The Marcan parable
sequence is a remarkable piece of literary craft; here the Marcan
Jesus addresses readers/listeners (for this book, like all ancient
books, was intended to be read aloud and listened to) directly
so that they are called upon to ponder the questions posed by
the disciples about "riddle-talk," the so-called "parables"
of Jesus which are here said to be a means of insuring that the
right listeners understand what is said while "outsiders"
fail to grasp what is meant and the saving power of what is being
said in it. Although the nature of God's reign (ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ)
may appear to be the focus of his sequence-and
could well be argued to be the focus of the parallel sections
of Matthew and Luke, yet the focus here seems rather to be on
the very reception of Jesus' message, how it is heard, how it
is heeded or taken to heart, how it never takes root in some while
in others it blooms and bears fruit beyond measure. Worth noting
as well is that the introductory verb of each section of the sequence
is in the imperfect tense, suggesting that what is presented here
is not the content of a day's teaching but rather a review of
repeated and consisted themes of Jesus' teaching.
2 The pressure of the crowd about Jesus as he preaches on the lake-shore has progressed beyond the precaution mentioned in 3:9; now the boat separates and protects Jesus from the crowd and becomes his rostrum for teaching.
3 "with riddle-talk" (Grk ἐν παραβολαῖς): While the conventional word, "parable," may suffice to designate individual stories told by Jesus when the word παραβολή is singular, the Marcan use of the plural seems distinctive in reference to a use of these images and analogies by Jesus to teach in a way that communicates a message clearly to some even as it inhibits others from grasping its intent. This problem comes most sharply into focus in verses 10-13. While "riddle-talk" may not be very satisfactory English for Mark's plural παραβολαί, it may suffice if what has been said here is taken into consideration.
4 The verb ἀκούω appears 10 times in the parable sequence (4:3,9,12,15-16,18,20,23-24,33); repeatedly Jesus challenges the listener (and of course the evangelist charges the reader/listener of his text) not just to listen but to attend carefully to what is being said. In this instance the admonition frames the parable itself: "Pay heed ... Anyone with ears that can hear should pay heed."
5 This particular parable may have conveyed a different message in a different context; certainly it is consistent with the two parables told in verses 26-29 and 30-32: the growth of a seed is miraculous and unpredictable; even if the sowing seems wasteful or fruitless or the seed seems insignificantly small, the crop and fruit in season may be enormous in God's providence. If the seed is the message proclaimed by Jesus, then the analogies will hold true for it too.
6 The phrase, which is literally translated "those around him with the Twelve" (οἱ περὶ αὐτὸν σὺν τοῖς δώδεκα), recurs throughout the τοιgospel.
7 "put to him the question of riddle-talk": The phrasing indicates two aspects of the query: (1) What does the parable just re-told by the evangelist mean (since Jesus himself notes that they need an explication and proceeds to offer it)? and (2) Why does Jesus use riddle-talk in his teaching?
8 This is an extraordinary antithesis: on the one hand, Jesus' entourage are privileged to have been given (by God) the hidden truth of God's reign; on the other, "outsiders" hear only the riddle-talk; they don't understand what is being said. This is remarkable because (1) the privilege granted the disciples doesn't seem to have worked to their immediate benefit, inasmuch as they need to have the parable of the sower explained to them; (2) it seems odd that Jesus would address the riddle-talk to the throngs of "outsiders" with the express intention that they should not understand what he is saying. There is considerably more at stake here than is evident on the surface.
9 Jesus cites Isaiah 6:9-10, although not exactly in identical formulation and not necessarily with the same intent. What is jarring in Jesus' words is the suggestion-if it is not an outright assertion-that the "outsiders" are not intended to understand the riddle-talk, the understanding of which would lead to their repentance and forgiveness-and salvation. Somehow it seems intolerable that the surface sense of this Jesus-saying is what Mark means to affirm about Jesus' intention; if it is, then these privileged few in Jesus' entourage are initiates to an esoteric lore while the masses outside their number are destined for ignorance and damnation. Yet again, the fact that these "insiders" must ask for the meaning of the parable is the first of many Marcan indications of their obtuseness, not merely as individuals (although Peter and the sons of Zebedee will come to show exemplary obtuseness) but as a group. We are led to suspect that perhaps "insider" and "outsider" should be defined and distinguished in terms of successful hearing of the message of Jesus; if that is so, then the privilege of "the hidden truth of God's realm" is not exclusively given to the disciples or to the Twelve.
