In chapters four through six of Mark’s Gospel, the reader is introduced to the purpose of Christ’s parables, the nature of Christ’s power, and the perseverance required of Christ’s disciples.
On Parables (4:1-34)
In one of the most challenging pronouncements in the gospel, Jesus explains why he so often employs parables in his teaching: parables at once reveal the mystery of the kingdom to insiders and conceal it from outsiders, “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,’” (4:11-12).
The key word here is “mystery” or “secret,” which although used frequently throughout Paul’s epistles is, notably, used only here in the gospels. In the Old Testament, “mystery” refers to God’s plans that are hidden yet spoken through the prophets for the sake of God’s people. Likewise, in the New Testament the term refers to God’s hidden plan of salvation, now revealed in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:3-9). Either way, “mystery” has a similar meaning: God’s saving plan is known only by revelation.
Jesus wants his disciples to recognize what a tremendous privilege and responsibility it is to have been granted this knowledge: that the mystery of God’s kingdom has been revealed and made present in Jesus himself — a reality which is itself a mystery: that God’s kingdom would be revealed chiefly in the suffering of Jesus, in his passion. And that therefore the kingdom of God comes about in a hidden and unexpected way, not by “unmitigated success and uninterrupted growth,” but by way of “suffering, setbacks, and seeming failure” (Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 85) — suffering, setbacks, and seeming failure that the followers of Jesus are invited to share in (cf. 6:6b-29).
This, to me, is one of the hardest things about trusting Jesus with your whole life: the revelation that you can only fail your way into his kingdom. You can only lose your way in. To borrow a phrase from the inimitable Fr. Robert Farrar Capon, death rather than more aggressive living is the way. It’s one of the hardest truths but also one of the most comforting. Every setback, every failure, every disappointment, every frustration, every loss, every sorrow: every one an invitation to share in Christ’s suffering.
The mysteries we call sacraments come to mind here, which most assuredly reveal the grace of God’s good will towards us, albeit concealed in common matter: bread and wine, water and oil, and so on. So yes, the grace of God is hidden and even secret, but only in order that it might be disclosed and brought to light (4:22). Therefore be alert, be sober, be paying attention, be not only hearing but listening.
Listen! The word appears thirteen times in chapter four. Echoing the words of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel!”), it is what distinguishes the disciples of Jesus who are to “pay attention to what you hear” (4:24) and so have listening ears (4:9, 23). The presumption is that God has spoken and indeed he has spoken, through the prophets and now finally and decisively in his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Indeed, Jesus himself is the sower who sows the word (4:14). And sown it he has, liberally, indiscriminately even, using every available space, knowing that some of the seed will miss the mark. Sometimes the word falls on deaf ears, sometimes it is met with resistance, sometimes it fails to take root, yet surprisingly, despite these apparent failures, the seed ends up producing a spectacular (miraculous!) harvest (4:20). We know not how (4:27)!
The different types of soil represented in the parable of the sower do not necessarily represent different types of people but rather various possible responses of the same individual at different times in his or her life. “Do you not understand?” asks Jesus (4:13). We do not, of course. By ourselves we are incapable of comprehending the mystery of the kingdom. The only way to attain understanding and thus the wisdom required for Christian living is to come to Jesus and ask him to reveal the meaning of his word to us and to trust that he will indeed reward just such humble faith (cf. 5:27-28).
Only Jesus can open our eyes and ears so that we see and hear in a way that leads to obedience, but we must allow ourselves to be drawn in, to absorb and appropriate his word deep into our hearts, to allow his word to sink in and transform our lives. That is what it means to “listen.” That is what it means to be the good soil that Jesus wants us to be and so to bear good fruit (4:8, 20). This is the reflection that Jesus’ use of parables invites: What kind of soil am I? What are the things in my life that threaten the fruitfulness of God’s word? Has the word of God been fruitful in me? If not, what obstacles are there and how might they be overcome? (Healy, 88).
On Power (4:35-5:43)
In the next section of Mark, Jesus demonstrates his power: over the material world, over the spiritual world, and finally over death itself. Jesus has gathered his disciples into a boat and set out for the other side of the sea, only now a great storm has swept up. The waves are rising, the boat is being swamped, the disciples are afraid, and Jesus is asleep: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). They want to know if Jesus is concerned for their plight, which is looking rather perilous.
Jesus does care. He hasn’t called them only to let them fail. So, the maker of heaven and earth arises from sleep with a word of peace and stills the raging of the sea with a single utterance, “and there was a dead calm” (4:39). Adam was to tame the garden, to cultivate it, to subdue the material world and make it subservient to God’s word and will and so offer it up to the Father in love. Here the true Adam demonstrates his authority and capacity to accomplish what the first Adam was unable to.
Surely there is a sobering word to the Church here as well. Jesus does not send us out for a pleasure cruise on a sunny summer afternoon. No, he has called and sent us out into a sea that is often raging, in which we are (increasingly!) small and struggling, battered and storm-tossed. And we may wonder: is our Lord asleep? Unaware? Absent? Unconcerned? And we may fear.
The antidote to fear is faith. Put another way, the antidote to fear of the world is the fear of the Lord. Fear God or fear everything else; fear God and fear nothing else. So then when the wind blows and the waves begin to surge, when the boat is in danger and our hearts in jeopardy, tossed to and fro, we must rouse Christ, remember him, let him awake within us, and give heed to him lest we be shipwrecked (St. Augustine, Sermon 63.1-3).
