Many times my son will ask me questions about automobiles. He’s fascinated with speed and even though he can’t comprehend what it feels like to be behind the wheel of a car he persists in wanting to know which cars are fastest. He has quite the memory and can articulate his questions well but often he’ll ask a question that requires an answer I know he won’t understand or understand is incomplete. For example, he’s often asked which is faster, a Porsche 918 Spyder (yes, he knows the make and model) or a Ferrari LaFerrari. I’ve watched plenty of automobile series on Netflix and on YouTube with him that featured both of these cars and attempted to compare them. To our knowledge, we know that the Porsche has been tested on the Nurburgring and has a lap time under seven minutes. That’s extremely fast. However, the LaFerrari has not been tested on this track yet, that we know of, so we have no idea of its potential lap time. Both of the vehicles have a top speed that exceeds 200 mph. We have also seen these two vehicles in a drag race racing for a quarter mile and know that the Porsche typically clocks faster. So, my son asks me which car is faster. He favors the Ferrari and is looking for evidence that it’s the faster car. I know that he can’t process the details I’ve just written about but I tell him anyway. I say that the Porsche is just a hair faster if racing a short race and we don’t know about the long race. So, he still asks me which is faster, because we don’t have knowledge about the long race since the Ferrari hasn’t been officially timed on the Nurburgring, a German track that reveals hypercars’ real ability and speed. I tell him that both cars are faster than we can imagine but of course, this doesn’t satisfy his curiosity. He, like many adults who are fans of these hypercars, want a clear answer. Yet, I can’t give him what he wants. For Porsche fans, the Nurburgring lap time is proof for boasting. For Ferrari fans, the Porsche’s lap time doesn’t settle the debate. It’s not certain we can know the truth about which is actually faster right now. Right now, it’s a mystery. That’s all I can offer my son. I’m sure at some point in the near future we’ll get the complete picture and I can give him a definite answer. My son persists though. He wants to know now with the limited knowledge we have. For him, this is sort of like the crowds gathering to hear Jesus tell the parable of The Sower.
The Parable of the Sower has been etched in people’s minds for a long time. This parable is told as the parable to understand all parables (Mark 4:13). Imagine many asking the question about Jesus, “Who is he?” Crowds have come to Jesus early on in his ministry when he is beside the sea. So many have come, that he decides to get into a boat and use the topography for a natural amphitheater. There is diversity in the crowd. Many have been healed or cured by Jesus and they are definitely fans. Others are not so sure about Jesus and feel that he might be possessed by the prince of demons. Even Jesus’ family thinks he’s gone mad. They make an effort to end his campaign for the kingdom of God but don’t succeed. All are anticipating Jesus’ next move. Now would be a wonderful time to satisfy everyone’s curiosity. “Jesus, who are you really and what are you doing?”
Like my son, the crowds want a definitive answer immediately. Yet, Jesus knows that giving them one is not proper at this point. Revealing too much could jeopardize the mission. More time is needed. Jesus will continue to provide insight little by little. Right now, the right thing to do is to speak of a mystery.
Tim Mackie makes a good point about our culture today. People want things to be clear and to the point. People don’t value mystery and are impatient. Furthermore, people want all of Jesus’ teachings to reaffirm their desires. People act like my son acts; they have a favorite version of something and want that version to win, whether it be a version of a car or a version of God. People then read the Gospels and find Jesus having astonishing similarities. For example, those who promote morality often view Jesus’ parables as simple moral lessons. For those who like things clear and to the point (all of us) we like to view Jesus in the same way, and therefore, make Jesus’ teachings clear and to the point, while in reality, Jesus was often unclear on purpose. He also wasn’t willing to be concise at times. This is difficult for many to accept. Surely Jesus isn’t trying to hide something from us. From the Gospel writers’ perspective, Jesus didn’t want to hide his identity and mission from anyone unless he had to. Sound deceptive? Give Jesus the benefit of the doubt on this one.