10 Oddly, Jesus seems surprised that his entourage does not grasp the meaning of the parable of the sower; if so, that doesn't keep him from explaining it to them. But he does put to them a pointed question: "If you don't understand this one, how are you going to understand riddle-talk as a whole?" Literally the Greek says, "If you don't know this parable, how will you know all the parables?" But what that implies is surely that every parable Jesus speaks is going to be riddle-talk for them and will need an explanation-and that is precisely what the evangelist tells us in the conclusion of the sequence, verses 33-34: he would use the riddle-talk frequently in his discourse to the crowds and in fact wouldn't talk to them at all without using it, but "to his own disciples he would disclose everything."
11 The interpretation of the parable of the sower, although perfectly intelligible, is awkward in its phrasing in that categories of listeners to the word are now described as if they were themselves the seeds sown as well as the types of soil upon which the seed has been sown. The evangelist uses demonstrative pronouns (οὗτοι hOUTOI, ἐκεῖνοι EKEINOI) as if pointing to different locations in the field where the seed has been broadcast.
12 Upon analysis it becomes clear that the parable of the sower, insofar as it is to be understood by Jesus' disciples, directly concerns their own behavior as listeners to his message: how deeply do the seeds of what he tells them root in them? Will they be the ones who will bear thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and a hundred-fold. Or will the seed die or be choked in them? Verse 17 best describes the behavior of these disciples who abandon Jesus and flee when the guards come to arrest him (14:50) even as he had predicted they all would (14:27).
13 These verses are surely inconsistent with any interpretation of verses 9-12 holding that Jesus spoke to the crowds in "riddle-talk" in order not to be understood; the gospel proclamation, even if its message is not altogether self-evident, is meant to be out in the open and accessible to all: it is not to be understood as the esoteric lore of an elite who would view it as their private domain. Yet once again the formulaic "Anyone with ears that can hear should pay heed" serves as an admonition that attentiveness is required, that even for those to whom "the hidden truth of God's reign" has been given it is not delivered on a silver platter but calls for alertness and acuity on the part of the recipient.
14 These seeming paradoxes are intelligible in the light of what has been said about paying close attention: one whose mental gaze is sharply focused on "the hidden truth of God's reign" should gain ever deeper insight into it, while one whose vision or hearing-or attentiveness is unfocused-or focused elsewhere-will find that the vision and sound fade away beyond one's grasp.
15 As in the first parable, that of the sower, so here and in that which follows immediately, sowing, mysterious growth in prodigious measure, and reaping or wondrous magnitude of full growth are eschatological images drawn from the realm of Palestinian agricultural practice that would be readily intelligible to the original listeners. In all they give expression to Jesus' distinctive unstinting confidence in God's loving care and providence and in the sure fruition of God's will.
16 The parable sequence concludes with a recapitulation of what we were told in verse 2 and then again in verses 9-12; Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables, in "riddle-talk"-but he explains all the "riddle-talk" to his disciples privately. We are left with two questions: The first is: at what point following the explanation of the parable of the sower (verses 14-20) does the narrative return to the instruction given the crowd? Should we view verses 21-25, the sayings about secret lore revealed and attentiveness, as addressed to the disciples privately, and then look upon verses 26-32 as addressed again to the crowd? Or might the evangelist here be less intent upon telling us a story about Jesus, his disciples, and his original audience and far more intent upon his readers/listeners, i.e. upon ourselves ?
17 Despite the fact that every segment of the parable sequence has been introduced by a verb in the imperfect tense indicating that these were stories and advice given repeatedly by Jesus, the external narrative resumes in the context indicated in 4:1 with Jesus in the boat talking to the crowd on the lakeshore. Hence the boat simply pulls out from the shore with Jesus (and his immediate entourage) aboard, although we are told that there are other boats "with him," nothing being said about those boats other than that they come along.
18 The focus of this narrative is in the bewilderment of the disciples who have no conception of who Jesus is, even if they have (at least those whose call was actually described) responded immediately to his call by leaving everything behind and coming after him. In verses 10-13 they showed their failure to understand Jesus' teaching in parables or "riddle-talk," now they show that they have no confidence even while they are with him in face of "concerns of the moment" (cf. verse 19). The impure spirits are more discerning than these disciples.