Having grown up watching Michael Jordan win the championships he did with the Chicago Bulls, few, if any, wondered if there would ever be a greater player than Michael Jordan. Jordan seemed to have the world of basketball and much of the world at his fingertips. Little boys watching basketball in that era were destined to emulate Michael Jordan and no other. After his retirement it had seemed we’d seen the pinnacle of the NBA.
Then I remember watching LeBron James while he was still in high school playing basketball. According to Dick Vitale and others, LeBron was super-talented and was highly anticipated to be the next Michael Jordan of the NBA, or even better. LeBron was two inches taller and similarly agile. He could jump like Jordan also. Everyone was waiting to see what LeBron couldn’t do in high school.
After graduating high school LeBron went straight to the NBA, whereas most super-talented high school basketball players still make the decision to play college basketball before thinking about leaving for the bright lights of the NBA. Needless to say, LeBron’s world was going to change once he entered the NBA and everyone’s eye was upon him, to see if he was hype or to see if he really was as good as people were saying. I don’t need to remind ourselves of what has happened since, but for good measure, Lebron has become a household name because of his achievements with the NBA and the Olympics and elsewhere. To some degree, LeBron has created the enthusiasm for professional basketball once again. So, he has aptly been named, King James.
When coming to the story of Mark 4:1-34 I’m reminded of King David of the Jews. David was the kind of King God desired for the nation of Israel. David had the heart of faith necessary to unite the tribes and precipitate the glory that dawned on Israel as the greatest nation on earth. Yet after David’s death, even though there was prosperity in Israel the building of Solomon’s magnificent Temple, there was also the beginning of a decline. The nation would find itself struggling politically and serving foreign gods. For the Jews, the glory days of humanity were waning. They felt they’d seen that golden era begin to do the impossible. This gold began to tarnish. Could a future king ever match the success of David?
Before Jesus’ ministry, the Messianic figure predicted by Daniel was also highly anticipated by the Jews yet there wasn’t a way to observe him in “high school.” There were no ways to observe his gradual ascent into the public light from an early age and begin imagining the possibilities of the Messiah to re-energize the nation’s spirit. We’ll find, however, that this wouldn’t be a problem. Naturally, having heard Mark give us inside information into the story of Jesus, that he is being called the Christ, many Jews are excited about the arrival of a Messiah because they are hearing rumors that Jesus of Nazareth could be the One. The questions remained in the minds of the people, even for those who were paying close attention, “Is this Jesus the one? Is he the descendant of David who will restore our national hopes and make us the greatest nation on earth once again? Is this the time when God has promised another, even greater golden era? Is this Jesus our long-awaited King?”
For the reader of Mark, those questions can be answered with an unwavering “Yes!” Yet, the setting in Mark 4:1-34 gives the modern reader different initial impressions about its content.
The parables of this pericope are cryptic. They do not provide the great crowds with the assurance they seek. Some have come to continue listening carefully. Some have come to see if Jesus has gone mad. Some have come to see if Jesus is a wanna-be King and if they hear Jesus make explicit claims to David’s throne they’ll quickly notify Herod who’ll attempt to eliminate Jesus as an opponent. The expectations of the crowd vary. All are interested in a Messiah but Jesus hasn’t thus far behaved as expected. Is Jesus claiming to be the Messiah or not? This is what they want to know. Even if Jesus speaks openly the different types of people in the crowd won’t be satisfied or happy. So, Jesus gives them the parable of all parables, and then adds additional pithy parables.
In my era, I’ve heard the Parable of the Sower explained hundreds of different ways. Each explanation has removed a context where we imagine a golden era fading into the sunset, leaving people to hope for a new one, if possible. After Michael Jordan’s retirement, would there ever be any basketball player to reach such heights? After King David would there ever be another king in Israel with the ability to restore national glory? Instead, the context has been about whether or not someone living today is a Christian or not. While there is some merit in that line of thinking it isn’t what Jesus was addressing in front of such an audience with incredible anticipation.
Jesus is using familiar images to answer the crowd in a cryptic way. Those who pay close attention will find themselves hearing the answer to their questions. Those who have come seeking to justify their current dispositions will find themselves reassured, reassured that Jesus is looney or that Jesus is merely a popular sage.
The sower sows unsuccessfully three times and then successfully the fourth. Even though the language of Jesus’ explanation throws the modern Western reader into a “Who’s going to heaven and who’s not?” kind of world, Jesus is describing an era, specifically his era, which will produce fruit. We don’t have to think long before we can recall other symbolic actions where Jesus and plant life don’t get along. Consider the fig tree of Mark 11. What did it not have, and what will it never produce? Specifically, figs. Symbolically, fruit. Israel is God’s land, and for generations, since David, there hasn’t been any fruit being produced in the land. This is why they are still in covenantal exile. Jesus is saying that now is the time when Israel will produce (yield) fruit, “some 30 fold, some 60, some 100.” There is going to be a great yield (The average ratio was 6 grains produced for every one planted.) Jesus is promising unimaginable yields. The key is this: now is the time when that yield will happen. Though cryptic, Jesus is saying “You’ve all been waiting for another Michael Jordan, another King David. “Yet, I’m here to tell you that if you’re listening closely, you’ll get my point that a Greater One is here now. God’s promises are being fulfilled now, right in front of your very eyes, even though it can be difficult for you to imagine.”
