Wondering about the Mark 4 Parables

Wondering occasioned by our parish’s Mark study…

As far as I can see, the parables aren’t announcing any sort of change in what God’s reign is like. All four look like possible ways of understanding segments of the history reflected in the OT—with the spectacular harvest as eschatological a reality in the one Testament as in the other. Where’s the secret/mystery?

What is “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11)?

And looking again at some commentaries, I doubt that there’s any single answer to this question.

A preliminary answer: Human response matters; nevertheless, the word will bear satisfying and surprising fruit. 

Clarifications: (1) Human response matters, not simply to the particular humans involved (“Will I be in or out?”), but to the overall success of the project. See the Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7.)

(2) “Nevertheless” not because God is the Author and the story can end however the author wants, but because God is more creative, persistent, committed (e.g., Isa 42:14-17).

(3) This mystery does not represent a change in divine strategy, so these parables are an appropriate lens for rereading the OT.

Corollaries: (1) The Mark 4 parables are a counterpoint to celebrations of the power of the divine word (Isa 55:8-11Wis 18:14-16, etc.). The celebrations are true enough; also true: the word is vulnerable.
Divine/human agency. I’m intrigued by the ways Mark explores this question, e.g., unbelief as limiting Jesus’ options (6:5-6 in Nazareth), unbelief not necessarily ending the conversation (9:24 the epileptic boy’s father). Isaiah 56-66 seems to keep the two in tension, with some texts highlighting divine agency, e.g., 63:1-6, others, human, e.g., 56:1-2. Divine agency seems to receive more emphasis. From what little I’ve read of Orthodox writers, their notion of divine/human synergy looks promising.

(2) The Mark 4 parables reject readings of the OT that expect a Borg-like divine entrance to set things right (“Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.”), readings that even the disciples were slow to give up (FireNow?)

As an imaginative portrayal, I like Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It’s been too long since I read it, but if I recall correctly Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker has some important observations re how artistic integrity limits the author’s freedom vis à vis the characters.

On a more personal level, st least three days in any given week I wonder if the value God apparently places on human freedom isn’t too costly for God and humanity. I can only conclude that God sees more value, takes more joy, in this creation in its present state, than I do. In any case, the litmus test for any serious hymnal revision is whether it includes Billie Holiday’s “Crazy he calls me” (“The difficult I’ll do right now / The impossible will take a little while”) as a portrait of God the Lover.

(3) Divine omnipotence does not override divine priorities. Human freedom seems to be one such priority. Ironically, some (most?) of the ringing celebrations of omnipotence, e.g., Isa 40:12-26, are prompted by the divine collision with human freedom, e.g., Isa 40:27. If God is omnipotent, God is also often flummoxed (Isa 5:4Mk 6:6a).

Puzzles: (1) The growing seed and mustard seed parables seem to imply some sort of cumulative progress, a progress not obvious in the histories of Israel and the Church. (Recall the Preacher!) On the other hand, real progress in specific areas (slavery, status of women).

(2) Is the “must” in Mk 8:31 related significantly to these issues of the power/vulnerability of the word (Corollary 1) and the divine priority of human freedom (Corollary 3)?

(3) Also re that “must:” how does the servant’s obedience (Isa 52:13-53:12) relate to the joyful celebrations surrounding it (52:7-1054:1-17). Perhaps “Isaiah” is saying as much as he/she knows.

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