I could tell my son plainly that the Porsche 918 Spyder is the faster car. However, that would be my belief. It is very possible that my belief is accurate but without knowing how the Ferrari will test but I can’t be sure. Perhaps the Ferrari LaFerrari is not being allowed to test on the Nurburgring because Ferrari knows that it will be outperformed by the Porsche. This speculative scenario makes it sound as if the LaFerrari is likely the lesser of the two. Porsche fans would certainly be willing to accept this possibility and would even promote this as the proof that the 918 is superior. But a mystery remains. What is the truth about this coveted hypercar that won’t reveal its nature on the track? Perhaps Ferrari sees value, not by hiding, but by not revealing their reason for appearing to hide. Maybe Ferrari wants people to keep asking the question. Maybe the question reveals more about those who ask it than it does about Ferrari. Maybe Ferrari built the La Ferrari with motives unrelated to competition but they welcome the comparison. My son compels me to answer his question about which vehicle is faster. He’s assuming that’s the category Ferrari wants to be in with Porsche and other hypercars. Meanwhile, Ferrari may not be concerned with answering that type of question, nor were they concerned with it when they conceived the LaFerrari.
The Parable of the Sower seems to function in much the same way. The crowds want to know for certain if Jesus fits into the categories that they’re assuming he does. Is he possessed? Is he the type of Messiah they’re expecting? Is he crazy? “Jesus, answer us!” They’ve gathered in masses to hear the answer. They’re on the edge of their seats, so to speak, to walk away with a conclusion. Yet, Jesus isn’t compelled to give them what they want. Jesus is content to allow them to wonder. Why wouldn’t he just be clear?
The crowds want to be reaffirmed. That’s kind of what Jesus gives them when he speaks the parable. For those who think he’s crazy or possessed or the Messiah, they’ll walk away saying to one another “I told you so!” They’ll all walk away just as they came. If they came listening carefully with an open mind they’d walk away more enlightened. If they came with preconceived ideas that he is crazy or possessed they’ll walk away believing it even more. But why does Jesus allow this to happen in this way? Why speak in a parable of this sort? And why did they stick around to listen if they thought he was a lunatic?
Maybe the parable isn’t as simple as it sounds, even to us today. Maybe Jesus isn’t clear and to the point with us either. Just like the crowds, maybe we need to ask ourselves why we’ve come to listen? Or, have we come to look at the man in the boat on the edge of the sea and expect him to reaffirm our version of him? Remember, if we grasp this parable we should be able to grasp them all.
If Jesus was just speaking timeless truths people would’ve left the scene. But people knew there was something incredible and unique about Jesus because of the miracles of healing and his exorcising of demons. People already knew how controversial he was among the political establishment also, the scribes and the legal experts in the synagogue. Jesus has warranted his following and his controversy. More and more people were “tuning in.” Jesus was speaking about the kingdom of God and he was speaking to people who had a greater understanding of it than we credit them with.
Jesus was giving Israel’s “State of the Union” address. Israel was the nation who worshiped the true and living God. They were formed to rule the earth (Deuteronomy 28:1). God made a covenant with them to bless them in the land so they would be a blessing to surrounding nations. Israel’s vocation was to rescue the world by bringing it to faith in the only true God. But there was a caveat to the overwhelming blessing of God upon Israel. If they failed to keep God’s covenant God would send curses upon the land and eventually send Israel into exile (Deut. 28-30). They would no longer sit atop the nations. They would be under the thumb of evil empires (Babylon, Medes and Persians, Greeks, and now Romans) and into exile they went. In their holy Scriptures promises of restoration were made by prophets like Daniel and Isaiah. Israel’s god was predicting action, promising deliverance and hope for the future of Israel and all of mankind. Israel would be welcomed back into the blessings of God as a royal nation. A Messiah would come and ensure Israel’s national dream. But there would be more judgment along with blessing. Some of Israel would not be accepted into the kingdom of God.
