Mark 4:1-20 | Parables. Uh… What Now?

photo-1494059980473-813e73ee784bParables. “He began to teach them many things in parables”. What exactly is a parable? We like to think of parables as nice, gentle stories intended to be word pictures to help make a point more relevant and learnable. And in some ways they are this, but they are much, much more. Very often in the scriptures when we see Jesus speaking in parables, it is in the context of a dispute with the religious elite of the day. It’s easy to forget that two of our favorite parables, the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” and the “The Good Samaritan”, come in this context. We see it in Matthew 13 also (which parallels this passage for today), and it’s right here in Mark. In fact here in Mark (as well as Luke) Jesus cites a passage from Isaiah as the purpose of speaking in parables: “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand…”. Wait a minute: I thought parables were meant to help us in our understanding, but here Jesus is saying “that they may look but not perceive…”? What’s going on here.

This has everything to do with why Jesus also says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Jesus says this often, and he does not say it as a way of saying, “I’m going to make this so simple that all you need are functioning ears and you’ll get it.” He’s actually saying nearly the opposite. He’s saying, “if you’re willing to open yourself to the message, you’ll hear it… but if all you’re waiting for is what you want to hear, you won’t”. And it is in this sense that parables are meant to be a way to reveal the Kingdom, but they are also meant to be a way to conceal the Kingdom.

Here’s another way to think about parables: The word “parable” comes from the Greek word “paraboleh”, which is actually a compound word coming from the Greek word for “to throw” (ballo) and the Greek word “against” or “alongside” (para). “Parable” literally translates as “to throw against/alongside” (para-ballo). It is taking an image and throwing it alongside the thing you want people to examine, not so that it’s explained for them but to aid them in reflecting on it. But it is thrown against it, not placed neatly against it. It’s meant to create a collision, perhaps one in which things break apart, then Jesus essentially says, “now, piece it back together and try to make some sense out of it.” Or “you figure out how it all fits”. Or, to yet another way, “let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Parables are not meant to dictate their meaning to us. They are meant to aid us in discerning their meaning for our lives. They are not meant to be a teaching tool coming from the outside in; they are meant to be a reflective tool coming from the inside out. You see, Jesus wasn’t concerned about how deep our knowledge goes (if he was he would not have picked the disciples he picked), as he was how deep our reflection goes. When you run into a confusing parable, before you go running to outside sources to understand its meaning, take some time, real time (days, weeks, even years) to rest inside and discern God’s word for you. Let anyone with ears to hear listen.