The Mystery of God’s Kingdom Lesson 2
by André Muller
The Mystery of God’s Kingdom
At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Mark, Jesus does something unusual. He sits down. I assume this was not the first time he had done this. After all, he sits down in a boat, which given the size of Galilean fishing vessels, and even more their location, would have been a difficult thing to do unless he was already well-practiced in the art of seating himself. Yet, frustratingly for biographers, Mark tells us nothing about how he came to acquire this skill. And, perhaps even more frustratingly for Jesus himself, while other people have taken the weight off their feet—the scribes (2.6), Levi the tax collector (2.14), the crowd gathered around Jesus (3.32, 34)—the subject of Mark’s Gospel doesn’t get to sit down until ninety-nine verses, and presumably some days, after he appeared in the wilderness to be baptised by John.
Of course, there are times when sitting is just sitting, but this isn’t one of them. Jesus sits down at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Mark not because he is tired but for the symbolism. He is about to teach his followers, and we, his modern-day readers, something important—something that will help them, and us, make sense of what takes place on either side of this moment of calm in the middle of a swirling storm of activity. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus has been on the move, calling disciples, healing the sick, casting out demons, proclaiming to anyone who will listen, and to some who won’t, that the reign of God is now finally arriving. Once he has finished teaching, he will be on his way again, continuing to do the mighty works of God as he goes: harnessing the wind and the waves, feeding the hungry, raising the dead. It is in the middle of all this activity that he sits down—and teaches.
He teaches, Mark says, ‘in parables’ (4.2), a term that covers a wide range of metaphorical speech, from brief aphorisms and proverbs to rich allegories.1 Some of the examples Mark provides are drawn from the world of subsistence farming with which people from Galilee were intimately familiar. A farmer scatters seed, and the seed falls in many places: a path, rocky ground, among the thorns, on good soil. Another farmer, having sown seed, wakes the next morning to find an abundant crop. Jesus points to the mustard seed as parabolic: the smallest of seeds becomes the largest of plants. Other parables, in chapter four and throughout Mark, draw from situations equally familiar to a first century Jewish audience: the repairing of clothing (2.21), the storing of wine (2.22), the use of a lamp (4.21-23), the purpose of salt (9.49-50), inebriated wedding guests (2.19-20), wicked tenants (12.1-9), warring kingdoms (3.23-27), an unproductive fig tree (13.28-31).
The parables Jesus tells draw upon the familiar. They are ‘fragments of ordinary human life’, observed the Anglican theologian Donald MacKinnon, ‘sometimes trivial, sometimes obviously presenting crises in human relationships’.2 People do indeed patch up old garments. Farmers in first century Palestine do scatter seeds. Wedding guests drink. Yet Jesus takes up these mundane things, these fragments of the ordinary, to speak of that which lies beyond the frontiers of the familiar. ‘For as the heavens are high over earth, so My ways are high over your ways and My devisings over your devisings’, the Lord says in Isaiah 55.3 Just this is the logic of the parabolic: the great—but not, for the ancients, infinite—height of the heavens is taken up as a figure that points beyond itself to a distance exceeding all human reckoning. The humanly comparable is transfigured into a vehicle for that which exceeds all comparison. The mundane becomes revelatory of that which lies beyond our grasp, even in the moment of its revealing.
The book of Isaiah is a long study in such figuring.4 In the rise and fall of empires, in the all-too-familiar power-plays of civilisations that created chaos and upheaval and incalculable suffering for so many lives in the ancient world, God’s people are invited to see God’s unfathomable devisings, his judgement and his salvation. The parable in Isaiah is a literary device, but it is much more than this: it is the very form that divine revelation takes. Instead of standing aloof from us, the incomparable God accommodates himself to our frailties, transforming the stuff of ordinary life—its joy and sorrow, abundance and scarcity, peace and violence, longing and despair—so that it radiates with the lively and incomprehensible presence of the Lord.
In Mark, too, parables are more than a pedagogical device used by Jesus. If the telling of parables is a central feature of Jesus’ teaching this is because they exemplify—in their very form—the mystery of the Kingdom of God. In the growth of a mustard seed we see God’s insuprresible life among us. And in the joy of wedding guests. In a humble lamp we can see the bright radiance of God’s glory. And in the transformation of these fragments of the ordinary into means of conveying the unfathomable ways of God with human beings, we see something of the good news that Jesus proclaims. God is not shut up in the heavens but is now present among human beings, transforming the earthen vessels of the ordinary and the familiar into chests containing mysterious, eternal treasure (cf. 2 Cor. 4.7).
Here we are given a clue to the miracles that Jesus performs both before and after he sits down to teach. As most commentators point out, Jesus’ miraculous works point beyond themselves. What Mark invites us to see in the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (1.30-31) or of the man with the withered hand (3.1-6) or the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (5.1-20) or the raising of Jairus’ daughter (5.21-24, 35-43) is something more than mere spectacle. He invites us to see the mysterious power of God present in Jesus. Yet we need to remember that Jesus’ mighty works are works that involve the lives of flesh and blood human beings—people who are sick and dying, desperate for healing, tormented by dark forces beyond their control. It is these human beings whose broken lives are taken up and transfigured by Jesus into sites of divine presence. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law becomes a living parable of God’s goodness, as does the man who once roamed alone in the land of the dead, his mind lost to the madness of the lordless powers. After his encounter with Jesus, he is found by the people who knew him, ‘sitting quietly’, at peace (5.15). He is the parable—an all too familiar life, lived in relentless agony and torment like so many lives both then and now, transfigured into a sign of the extravagant goodness of God.
I hope it is becoming clear that the logic of the parabolic is not incidental to what Jesus is doing in Mark but runs throughout the Gospel. There is more to say here, about parables and about Mark, and about Jesus too. I’ll say some more in the next edition.
M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), 194, suggests that the use of the word parabolē in Mark is less reflective of the ordinary Greek meaning of the term (“something cast beside” something else for the purpose of explanation or clarification) than it is of the meaning it has in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures—the Septuagint (LXX). There the word is a translation of the Hebrew term mashal, which can mean a ‘figure, proverb, aphorism, riddle, lesson, allegory, or almost any kind of indirect or metaphorical speech.’
Donald M. MacKinnon, Explorations in Theology (London: SCM Press, 1979), 168.
This translation is from Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation and Commentary, vol. 2.Prophets (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2019), 808.
On the importance of ‘figuring’ in scripture see the marvellous introduction to Ephraim Radner, Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2008), 17-28.