Mark 4 Notes
[Continued notes for my Davenant Hall class, “Reading the Gospels with Wisdom.”]
Jesus' return home may have been full of strife up to this point, with dark accusations from the scribes and someone tense relations with His family, but the rest of the visit moves from events to teaching in one of the few extended sections of teaching in Mark, in this case all parables.
The first parable Jesus tells is that of the sower. At this point in the narrative, one can already see its meaning reflecting His experiences in the Gospel. Jesus has been teaching for some time, and many of the responses to His ministry included in the parable have already been seen in the events of the text. Curiously, though, the fruit-bearing response does not obviously seem to have happened to Jesus yet, for though He has drawn crowds and disciples, they have so far done little but misunderstand Him. Indeed, the disciples immediately ask Him what this parable itself means, and He responds with surprise that they cannot see what it means. His explanation foreshadows hope for the befuddled disciples (in the narrative world, if not in the events Mark actually narrates). The disciples on the whole do not seem to fit into the categories of paved, rocky, or thorny ground. So if they are good soil, this indicates that they will move past their confusion and incompetence to become effective in Jesus' mission for them in the future.
Jesus' explanation also notes that the "secret of the kingdom" has been given to but few and that the parables are meant to be obscure to everyone else. Precisely what it means that Jesus has given them the secret of the kingdom is unclear; I am not persuaded as one of our previous readings that it necessarily refers to a specific "off-stage" event, but I suspect it is probably more generally descriptive of what Jesus' disciples gain by listening to Him.
Jesus' parables here also include the covered lamp. Unlike in the other Gospels, this one is not obviously explained in terms of witness but seems to pertain to an impending eschatological disclosure of reality. It is possible Jesus used very similar imagery for quite different purposes on various occasions (an often neglected possibility in Gospel studies), but it may also be that there is some kind of a link between these two sides of meaning. Tentatively, we might suggest that the secret of God's saving purposes has been hidden within Israel but should be so no longer, that Jesus' eschatological mission means it is time to reveal this light to the Gentiles. This would connect with the parable of the mustard seed following in this passage, which seems to pick up Old Testament imagery indicating that the Kingdom of God will grow bless all the nations, and with Jesus' impending journey to the country of the Gerasenes, where Jesus will be ministering in clearly Gentile territory.
Finally in this passage, Jesus leaves home abruptly to go the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus stills the sea, which may foreshadow the stillness He is about to bring to a Gentile demoniac, given the Old Testament association of the Gentile nations and the sea. The event also evokes Old Testament imagery of God's power over nature, and particularly to quiet the raging and chaotic sea, leaves the disciples wondering without answer about what this says of Jesus' identity.