Mark 4: Parables: Measuring the Hearts of Israel
Introduction: The Sea and the Land
Beginning in the creation sequence, sea and land have always been significant. Day Three records this creation act and the parallel creation is man, on day six. But the “land” always meant more than just man, it represented God’s particular people. Adam and Cain leaving the land is a sign of God’s displeasure and divorce; Noah returning to land from the sea (flood) and Abram being promised a land is a sign of God’s intention to reverse the Fall. The Promised Land is God’s oath to Israel of His intentions. In contrast to this, the sea became very early on associated with the gentiles and the wicked. The flood is where God destroyed the wicked sons of God and their descendents; the Red Sea is where God destroyed Pharaoh and his armies. Consider the pictures: Eden with a river flowing out of it, the new temple with a river flowing out of it, the New Jerusalem with a river flowing through it. The picture is of God and His people with the nations and their gifts begin brought into the kingdom (cf. Ps. 46:1-3, Is.8:6-8, Jer. 51:34-44). Thus when Mark sets up chapter four describing the details of the sea and the land (4:1), we should be keeping this background symbolism in mind.
Parables are stories, riddles which are intended to challenge the status quo. For Jesus to tell riddles or proverbs in this way, we should immediately recall his Solomonic status. As a king, the son of David, he is coming to claim Solomon’s throne, to speak wisdom and make right judgments. Remember the archetypal challenge and display of Solomon’s wisdom in the story of the two prostitutes (1 Kgs. 3:16ff). The duty of a wise king is to divide between fact and fiction, to be shrewd in bringing the truth to light.
Further light is shed on what Jesus is doing by considering what “parable” means. Often, one of the root words, “bolis” is used as a nautical term for the sounding lead, the device sailors used to measure the depth of water. A couple of closely related verb forms from the same root can be rendered “throw/cast” or even “cast the sounding device”. The verb “to parable” is used here in 4:30 and only again in Acts 20:15 where the word describes a few of Paul’s maritime adventures.
Given Jesus’ previous description of what he is training his disciples for (“I will make you fishers of men”, 1:17) and the fact that he’s dealing with at least a significant minority of former fishermen (James, John, Peter and Andrew) AND the fact that Jesus is doing all of this teaching in chapter 4 from a boat (4:1, 36), It is difficult to shake the conclusion that the parables are meant in this nautical sense. They are meant as measuring devices, measuring the hearts of Israel (4:24), measuring their depth of soil (4:5), revealing what is hidden (4:22).
The Parable of the Soils
And this is precisely what the parable of the soils is about, and it is precisely what the parable of the soils (and the others) is accomplishing. Parables are used by Jesus to identify who is “in” and who is “out” (4:11-12). The “in” are those who “turn/convert” and have their sins forgiven, the “out” are those who don’t understand. The key is obviously not tons of training or meditation per se, but rather knowing Jesus (look at the disciples! 4:11,13, 34). He is the key to understanding the parables, the key to knowing the mystery of the kingdom of God. It’s the willingness to ask, “What was that all about?”
But Jesus seems to indicate that this parable is a type of all the parables in some sense (4:13). Given this fact, Jesus’ ministry and the symbolism we already considered, this parable’s first point is to analyze Israel. This is not primarily about “salvation” or “getting saved”. This is about how God’s covenant people respond to His Word. Some are hampered by Satan (perhaps a reference to the unclean spirits in the land). Others have no root and are hampered by the rocks of persecution and tribulation (this is interesting, given the connection with Peter). Others are sown among thorns, and are choked by the cares “of this age/generation”, riches, and other desires (perhaps an allusion to the crown of thorns). Finally, others are “good ground” and they become fruitful 30, 60 and 100 fold (perhaps allusions to Jerusalem, Judea/Samaria, and the ‘ends of the earth’ Acts. 1:8).
Jonah and Moses
Given all the symbolism of land and sea going on in this chapter it’s difficult to miss the allusions to Moses and Jonah. Like Moses, Jesus leads a great multitude to the sea, and like Moses, Jesus commands the wind and the waves and they obey him, allowing His people to cross the sea. The primary parallel to Jonah is the description of the great storm and Jesus asleep in the stern and getting woken up in the middle of a bad storm. Yet, another more subtle connection is all the teaching Jesus does in the boat. The order of events is reversed, but it’s a similar event. The lot falls on Jonah and he gets to teach the sailors all about the God of Israel in a boat in the sea. The circumstances are different, but Jesus is in a boat teaching sailors/fishermen (the disciples) about the God of Israel. The sign of Moses indicates yet again Jesus’ ministry of calling out a new Israel out of the bondage of sin and uncleanness to build a new house in Him.
Conclusion and Application
Jesus is in a boat in the sea. He is the Logos, the word come to Israel, the ground. His parables are the sounding lead, measuring Israel’s depth, finding the faithful and turning away the unfaithful. The parables are the Wisdom of God dividing between lies and truth. But Jesus is a Jonah. And if Jesus is Jonah, then Jesus will die before the river can flow through the land, before making the nations (the “Ninevehs”) His inheritance.
Jesus has died and he has risen from the dead. He is the Eternal Word of God still alive and active today. This Word divides, Hebrews says, between soul and spirit, between joints and marrow, to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. God still speaks in parables, and the parables of God still display and reveal who is “in” and who is “out”. And the only way to be “in”, the only way to be “good soil” is to stay with Jesus. Go with Jesus, and however cliché it may sound, the trials, the thorns, the temptations of riches and lust, and the storms of life can all be subdued. Jesus speaks to them all and they listen. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!