


Author’s Note 5

In Greek, this term “shrub” is actually “vegetable,” making this image even more comical — or even more astonishing.


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