October 24, 2003
Mark 4

This chapter consists mostly of discussions about seeds. Metaphorical seeds, of course.

Jesus preaches to a crowd a cryptic parable about a sower whose seeds meet different fates: some fall on rocks and withered away, some were eaten by birds, some were choked by weeds, and some grew into a harvest. Later his disciples ask what he was talking about. Jesus answers:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”’

He goes on to analogize the seeds with the words of God, which will fall on a lot of deaf ears but bear fruit in those who take it to heart.

The verse part of the above quote is apparently from Isaiah, and underscores again the idea of Jesus as a fulfillment of prophecies. But the words sound rather disturbingly exclusionary. He's speaking in riddles deliberately so people won't understand him? Only a chosen few are going to get it? Are we in Calvin-land here, with just a small elect destined to be saved?

Well, the chapter ain't over yet. Jesus' next parables are against secrecy. The famous lines about not hiding your light under a bushel, "for there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"

He then goes on to make two analogies of the Kingdom of God to seeds:

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

Then comes the famous line about the mustard plant, growing from a tiny seed to a massive shrub.

Like a lot of Mark, this has the feel of being strung-together sayings, but they're strung together with a narrative purpose. We start out with a small, secret klatch of those in the know, but the subsequent lines suggest this is not a permanent state. Secrets will be revealed, the seeds will sprout and grow, and it will all end up being much bigger than it is now.

But how will it grow, and into what? We aren't told in this chapter. My study notes say that the explanation of the sower parable is "probably a later Christian interpretation of Jesus' parable, accentuating missionary hardships and the difficulty of discipleship." That makes sense, as one can see all this sowing and growing as analogous to the growth of the church itself. (I assume Christians are calling on these parables when they talk about "planting" a church.) You could also see the seeding in a more individual sense; a little bit of faith now can blossom into something much greater if it's nourished.

The final story in the chapter isn't about seeds. Jesus and the gang are on a boat crossing a lake; a windstorm comes up, and the frightened disciples wake up Jesus asking him for help. Jesus stills the storm, and rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith. They look at each other and ask, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" So even though the disciples are "in the know" about Jesus' parables, they're still not sure who he really is.

The theme of secrecy is getting thicker and thicker, and it's still mysterious. Why is Jesus talking in riddles if he knows people aren't going to understand him? Why bother talking to them at all? Why is the whole thing undercover, anyway?

Jeremy, offering the Gnostic perspective on Mark 1, claimed that for Jesus to reveal too much would "keep people from discovering the truth for themselves." That doesn't make much sense to me in light of everything else that Jesus does that's very public: the preaching, teaching, healing, etc. Why let even the select group of disciples in on things, if they should discover it themselves?

In his post on Mark 3, Kynn remarked on his admiration for Marcus Borg, which reminded me of what Borg said in the book I blogged part of this summer. He used all the secrecy to bolster his argument that Jesus didn't actually know he was messiah until after his death. The secrecy, the thinking went, was a later cover for the fact that Jesus never explicitly said he was anyone special.

Readers from the summer may recall I was underwhelmed by Borg's arguments generally, and that particular point clanks even more now that I'm in the middle of this gospel. The secrecy is such a major driving theme in the whole story so far, and doesn't just cover Jesus' messiahdom -- it covers practically everything. If we discount everything Jesus said to keep a secret, and everything that sounds self-important, we don't have much left of the story so far. A guy who argued with Pharisees and spoke in incomprehensible riddles, and somehow became hugely popular. Hmmm.

Anyway, Borg's reasons for thinking that way didn't much impress me, so I don't feel terribly bound to the argument. But I have to admit, it's not like I have a better explanation. I guess w'll have to go on and see how the mystery unfolds.

Posted by Camassia at October 24, 2003 05:48 PM | TrackBack

Yeah, I have a lot of problems figuring out the secrecy thing -- and even though I like Borg, I don't buy his explanation, really. Jesus was, in my opinion, clearly doing SOMETHING. And yet according to Mark, he was being secretive about it.