So, Jesus knows exactly what the crowds want to hear. Many want to be rallied just as if they were attending a political convention. They wanted to hear that Jesus was planning to take on Roman forces. Others were looking for confirmation that this hillbilly Galilean was all hype. And some could be spying for Herod Antipas, waiting for the perfect soundbite to report of back in Jerusalem. Herod would not tolerate a rival king. Jesus, genius, spins a tale of a revolution that doesn’t explicitly use the verbiage of revolution, though. He redefines the revolutionary kingdom of God. Those listening carefully could grasp that the kingdom of God was indeed breaking into history as Daniel predicted (Daniel 2; 7). Jesus was not another storyteller prophet. Jesus was the Story of Israel and its climax. This is what Israel was waiting for, the time when God would act to vindicate Israel, to bring Israel out of true exile. Jesus is giving an answer to the crowds that he knows they won’t understand or he is giving them an understanding that is incomplete. This version of Israel’s story that Jesus is telling doesn’t fit into any of the categories of his audience. This version isn’t exactly fostering competition with the other nations like many in Israel wanted, either. This version speaks of a farmer and his seed. Jesus gives Israel’s “State of the Union” address and instead of being clear and definitive, the speech is cryptic!
Israel’s story is of first importance. We should have difficulty with the parable of the sower if we are merely interested in ignoring a historical context. Remember, we prefer things clear and concise, very packaged. Again, Israel was God’s covenanted nation. They were given the right to rule the other nations, the Gentiles. Yet, Israel at the time of Jesus finds herself being ruled by those Gentiles. This is because of Israel’s national disobedience to Moses’ covenant, the Law. Daniel and Isaiah are two prophets that forecast hope for Israel, though. They forecast a time when God would act in Israel’s future to recapture the Davidic throne, God’s throne. The kingdom of God would overtake the kingdoms of the earth and then fill the earth with it’s own sovereignty (Daniel 2:35). This is why Jesus speaks of God’s will accomplished on earth as it is in heaven. Israel was looking for God’s kingdom on earth, as they should have.
When John the Baptist was put in prison, Jesus began to preach “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus was saying that the time for God’s kingdom to come on earth was then, while he was living among them. Jesus wasn’t speaking about heaven in the way people today generally speak of it. He wasn’t saying to people “Repent, because after you die, you can have a home waiting for you in a paradisiacal realm called heaven.” This would be like saying “Repent so that you Israelites can finally escape this horrible world!” Instead, Jesus is recalling Israel’s vocation and renewing it. They were to rescue the world from itself by bringing it to faith in the true God. Jesus is talking about God’s sovereign rule (kingdom) having come to earth in himself, right then. Jesus is claiming that he is Israel’s true and heavenly King, not Herod Antipas or even Tiberius Caesar who rules the entire known world. When Jesus preached using parables he was preaching about God’s kingdom versus the dictatorial earthly kingdoms.
The parables aren’t pithy lessons about morality either. Yes, Jesus was serious about morality, yet in light of God’s kingdom. A new covenant was upon Israel. New covenant people were to act like Jesus because they were to be the embodiment of God in the world. The parables though, are typically cryptic, not clear and concise the way we’d prefer. The parables are about the kingdom of God, how God was acting in a new way in history through the person of Jesus Christ. Preaching this message and preaching this way was extremely risky and dangerous. It appears at times (Mark 4) as if Jesus is purposely being deceptive and that he doesn’t want people to understand his kingdom message, precisely because of the inherent danger. His parables, instead, offer him time. The parables are kind of like dissolving medicinal capsules, time release teachings. Soon enough Jesus will make it clear that he’s an opponent of the established political order. But when he speaks of the Sower only those with discerning ears will be allowed to understand what is going on with Jesus and the disciples. If too many people (by implication, those who are looking to thwart Jesus’ kingdom campaign efforts) grasp Jesus’ kingdom message they will not understand its redemptive nature. They will only see Jesus in the category they want to see him, as a threat. This is not the intention of Jesus’ ministry of course, but his parables reveal just how threatening Jesus is to so many in Israel.
