SCRIPTURE: Mark 4:26-34
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CHAPTERS 1-4: OVERVIEW
In chapter 4, Jesus gives four parables –– the Sower (4:1-20), the Lamp under a Bushel (4:21-25), the Growing Seed (4:26-29), and the Mustard Seed (4:30-32) –– and then explains his use of parables (4:33-34; see also 4:10-12). He speaks the four parables in the presence of the crowds, but explains them only to his disciples (4:10 ff.; 4:34).
Three of the four parables involve seeds and the growth of plants, but each makes its own distinctive point.
VERSES 26-29: THE KINGDOM OF GOD — LIKE SCATTERED SEED
26He said, "The Kingdom of God is as if a man should cast seed on the earth, 27and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he doesn't know how. 28For the earth bears fruit: (Greek: automate) first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29But when the fruit is ripe, immediately he puts forth the sickle, because the harvest has come."
This is the only parable unique to the Gospel of Mark.
"The Kingdom of God is as if a man should cast seed on the earth" (v. 26). Sowing seed seems like an inauspicious start, but seeds have power, producing plants whose roots crack rocks –– plants that make animal and human life possible.
"and should sleep and rise night and day" (v. 27a). The point here is the ordinary quality of these nights and days.
"and the seed should spring up and grow, he doesn't know how" (v. 27b). The point of this verse is not the work of the farmer but the work of the seed, which obtains its growth from a mysterious source and grows so slowly that we cannot see it growing. Only when we go away and return after a day or a week or a month can we see the seed's progress –– and be gladdened by it –– and wonder at it.
The kingdom of God is like this slow but steady growth. We preach and witness, but the results are overwhelmingly ordinary –– a few children come forward to listen to the children's sermon –– a teenager presents himself for baptism. It seems not to amount to much, but the seed is growing! God is present!
"For the earth bears fruit (automate): first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear" (v. 28). From whence does life come? We can explain the physical properties that cause seeds to germinate, but the genesis of life remains a mystery.
Just as "For the earth bears fruit" in a process that we understand only in part, so also God brings the kingdom to fruition in a process that remains largely mysterious. But the point here is not the kingdom's mystery but its dependability. Just as we can count on the earth to produce great plants from small seeds, so also we can count on God to bring about a great kingdom.
"But when the fruit is ripe, immediately he puts forth the sickle, because the harvest has come" (v. 29). Scholars have proposed complicated explanations of this text based on eschatological passages such as Joel 3:13 and Revelation 14:14-19. However, it is better to understand this as a simple parable about an ordinary farmer who plants and harvests, but who relies on God's grace to make the harvest possible. So also, workers in the Kingdom of God, which "is at hand" (1:15), can rely on God's grace to bring the kingdom, small and seemingly inconsequential, to full fruition.
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VERSES 30-32: THE KINGDOM OF GOD — LIKE MUSTARD SEED
30He said, "How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? 31It's like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, 32yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs (Greek: lachanon –– garden plants, vegetables), and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow."
This parable is also found in Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 13:18-19.
"The Kingdom of God...It's like a grain of mustard seed" (vv. 30-31). As is so often true, the Gospel begins differently than we would expect. We would expect Christ to come as a mighty warrior, but he comes instead as an infant. We would expect him to select the brightest and best to be his disciples, but instead he chooses ordinary people –– fishermen –– even a tax collector. We would expect him to compare the kingdom of God to an oak tree or a cedar, but he compares it instead to a mustard seed –– the smallest of all seeds.
"less than all the seeds that are on the earth" (v. 31b). The mustard seed, while tiny, is not the smallest of all seeds. However, in Jesus' day it had proverbial status as the smallest seed –– and it is, indeed, very small. The point here is that the kingdom of God has its beginnings in small, barely visible, seemingly inconsequential phenomena.
"yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs (lachanon –– garden plants, vegetables)" (v. 32a). Unlike the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the emphasis here is not on the seed's growth but on the contrast between the large plant and the tiny seed from which it came.
"so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow" (v. 32b). Nesting birds serve to illustrate the large size of the mustard plant, but might serve another purpose as well –– hinting at the inclusion of Gentiles in the kingdom. The Old Testament presents the image of birds nesting in the branches of trees on several occasions where the wording is inclusive, i.e., "under it shall dwell all birds of every wing; in the shade of its branches shall they dwell" (Ezekiel 17:23) –– "all great nations lived under its shadow" (Ezekiel 31:6) –– "all flesh was fed from it" (Daniel 4:12) –– and "in it was food for all" (Daniel 4:21).
The Parables of the Growing Seed (vv. 26-29) and the Mustard Seed (vv. 30-32), then, both speak of the power of God's will to bring the kingdom into being.
VERSES 33-34: WITH MANY SUCH PARABLES HE SPOKE THE WORD
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34Without a parable he didn't speak to them; but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
"With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it" (v. 33). Mark records only representative parables. There must have been others.
"he spoke the word to them" (v. 33b). Who does Mark mean by "them"? Probably the crowd, last mentioned in 4:1. He spoke the word "to them, as they were able to hear it." Jesus explains his parables to the disciples (v. 34), but not to the crowds. He fully reveals the truth only to the insiders–– the disciples –– those who believe. This is also true today –– to really see, we must first believe!
"Without a parable he didn't speak to them" (v. 34a). Perhaps Jesus teaches in parables at this point because it is early in his ministry and he is not yet ready to reveal fully his identity and his purpose.
"but privately to his own disciples he explained everything" (v. 34b). Jesus thus divides his listeners into outsiders, for whom the parables remain veiled, and insiders, who are privileged to receive private interpretation but whose understanding will be incomplete until after the resurrection.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brooks, James A, The New American Commentary: Mark (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Edwards, James R., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)
France, R.T., The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)
Geddert, Timothy J., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Mark (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001)
Guelich, Robert A, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1 –– 8:26 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Hooker, Morna D., Black's New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)
Hultgren, Arland J., The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000)
Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)
Marcus, Joel, The Anchor Bible: Mark 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 1999)
Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983)
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