Mark 4 – Tell, Don’t Show

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Today’s PassageMark 4

In today’s chapter, Jesus talks about agriculture from a boat.

That’s right: it’s the Parable of the Sower. And it’s not really about agriculture; it’s about humanity’s receptiveness (or, more accurately, general unreceptiveness) to God’s message for them. The parable itself is only a handful of lines, but Jesus’ private explanation of it to his disciples is nearly twice as long. And smack-dab between the parable and its explanation, Jesus quotes a familiar statement: “while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven” (12).

You can find this verse as a thread running through the prophets and much of the New Testament. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all express it one way or another (Isaiah 6:9, 43:8; Jeremiah 5:21; Ezekiel 12:2), and Isaiah actually uses two different variants on it. Jesus quotes it with reference to his parables in Mark and the other two synoptic gospels. John quotes it in his own gospel, saying that despite Jesus’ miracles, few believed in him, and most remained spiritually blind (John 12:37-40). Paul trots it out for some soteriology in his letter to the Romans (Romans 11:8), and he trots it out again in his actual face-to-face talking to the Romans in Rome (Acts 28:25-29). And I have probably missed a spot, because in the New Testament you can’t throw a rock without hitting this notion of people with functioning eyeballs being actually blind.

But as Jesus couches the verse between his sower-and-seeds parable and its private explanation, he apparently says that the parable’s purpose is to obfuscate. “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive…” (4:11-12). They’re simply told this story of a guy throwing out some seed without any explicit suggestion that he’s a metaphor for anything. Jesus just tells them about this made-up dude doing some agriculture and lets them make of it what they will, and his use of the seeing-but-not-seeing line from the prophets suggests that the parable’s supposed to conceal the truth from them.

I don’t think that assessment is entirely accurate, though. The parable isn’t meant to mislead or deceive those on the “outside;” they’ve already done that themselves through their own blindness. You could tell them just about anything and they wouldn’t see the point of it. They’re already in the dark, as part of a fallen Creation. It’s our old friend, the noetic effects of sin. The parable, coupled with its correct interpretation from Jesus himself, enlightens the disciples, but it doesn’t blind the already-blind world. It reveals its truth to those who are meant to have their eyes opened by it.

God isn’t under any obligation to correct any of our misconceptions. He doesn’t owe it to us to answer our questions, or to pry our favorite lies out of our clenched noetic fists. The human race isn’t entitled to a universe free of error any more than a universe free of disease, suffering, or any of the other countless symptoms of evil. Every time Jesus healed or exorcised a demon, it was a gift, and it wasn’t due to some shortcoming on his part that he didn’t eradicate all illness and death from the face of the earth. Similarly, what right do we have to demand the whole truth right now forever?

We got ourselves into this mess, with no small help from the devil. And at the end of the day, I don’t think we have the moral authority to require that God snap his fingers and get us out.

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