“This is what the kingdom looks like,” Jesus says. “It looks like a sower sowing seed and finally, there is a great yield.” It wouldn’t look like a Davidic campaign against the Romans. That’s what the Jews were generally expecting the reign of God to look like once it arrived in the Messianic figure from Daniel’s writings. [If the Jews thought that Jesus was speaking about being a Christian and the afterlife, they would’ve likely gone home thinking that he surely is crazy. Why? This is not what they came for. They came to hear about revolution. They came to hear about justice for the oppressed. They came to hear about the removal of leaven from the Temple state. They wanted government corruption eradicated and righteousness to rule the earth. And they thought that this was the way God was eventually going to establish His reign, His kingdom, on earth. Compare Luke 11:1ff; Matthew 6:1-15. Besides, they believed in a resurrection, not a disembodied afterlife somewhere ethereal.] But how does a sower sowing seed translate into a new King being inaugurated in the dangerous world of Israel’s politics?
“Is a lamp brought in to be put under or bed or a basket, and not on a stand?” Jesus is speaking rhetorically. Of course, a lamp is for lighting the entire room. However, Jesus is saying that hiding the lamp under the bed or in a basket for a little while. The message of the kingdom that Jesus brings, the truth that he is Israel’s long-awaited King, the King that ushers in the revolutionary era, is going to seem hidden for a little while, but he will bring everything out into the open where it’s plain to see for all. Why hide it now? There is opposition in the crowd, those that want a soundbite of Jesus claiming he’s the new King. That’s all it would take for some unsavory characters to report it to Herod and that would complicate Jesus’ ministry to Israel even more. Jesus is preparing Israel for what’s to come. The kingdom is coming on full display, not as a warrior king leading an army up to Jerusalem to storm the Temple, but as a servant king who demonstrates what real strength and what real power is, by dying on a Roman cross, and then overcoming death itself. [In the movie 42, Jackie Robinson is invited into Branch Rickey’s office for the prospect of becoming a Brooklyn Dodger. However, Robinson has a reputation for righteous indignation. Rickey provokes Jackie in the office and Jackie responds, “Sir, don’t you want a player with guts!” Rickey responds, “Yes. Yes, I do. But I want a player who has the guts not to retaliate when he’s provoked by the crass behavior of people with prejudice. I want a player who has the guts to turn the other cheek as our Saviour did. I want a player who is known for loving baseball instead of a player looks like one who has a hatred for others.]
“The kingdom is coming but you won’t be able to see it in the way you thought.” “It’ll be like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” The kingdom won’t come through typical revolutionary ways, Jesus is saying. The kingdom is coming through a King’s death on a cross. “Imagine a mustard seed! It’s insignificant. Yet, after it’s grown so large, it’s able to provide a nest for all the birds (Gentiles?)” Yes, there were many there who would, unfortunately, miss entering the kingdom for one reason or another. But, there were many in Israel who would enter. They would be God’s remnant, God’s new project for the world. They would be God’s church.
Was LeBron James the coming of another Michael Jordan? Perhaps. People will continue to debate that. But, was Jesus the coming of another David? In the sense of being God’s Son (cf. Psalm 2), God’s representative King on earth, yes. With a tomb still empty, there’s no room for debating that.
What did you expect from Mark 4:1-34? Did you expect Jesus to be clear instead of cryptic? Mark inserts this part of Jesus’ mission to reaffirm to many, that there the kingdom of God, the one Israel has been waiting for, has indeed arrived. But they must be patient. They must continue listening to Jesus, following him. Mark is continuing to build Jesus’ Gospel story. Mark will lead our eyes up to Jesus’ cross eventually. However, strange this may be to a modern reader, this is how God demonstrated His kingdom power, His love, for the entire world. Others in the world dismiss the importance of the cross and the kingdom, and Jesus’ resurrection. These things don’t seem to tell them “what to do” this week, or the next. These things are difficult to understand. Are some still standing near the shore, listening carefully to the man in the boat? Or, have many already decided it’s getting late, and they’ve got what they came for, so they’re headed back to the villages and towns?
Everyone has ears, but are those ears being used to understand Jesus’ teachings and story? Jesus says “Pay attention to what you hear…for the one who has, more will be given; and the one who doesn’t have, even what he does, that will be taken away.” Does Jesus sound like a preacher teaching simple timeless truths? Does Jesus sound like he’s teaching morals here? What are we supposed to be paying attention to? Hmmmm. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”