The fourth essay in a series of papers I wrote for my Gospel of Mark class. It was phenomenal to me how much this Gospel opened up once I realized how the “Kingdom of God” is the literary and theological theme that binds the story together.
Now that the arrival of the Kingdom has been thoroughly established in the first three chapters of his gospel, John-Mark turns his attention inward and spends chapter 4 addressing a two-fold question that has no doubt been plaguing many of his readers, just as it plagued the followers of Jesus in His day: How will the Kingdom advance, and what does it require of us?
Chapter 4 introduces Jesus’ new method of teaching: parables. There are three parables in this chapter, followed by the well-beloved story of Jesus calming the storm. All four of these stories answer a facet of the above double-edged question:
—“The Parable of the Sower” (Mark 4:1-20): This famous parable has a dual meaning; not only does it caution the reader to examine themselves and prepare “good soil” in their hearts for the Word, but it also illustrates in broader terms how the Kingdom will spread.
—“Lamp Under a Bushel” (Mark 4:21-25): Another oft-quoted parable with layered meaning, this admonition can serve not only as a warning (as all things secret will be exposed) but also as a word of encouragement (though the advance may seem slow, eventually the reality of the Kingdom will be “all knees will bow, all tongues confess”).
—“Grain of Mustard Seed” (Mark 4:26-34): Jesus delivers two short parables in this passage. The first continues the theme of the previous section and reiterates that the Kingdom may grow silently and unseen, but its advance is inevitable. The second echoes the same sentiment, but then turns it back on the reader: Like the Kingdom of God, your faith may start small, but will inevitably grow if you nurture it.
—“Jesus Calms the Storm” (Mark 4:35-41): This well-loved story holds many messages about Jesus’ authority on earth (a Kingdom reality) and His ability to calm the storms in our own life. But in the end, John-Mark turns it into an admonition: You have read so far and seen so much, and do you still not yet have faith?
Like the disciples in Jesus’ day, I’ve often secretly wondered why Jesus spoke in parables. If God wants everyone to be saved, and His Kingdom is advancing inevitably, why make its realities veiled? Why not state the truth plainly and let come who will? This same frustration often extends to the other cloudy areas of morality and religion. Wouldn’t life be easier if God came down and gave us straight answers?
The Jews of Jesus’ day were also expecting a “straight answer,” so to speak. The Jews believed that the Kingdom of God would come in sudden triumph, overthrowing Roman rule and bringing swift justice. In the Jews’ mind, the coming Kingdom was not a choice but rather a conquering dominion, of which they were on the inside.
By speaking in parables, Jesus’ answered their two-fold question with a two-fold answer. The Kingdom of God is not a sudden triumph, but rather a slowly-growing tree that spreads through seeds and roots in the hearts of men. And furthermore, it is a personal choice to create “good ground” in our hearts and accept the Word. The Kingdom of God will eventually conquer, but only those that receive the seed now, in silence and in secret, will yield “thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and hundredfold.”