Kingdom Parables

The Gospel of Mark provides only a few examples of the many parables taught by Jesus (“Apart from a parable he did not speak to the crowds”). In them, the dominant theme is the Kingdom of God that invaded the Earth in the ministry of Jesus and continues to grow and produce fruit wherever the Gospel is preached. The “Son of Man” taught the Jewish people in parables, but only as they “were able to hear,” and this clause stresses the responsibility of the listener to hear and heed his words.

Those who have “ears to hear” acquire insight into his parables. For those men who do not, his parables remain incomprehensible. However, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gave explicit explanations of his stories “privately, to his disciples.”

Harvest combines - Photo by James Baltz on Unsplash
[Photo by James Baltz on Unsplash]

The first of the Kingdom parables consists of two stories linked by the repeated clause, “
He was saying to them.” Taught together, they highlight aspects of the Parable of the Sower and explain why Jesus taught in parables.

  • (Mark 4:21-25) - “And he was saying to them: Does the lamp come that under the measure it should be put or under the couch? Is it not that upon the lampstand it may be put? For it is not hidden, save that it may be made visible. Neither did it get hidden away, but that it might come into a place where it could be seen. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. And he was saying to them: Be taking heed what ye are hearing, with what measure you measure it will be measured to you and added to you; for he that has, it will be given to him, and he that has not, even what he has will be taken from him.

The typical first-century lamp was an oil vessel with a floating wick. Many things could be used as a “lampstand” to better illuminate a room, including something as simple as an overturned basket. The “measure” translates the Greek term modios (Strong’s - #G3426), a transliteration of the Latin word modius, the Roman grain measure of approximately eight quarts or one peck.

The size and shape of the lampstand are irrelevant to the story. Whether one conceals a lamp under a bushel basket or a couch, the point is the same. No one would do such a thing. To hide a lit lamp makes no sense.

His question expects a positive answer and provides a clue to the parable’s meaning (“A lamp is not brought to be put under a measure, is it, or under a bed?”). Light is provided so those who enter a house are not left in darkness. Light reveals what is hidden in darkness.

Jesus referred to a “lamp that does not COME.” The Greek verb translated as “come” indicates that this hypothetical lamp represents him. He was the light-bearer who “came.” The story was not about judging others. It concerned the man who had “ears to hear” and who must listen carefully since the standard for judging was the teaching of Jesus.

The “measure” one gives to hear is the measure of what one receives. Individuals receive God’s blessing (or not) by how they respond to the Nazarene’s teachings when they encounter him.

GROWING IN SECRET


The next story addresses the question: How can Jesus proclaim the Kingdom yet not work more actively to bring it about? The issue arose because he was not implementing the Kingdom in the manner expected by so many. He was not a warrior king who conquered territory and slayed his enemies.

  • (Mark 4:26-29) - “And he was saying: Thus is the kingdom of God. As a man may cast seed upon the earth, and be sleeping and rising night and day, and the seed is sprouting and lengthening itself, how he knows not. Of itself, the earth bears fruit; first, a blade, then, an ear, after that, full corn in the ear. But as soon as the fruit yields itself up, immediately, he sends forth the sickle because standing by is the harvest.”

This next story is told from the perspective of a first-century farmer who did not understand how seeds germinated and grew. He only knew that harvest resulted followed the sowing of seeds. After planting, the farmer did little until the time of harvest. In the interim, the seeds germinated and grew of their own accord.

Jesus compared the Kingdom to something banal, not to anything mighty or grand, namely, seeds. The mundane activities of planting and harvesting portray the paradox of the Kingdom. The “Son of Man” sowed the initial seed, an action that did not produce spectacular results that were or are easily observed.

He also likened the Kingdom to the process of growth. Within itself, the seed contained life-giving power. Once planted, it puts in motion the process that culminates in a large harvest at the appropriate season. The farmer of Christ’s time could not hurry the final harvest, but it did come to those who waited patiently for it.

The inauguration of the Kingdom began inauspiciously in the person, words, and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. The “harvest” will come when the task of Gospel proclamation is completed (“And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in all the inhabited earth, for a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” - Matthew 24:14).

THE MUSTARD SEED


The “mustard seed” in the next story represented something that was especially small. It was approximately 1 millimeter in diameter. Later, Jesus used it to represent a small amount of faith - (Matthew 17:20 - “Faith as small as a mustard seed”).

  • (Mark 4:30-32) - “And he was saying: How shall we liken the kingdom of God, or in what parable shall we put it? As a grain of mustard seed, which, whensoever it may be sown upon the earth, is less than all the seeds that are upon the earth. And as soon as it is sown, it springs up and becomes greater than all garden plants and produces large branches so that under the shade thereof the birds of heaven can find shelter.

The “mustard seed” is tiny and unimpressive to the human eye. But from it, a shrub grows that measures up to five meters high. His question indicated what this parable was about (“With what can we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?”).

Many of his contemporaries expected the Messiah to usher in the Kingdom with powerful signs and demonstrations of his royalty and sovereignty. But his ministry was small and unimpressive, though, in the end, it would become the Kingdom of God and fill the entire Earth.

His reference to “birds of the air” referred to ritually impure birds like ravens and hawks. The Kingdom preached by the “Son of Man” attracted individuals considered “unclean” outsiders by the religious insiders of the nation.  His words anticipated the opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles - (Psalm 104:12, Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6, Daniel 4:9-21).

Sunrise Scotland - Photo by Raphael Andres on Unsplash
[Photo by Raphael Andres on Unsplash]

WITH MANY PARABLES


The version of the parable in Matthew adds a quotation from the Psalms (“All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” – Psalm 78:2).

  • (Mark 4:33-34) - “And with many such parables as these, he was speaking to them the word, according as they were able to hear. But without a parable was he not speaking to them. Privately, however, to his own disciples was he explaining all things.

Jesus of Nazareth taught in parables but only as his audience “was able to hear.” It was the responsibility of the listener to heed his words. Only those “with ears to hear” were willing to hearken regardless of popular beliefs and expectations, and so it remains to this day whenever and wherever his message is proclaimed.

Thus, the “Kingdom of God” does not come in obvious and expected ways, and it has been progressing in the world ever since Jesus began to announce the Good News of the Kingdom in the backwater regions of Judea and Galilee.

His Kingdom advances largely unseen whenever the Gospel “seed” is sown. As the Word is proclaimed and received in faith, hostile “territory” is conquered, and citizens are added to his realm. The process will conclude only at the end of the age when God’s sovereign rule is consummated.



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