Jesus also has complete power over the spiritual world, as he demonstrates in his interaction with the Gerasene Demoniac. So tormented was this man by demons that he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but contain him they could not (5:3-4). He would break free and be driven by the demon out into the wild. One has the sense that this man has lost any agency he once had and is totally enslaved by this power, so much so that his whole identity is now determined by his condition: “What is your name?” Jesus asks him. “Legion,” says he, for many demons had entered him.
Sin’s power lies in its capacity to warp and disfigure the image of God in human creatures and so to call into question our identity. Like this poor man and like Israel before him, sin makes us a tormented and twisted shadow of who God has made us to be. Therefore, sin needs to be contained. This, says Saint Paul, is in part why God gave the law: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law…Therefore the law was our disciplinarian,” (Gal. 3:23-24). As the demoniac was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, so one of the purposes of God’s law is to restrain sin through fear of punishment.
However, as the chains and shackles were unable to bind the demoniac, so too the law is unable to bind our sinful nature, which breaks free and thrusts us further into the wild. The problem is not a lack of willpower on our end but rather that sin is a power that enslaves, that takes us out of our right mind and drags us down into death. What we like the demoniac ultimately need is not to have our sinful nature restrained but to have it healed, not to be contained but to be liberated, not to be improved upon but to be made new altogether. Which is precisely what Saint Paul goes on to say: “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Gal. 3:24-27).
Sin disfigures, but Jesus transfigures. Now that Jesus has come near there is no longer any need for chains but only faith in him, to come and sit at his feet and allow him to tell us who we really are, not Legion but child and heir.
The material world is groaning under the weight of sin, the wages of which is death. Therefore, Jesus not only has power over the material and spiritual worlds but over death as well. This is made strikingly apparent in Jesus’ interaction with Jairus’s daughter (5:21-24a, 35-43). Jairus comes to Jesus with a desperate plea: “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
Jesus is delayed (5:24b-34), however, and the young girl dies. When Jesus does arrive, the mourners have already gathered. Jesus sends them out of the room, takes the young girl by the hand, and raises her up from death.
Notice that Jesus does answer Jairus’s request that his daughter “may be made well, and live,” but not in the way Jairus was expecting. For Jesus did not save her from “the point of death,” but rather permitted her to die so that he might bring her back to life again and so exhibit his power even over death.
Now yes, like Lazarus, surely this girl went on to die at a later date. Nevertheless, through this event Jesus is pointing us towards his own resurrection, towards the great mystery contained therein, towards the new reality that Jesus is bringing into the world by his passion, a reality that has even now come among us. And it is this: to “be made well, and live” is not to be spared from death (and all of death’s manifold realities, including sickness and so on) but rather to pass through death into a life that death can no longer touch, a life that Jesus is even now preparing for those who love him, a life that he has already given to us.
To put it even more starkly, death is the way that God brings his love to perfection in us. Specifically, Christ’s death, but also our life and death insofar as it is caught up with his, a process that begins in baptism: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:4).
This theme by the way — of death and resurrection — has been in the background the entire time. We need think only of the seed buried in the ground (4:8), of Jesus asleep in the boat. (4:38), of Jesus entering Gentile tombs to free a tormented man (5:2). For what mystery is greater than death? Than the Son of God hidden in human flesh, hidden in suffering, hidden in poverty, his lifeless body hidden in the tomb? Nothing is secret, except to come to light (4:22). When Jesus Christ enters the secrecy of death he does so in order that the light of God might fill the earth and every human creature. Jesus is hidden only in order to be disclosed in the proclamation of his disciples (6:6b-13).
On Perseverance (6:1-29)
This brings us to the final section of Mark’s Gospel now under our consideration, in which we learn of the perseverance and patience required for discipleship. Not every type of ground will produce a harvest, it is true, but the word must be gratuitously sown nevertheless.
Jesus arrives in his hometown with his disciples and begins to teach in the synagogue. His wisdom and power are met with wonder and awe, but ultimately the hometown crowd is skeptical and they take offense at him (6:3). Mark characterizes this as “unbelief” (6:6): they have heard and seen but they have not listened and understood.
Then, as Noah gathered the animals into the ark two-by-two, Jesus now sends the disciples out from the ark of the Church two-by-two, ordering them to take nothing for the journey but a staff and the authority given them by Jesus (6:8). Continuing a theme that is now becoming clear: the Church is sent to the world as her Lord has come to the world, not in strength but in weakness, not in power but in humility and need. Here the mission of the Church is dependent on the hospitality of others: “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place” (6:10). Where the word begins to take root, do not rush but be patient. Don’t be afraid to hunker down and spend some time nurturing that seed, helping it to grow up.
And should some refuse the word? Never mind, carry on the work of sowing with which we have been entrusted. In a word, persevere. Perseverance is required for the life of discipleship because the life of discipleship is not, as we have already seen, a life of unmitigated success and accomplishment. More often than not there are trials and sorrows, apathy and rejection, questions and doubts, and as the blood of the martyrs bears witness there is sometimes death (6:14-29). Yet for the disciple, for the believer, for the one with ears to hear, none of this is a surprise. It is simply the way in which God conforms our life to the life of his Son who himself suffered and was rejected and persevered even unto death, even in death, even through death and out the other side, into a life that death can no longer touch.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is rector of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, in the Canadian Diocese of Toronto.