I don't get it.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on October 24, 2003 05:59 PM

The idea that Jesus passed secrets on to his inner circle that he did not disclose to the general public is in keeping with the customary practices of most spiritual teachers. There is usually an esoteric version of the message that is available only to those persons who have been prepared to receive it. The ending of the Gospel of John--the last to be written--again indicates that there are things that are not contained in the writings: John 21:25 "But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." That has always seemed a strangely hyperbolic verse to me. The world could not contain them? What does that mean? It reminds me of the seed/word in Mark 4 that falls along the path and Satan immediately comes and takes it away: the world as a crowded path crossing rocky ground, heading toward sterility, unable to contain and nurture the germinating word.
The fourth chapter of Mark seems to me to be primarily an admonition to seek, to find the lamp and put it on the stand. It's about seeing and also about hearing: "If a man has ears to hear, let him hear." It's about internalizing the word.

Posted by: Rob on October 24, 2003 06:21 PM

FWIW, I think G.K. Chesterton has the best (and most countercultural--at least in a Protestant and post-Protestant culture which tends to see the Church as separate from, a corruption of, and even in active opposition to the "Jesus of history"). He says, "it is the Gospel that is the riddle and the Church that is the answer."

For a fuller take, go here.

A helpful thing to remember is that the gospels are not the foundation and the epistles and the Church mere commentary and window dressing. In the minds of the New Testament writers, the Church is simply the continuation of what Jesus began. And it is not even *our* continuation of it. It is Jesus himself, continuing him work through his body. That is why Luke prefaces Acts by describing his gospel as relating what Jesus "began" to do and teach (clearly implying that Acts will now relate what he did next. Similarly, the Risen Christ's words to Paul ("Why are you persecuting *me*?") form the basis for Paul's entire doctrine of the Church.

It is in this light that Jesus mysterious parabolic words and acts and the even more mysterious statement that everything hidden will be revealed is to be read. Christ was the riddle, the Church is the answer to the riddle.

Posted by: Mark Shea on October 30, 2003 11:15 AM

Re: the context of the Gnostic teachings-- keep in mind that there's a whole body of noncanonical literature that I could use to justify the statements. However, the idea that each individual has to figure out what the Truth is for him/herself is pretty much the cornerstone of Gnostic belief. The idea is that Jesus reveals *just enough* to stimulate self-discovery and awareness, but not everything. My reading of Jesus's parables as sort of "zen koans" support this idea, as does the Gnostic belief that divinity exists within each of us, but is hidden from view, or a secret until one accepts The Way, at which point it becomes uncovered. Essentially, it's summed up in the quote from my Mark 1 entry: "Be zealous to be saved without being urged. Rather, be ready on your own and, if possible, go before me. For thus the Father will love you."

P.S. Although I'm way behind and remiss in my Mark blogging, I have switched the focus of my blog to philosophy/religion and will be posting regularly on the topics. I hope you'll visit!

Posted by: J. Puma on October 30, 2003 02:46 PM


I agree with your assessment that the gnostic take on Jesus doesn't really make sense. If Jesus' real point is that "divinity exists within each of us" then he has a funny way of showing it when he says, "If you, being evil, know how to give your son good things..." and "You are from below, I am from above." It doesn't sound much like he's trying to awaken us to our deity. It sounds very much like he is trying to awaken us to his deity.

Posted by: Mark Shea on October 30, 2003 03:18 PM

"If Jesus' real point is that "divinity exists within each of us" then he has a funny way of showing it when he says, "If you, being evil, know how to give your son good things..." and "You are from below, I am from above." It doesn't sound much like he's trying to awaken us to our deity. It sounds very much like he is trying to awaken us to his deity."

I can understand how the Gnostic viewpoint wouldn't make much sense if you're only reading the canonical gospels. However, perhaps I could put it another way. In my reading of Gnosticism (not the only one, btw), people exist in two states. The first state, before one has set out along "The Way," accepted Jesus, become enlightened, whatever you'd like to call it (I prefer the term "has gnosis [inner knowledge]), is the state of illusion, dreamlife-- the unfulfilled state. The second state, after one has acheived gnosis/become enlightened, is a state of awakeness, and an acceptance *through direct experience and knowledge* of God's being within/without the Universe.

Jesus spoke in two different ways to people in both of the two different states. To those who are asleep, he speaks in parables and keeps secrets so that they figure things out on their own. Those who are enlightned, however, and have chosen the Way for themselves, get the straight talk. Thus, the differences in Jesus' rhetorical approach. "Being evil," "below," these are references to those who have not yet become enlightened. But to those who have, or who are on the path and desire to be, he speaks differently.