When Jesus preached using parables he was preaching about God’s kingdom versus the dictatorial earthly kingdoms. The parables aren’t pithy lessons about morality either. The parables are typically cryptic, not clear and concise the way we’d prefer. The parables are about the kingdom of God, how God was acting in a new way in history through the person of Jesus Christ. Preaching this message and preaching this way was extremely risky and dangerous. It appears at times (Mark 4) as if Jesus is purposely being deceptive and that he doesn’t want people to understand his kingdom message, precisely because of the inherent danger. His parables, instead, offer him time. The parables are kind of like dissolving medicinal capsules, time release teachings. Soon enough Jesus will make it clear that he’s an opponent of the established political order. But when he speaks of the Sower, only those with discerning ears will be able to understand what is going on with Jesus and the disciples. If too many people (by implication, those who are looking to thwart Jesus’ kingdom campaign efforts) grasp Jesus’ kingdom message they will not understand its redemptive nature. They will only see Jesus in the category they want to see him, as a threat. This is not the intention of Jesus’ ministry of course, but his parables reveal just how threatening Jesus is to so many in Israel.
The Parable of the Sower is signaling both an unfortunate and glorious end to Israel’s story. Some Israelites will fail to enter into God’s blessed union with them because of their rejection of Him through their rejection of Jesus (think of the stone the builders rejected). The parable is a double edged sword, one of mercy and condemnation. The Sower illustrates this well. Much of the seed (Abraham’s descendants) fails to produce fruit. No Israelite wants to hear this. Yet, the kingdom message will produce fruit after all, and this is a sign that God’s kingdom, though inconspicuous at the moment, has indeed arrived. There will definitely be a remnant that enters the kingdom.
The kingdom message is now like a lamp that is hidden under a bed (Mark 4:21) and will not light (by implication) the entire room. Yet the purpose of a lamp is not to be hidden. Jesus is saying that the kingdom message will soon be revealed to Israel. It is something that will ‘come’ to light. Is Jesus’ speaking of his death and resurrection? “Pay attention to what you hear…” (4:24-25). “The more you have, the more you’ll get.” Get it? Those listening carefully will be given more insight into the kingdom mystery. They will be taught how the kingdom is to be established. It is a mystery because even though Israelites believe they know how the kingdom of God will appear it will appear in a very different way. No one is expecting the Messiah to die, and no one is expecting that the Messiah will have to suffer crucifixion in order to establish God’s kingdom in a shameful public way. Get it? The emphasis is again on hearing, being open minded because if they are open minded, they’ll learn the truth about Jesus and what he’s up to.
The kingdom is also like a farmer who sleeps and rises (Mark 4:26-29) but doesn’t know how the seed sprouts and produces fruit. The kingdom of God will sprout and bear fruit but Israel will not know how it happened. Those listening to Jesus at this point are expecting a large dramatic and sudden display of God taking over. They expect a glorious public display, much like Pilate entering Jerusalem on horseback signaling dominion over the district. They expect to SEE the kingdom, the Messianic coup, happen right in front of their eyes. The kingdom of God will not happen this way, though. We know that the kingdom comes through Jesus’ cross (and also his resurrection), which for many at the time appeared to be business as usual for the Roman empire. Some commentators point out the parallel between the seed and the man who sleeps and rises. I can’t help but recall Jesus in John 12:23-24 where Jesus speaks of the hour when the Son of Man must be glorified. The Messiah won’t be glorified as Israel expects. Jesus parallels this glorification with a grain of wheat which falls into the earth and then dies, but by dying the grain produces a lot of fruit. It’s interesting to note the sleeping and rising of Jesus in this way. The Messiah is glorified through his suffering of death and resurrection from the dead. Look at Mark 8:31-9:1, especially 8:31 and 9:1:
Later on in Mark (8:31-9:1) we see Jesus speaking plainly with the disciples about how the kingdom will be seen but the disciples couldn’t digest this version yet.
Jesus likens the mustard seed, a small seed that produces a large tree, big enough for the nesting of birds (Gentiles) in its branches, as the nature of the kingdom and its effect in the world. Would this kind of speech have been welcomed by those on the shores of the sea? Gentiles were to be despised for their opposition and idolatry. Surely, they would never be allowed to be included in the kingdom of God on earth unless they became a Jew. . . .The kingdom will not appear large at first, but barely noticeable.
