Sometimes it’s easier to teach truth with a bit of fiction. Think of all the fairytales that manage to teach children about life, lessons like generosity, kindness, and honesty. A child might not listen to, let alone understand, a straightforward harangue on always telling the truth, but they won’t forget the boy who cried wolf.
Jesus was king of the metaphor. He wanted to teach people about the kingdom of God, so he told stories. Like Aesop’s fables, every one of Jesus’ parables had a message.
Read Mark 4:1-34.
Jesus used parables that the common people could easily understand to introduce complex concepts harder to grasp. He was speaking in their language, which was richly agricultural. The Israelites lived everyday with the realities of livestock, crops, and harvests. So those were the subjects Jesus would use to talk about other, less relatable concepts.
Theologians have analyzed and interpreted each of his parables, sometimes devoting entire books to the study of a single one. You can find those books if you’re curious to really get into the details. I won’t do that today. Instead I will focus on the same theme of my previous posts: what does Mark tell us about Jesus?
First, Jesus is still being careful about his public image. He would teach the general public, but he wouldn’t tell them everything. He saved that confidence for his closest disciples. The last two verses of this passage are a perfect summary: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”
I believe this reveals a careful shrewdness in his character. He knew the public would not be able to accept everything he had to say, so they heard abridged versions–fairytales–while the disciples traveling with him heard the full story. Why? It isn’t much different from mass media today. Every story is bound to get distorted or misunderstood at some point between the original source and the audience. Personally teaching a small group of students, though, creates much more accurate and effective communication. Jesus says the disciples are given “the secret of the kingdom of God.” They are the good soil that received the seed and will produce an abundant harvest.
Jesus quotes a vision of Isaiah, when the Lord told Isaiah to prophesy to the Israelites: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10).
I’ve never studied ancient Hebrew, but my friends who have told me the verb tenses can be tricky to translate. In the case of these verses, I’ve heard it explained that the prophecy states Israel’s already hardened heart rather than declares a curse to make it so. It’s saying how things are, not how they should be. God didn’t want Israel to hear and not understand. But that was exactly what Israel was doing. It was their own indifference that kept them from repentance and healing.
In quoting this prophecy, Jesus compares Israel of his day to the Israel of Isaiah’s. The people still had hard hearts. Even if Jesus explained everything to the public like he did for the disciples, they would not understand, would not repent, and would not receive forgiveness. They were the bad soil where the seed could not grow.
But Jesus did not give up on them and ignore the crowds. Here we see his compassion for Israel. Matthew and Luke quote Jesus near the end of his ministry saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). Jesus yearned for Israel to have an open heart and receive the word he described as producing a harvest to the hundredfold. He kept teaching, even if in parables, because good soil can be hidden in the path, rocks, or thorns.
He invested more time, though, where it would be most useful: his disciples. They were the ones who would keep sowing after he was gone and until the whole world heard the word. They were the ones who would watch the seed grow without knowing how (Mark 4:27). They were the ones who would gather the fruit, making more disciples just like Jesus taught them (Matt. 28:19-20).