I guess it makes perfect sense to me. But that's why I'm a Gnostic. :)

Posted by: J. Puma on October 30, 2003 03:58 PM

If we each have a soul, and if that soul is eternal, then I agree with J. Puma that the purpose of the teachings and living exemplar of Jesus Christ is to help each of us come in contact with that part of us that is "real" and eternal. The Truth is acquired faith that this is possible for everyone; the Way is how that Truth can be enacted and fully realized through acceptance of God's grace; the Life is our destination, our becoming reunited with God in eternity. This world is not our home.

Posted by: Rob on October 30, 2003 04:14 PM

Since the point of this particular study is to look at a canonical gospel and what it actually says, not at some other document, I guess I don't follow your point. Are you saying, "Never mind what Mark says, read this thing over here and then, when Mark disagrees with it, just ignore Mark"? If so, I guess I don't know why one would bother with Mark in the first place. I thought Camassia was studying Mark.

Posted by: Mark Shea on October 30, 2003 04:48 PM


Recalling being made in the image of God and even the gospel promise of "participating in the divine nature" is quite legitimate. But that's a different thing than the importation of gnostic notions whenever the text of Mark inconveniences one's preconceptions. One is hard-pressed to find substantiation for the notion that Jesus is trying waken in us some native deity that we possess due to our own wonderfulness. Rather, the picture Mark will increasingly offer is the picture offered by ordinary Christian orthodoxy: that we are sinners made in the image of God who cannot possibly be saved apart from the grace of God in Christ. Simply ignoring that point when Mark makes it and painting it over with gnosticism is not reading the text at all, it's just eisegesis.

Posted by: Mark Shea on October 30, 2003 04:55 PM

You are probably right that this is not the time and place to expound extensively upon non-canonical notions. (I was responding to J. Puma's post, rather than to Mark.) On the other hand, I feel that there will be plenty of orthodox commentary, so there might be some room for less-than-orthodox comments. My first post above responds directly to Mark. Even if it does stray from a fully orthodox interpretation, it is an expression of what Mark suggests to me as I read along.

Posted by: Rob on October 30, 2003 05:29 PM

Um...of course the world can't contain the Word.

Maureen O'Brien

Posted by: Maureen on October 30, 2003 08:09 PM

Mark: for some reason I get the feeling that you're somehow offended. If so, I apologize.

Fact is, I read Mark (and all of the gospels) in a different context based on additional, non-canonical works, and that's what informs my commentary and analysis. If I comment on Christianity and Mark, it's based on the Gnostic interpretation thereof-- it's not to criticize other readings, but to inform about the Gnostic reading and participate in what is a fascinating and informative discussion. I was only mentioning Gnosticism at that point since it was brought up.

Regardless, please don't take offense at my unorthodox views. :)

Posted by: J. Puma on October 31, 2003 10:00 AM

Nope. Not offended at all. Just puzzled. You don't appear to actually be reading Mark's actual words, merely filtering them through a grid of preconceptions based on a gnostic worldview you derive wherever. As I say, that's called eisegesis: reading into a text rather than allowing the text to speak and challenge your preconceptions.

Posted by: Mark Shea on October 31, 2003 03:20 PM

Mark: is it possible to read a text without filtering it through a grid of preconceptions? Can you read Mark (or any of the Gospels) and completely divorce them from the rest of the Bible? Would you ask a devout Jew to read, say, Ezekiel without filtering it through the grid of preconceptions presented by Judaism? This isn't rhetorical-- do you believe it's possible to read something this way?

I understand your point, but I wonder just how possible it is. Having been on my own spiritual path for over ten years, having read Mark (and the other Gospels) probably several dozen times, I can't approach Christian texts in this fashion. So, I discuss them the best I can in the context in which I read them.

Still, interesting thoughts.

Posted by: J. Puma on November 1, 2003 12:49 PM

Mark, I kind of agree with Jeremy, there. It's a bit odd for you to place the Gospel so inextricably within the tradition of the Church, and then say we should let the words speak for themselves!

Anyway, I am trying to keep as open a mind as possible when I read the text. It is very interesting to ask these questions and see the different perspectives people offer, and I appreciate all your input.

Posted by: Camassia on November 1, 2003 03:27 PM
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