When talking to my son about automobiles, he and I forced the context with which we viewed the reason for the making of the LaFerrari. And, without knowing the motivations for lack of testing we simply couldn’t conclude which car was actually fastest. Those listening to Jesus when he speaks the Parable of the Sower and the consequent parables were expecting, not a different topic (like morality or ethics), but a different context for the topic of the kingdom of God. Jesus knew the crowds and he knew what they needed to hear and how they needed to hear it. Those with open minds would receive insight into the mystery of Jesus’ kingdom message. Those with preconceived conclusions about Jesus would walk away with what they expected to hear from him. “He’s possessed!” “He’s gone mad, crazy!” “I told you so!” How should Jesus have spoken to such a diverse group? Parables. Little mysteries. Does Ferrari want everyone to know why they haven’t compared themselves to Porsche on the Nurburgring? Maybe they prefer the value of the mystery for now over the value of a definitive answer. Maybe they want the question to be asked repeatedly in order to attract more people to their product. Did Jesus want everyone to know exactly what he was up to at that point? Yes and no. Of course, we value clarity and getting to the point. The Gospel writers, unfortunately, don’t depict Jesus the way we’d prefer. Maybe God values mystery more than we do. Maybe God still sees crowds on the shore today anticipating Jesus’ next move. What should God say to such an anxious and diverse group of people today?
Should Jesus have spoken to such a diverse group in a different way? Parables, little mysteries, was Jesus’ choice; not something plainly spoken and to the point. Does Ferrari want everyone to know why they haven’t compared themselves to Porsche on the Nurburgring? Maybe not. Maybe they prefer the value of the mystery for now over the value of a definitive answer. Maybe they want the question to be asked repeatedly in order to attract more people to the comparison with the Porsche 918 Spyder. Did Jesus want everyone to know exactly what he was up to at that point? Yes and no. Of course, we value clarity and getting to the point. The Gospel writers, unfortunately, don’t depict Jesus the way we’d prefer. Maybe God values mystery more than we do. Maybe God still sees crowds on the shore today anticipating Jesus’ next move. What should God say to such an anxious and diverse group of people today?
Did Jesus want everyone to know exactly what he was up to at that point? Yes and no. Of course, we value clarity and getting to the point. The Gospel writers, unfortunately, don’t depict Jesus the way we’d prefer. Maybe God still values mystery more than we do. Maybe God still sees crowds on the shores of today anticipating Jesus’ next move as he prepares a boat and readies himself to speak a parable or two. Will people have ears to hear today?
Why is this important, that we understand the parables of Jesus? The parables were central to Jesus’ identity and mission. They tell us how the kingdom of God was established, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Culture and churches today haven’t been exposed to this understanding of God’s kingdom. Today seems much like the era when Jesus lived. There were few who were beginning to connect the dots of Israel story to Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection are a fulfillment and a new beginning in regard to how God chooses to begin “recreating” the heavens and the earth, and creating a new humanity out of the old humanity. These details reveal how God feels about the abuse of power in our world, sin and its coercive nature. Jesus died on a Roman cross rather than on a hillside for the forgiveness of sins. Why? Could this be a massive signpost to the world they lived in and the one in which we continue to live? The only true God seeks to redeem every generation of the world’s evildoers, save them, through Jesus’ suffering, rather than obliterate them. This is how the kingdom of God operates. True power saves! True power doesn’t seek harm. God seeks a new creation in the evil world we live in through Jesus’ resurrection rather providing an escape route. Those who believe in Jesus are to come out of the evil ways they were once enslaved by into a new reality that transforms the corrupted world we’ve created for ourselves. “If we were baptized into his death we were also raised to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4ff). The parables of Jesus warn the nations of the world about Israel’s failures and compel us to learn about Jesus and His present kingdom (Matthew 28:16ff)!
More to come…