MARK 1-4. OVERVIEW
In chapter 1, Jesus called his first disciples and began his preaching and healing ministry.
Then the focus shifted toward controversy with religious leaders when Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic (2:1-12), ate with tax collectors and sinners (2:18-22), defended his disciples for plucking grain on the sabbath (2:23-28), and healed on the sabbath (3:1-6).
Then Jesus moved away from controversy as he shifted his attention to the more receptive crowds and disciples (3:7 ff.).
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. Jesus specifically labels the third and fourth parables (the ones in our Gospel lesson) as kingdom parables (4:26, 30) and hints that all four parables have to do with the kingdom (4:10).
MARK 4:26-29. 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: ho ge karpophorei automate—the earth bears fruit by itself) 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 great rocks—plants that provide food and shelter for animals—plants that make 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—”life as usual” (Guelich, 241).
“and the seed should spring up and grow, he doesn’t know how” (v. 27b). This seems to gloss over the hard work of the farmer, who waters, fertilizes, and weeds crops between planting and harvest. However, even if a farmer were to do nothing but sow seed, much of the seed would germinate and grow to maturity. Billions of seeds take root every year without human intervention. Trillions of seeds! Zillions! Hillsides and valleys around the world are covered with plants that no human hand planted, watered, fertilized, or weeded.
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 invite and witness, but the results are overwhelmingly ordinary—a few children come forward to listen to the children’s sermon—an awkward teenager presents himself for baptism or confirmation—a young couple chooses to be married in the church—a men’s group studies a popular Christian book—a women’s group raises money to buy a heifer for people on the other side of the world. It seems not to amount to much of anything, but the seed is growing! God is present! Watch out! Get on board!
“For the earth bears fruit: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (v. 28). In Jesus’ day, people could use neither time-lapse photography to watch plants unfold nor microscopes to study cells. The mystery of growing plants remained unexamined. However, even with modern tools we can go only so far in discerning how plants grow—why they grow. From whence does their life come? We can explain the physical properties that cause seeds to germinate, but life itself remains a mystery—a mystery knowable only by faith.
Just as “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.
“For the earth bears fruit” (Greek: ho ge karpophorei automate—the earth bears fruit by itself). This translation leaves out an important word—automate, which means “by itself” or “of its own accord.” A complete translation would be “For the earth bears fruit by itself.”
The sense of the word automate (“by itself”) is that the seed grows because of an inner force which the farmer didn’t give it—a life-force intrinsic to the plant—a life force put there by God. “The earth bears fruit” only because God has made such a thing possible.
So also it is with the kingdom of God. We do our part by proclaiming the Gospel, but it is by the power of God that the kingdom comes into being.
“But when the fruit is ripe, immediately he puts forth the sickle, because the harvest has come” (v. 29). Noting the similarity to Joel 3:13, some scholars think that Jesus’ words point to a coming judgment. However, it is probably 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.
MARK 4:30-32. 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…is like a grain of mustard seed” (v. 31a). 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.
God often chooses to work through unlikely candidates: Jacob, the schemer—Moses, the murderer and stutterer—David, the boy whose father almost forgot to mention him when Samuel came looking for a king—Gideon, the commander of a little army of only three hundred men.
“though it is 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) (v. 32). 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. The kingdom of God might not look like much now, but it will overtake all earthly kingdoms.
In Matthew and Luke, the seed grows to become a tree (Matthew 13: 32; Luke 13:19), but here it is represented only as “greater than of all the lachanon“ (garden plants). The mustard plant usually grows to be a shrub 10-12 feet (3-4 meters) tall. Again, the point is neither the small size of the seed nor the large size of the plant but rather the contrast between the two.
“so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow” (v. 32). 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., “in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind” (Ezekiel 17:23)—”all great nations lived under its shadow” (Ezekiel 31:6)—”from it all living beings were fed” (Daniel 4:12)—and “all flesh was fed from it” (Daniel 4:21). However, if the inclusion of Gentiles is intended here, it is a secondary emphasis. The primary point is the contrast between the small beginnings of the kingdom and the certainty of its great future.
MARK 4:33-34. 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. 33). Who does Mark mean by “they”? Probably the great multitude, 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. By giving parables without explanation, Jesus can count on sparking the crowd’s imagination, but not on communicating with crystal clarity. He fully reveals the truth only to the insiders—the disciples—those who believe. This is also true today—believing is seeing!
“Without a parable (parabole) he didn’t speak to them“ (v. 34). Typically, parables were fictitious stories used to reveal spiritual truths. The point of most of Jesus’ parables was self-evident, but others were more obscure, requiring explanation.
“but privately to his own disciples he explained everything” (v. 34). Jesus explained only two of his parables to his disciples—the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9, 13-20) and the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).
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.
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Edwards, James R., 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., The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)
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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)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan