The parable of the sower
- WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN UNITED HAS BEEN DIVIDED
What interests me in the parable of the sower as it is reported in GMark
is the fact that Jesus is said to have reserved the explanation of the
"riddle" to the inner circle of the privileged few, identified as the
Twelve and a few other persons. This is what we are told. But is this
I have no problem with what we are told about the privileged treatment
the inner circle of the disciples enjoyed. Unlike the big crowds, the
members of the inner circle had the opportunity to be alone with Jesus
and to have more intimate exchanges with him. What I find unlikely,
though, is that Jesus would tell his large audience a riddle they had no
way of resolving.
This leads me to believe that Jesus had originally told the parable
together with its explanation. The story was changed later to produce
what we have now in GMark.
Let us explore together this possibility.
* * *
THE DUAL MEANING OF THE WORD "PARABLE"
In Mark's fourth chapter, the word "parable" is used in two meanings.
Normally a parable is an analogy which helps understand the spiritual
reality of the Kingdom. But when the parable of the sower is told
without its explanation, it becomes a riddle. Instead of helping
understand the spiritual message, it obscures it. This amounts to a
radical corruption of the concept and of the entire operation.
DID JESUS SPEAK SO THAT PEOPLE WOULD NOT UNDERSTAND HIM?
Was he so contemptuous of the crowds who came to hear him as to throw at
them bones that had no meat on them? The evidence is overwhelmingly
against this allegation.
In the conclusion of the parabolic discourse, Mark writes:
***With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able
to hear it.*** (Mk 4:33)
This implies that Jesus spoke the word in such a way as to make it
understandable. He used the parables correctly, as analogies which were
particularly conducive to help the audience understand the spiritual
realities about which he was instructing them.
Matthew ends his version of the parabolic discourse in the following
way, Jesus asks the audience: "have you understood all this?" The answer
is, "Yes" (cf. Mt 13:51). Matthew has said explicitly what is said
implicitly in Mark. The parables are used to reveal what is hidden. When
the parabolic discourse become so obscure that it turns nonsensical,
something is clearly wrong.
Let us widen the circle of our investigation. When Mark summarizes the
way Jesus related to the public, he says that "they were astounded at
his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the
scribes" (Mk 1:22). This implies that Jesus knew how to communicate with
his audience. The public would not admire someone who would tell riddles
that made no sense.
A CLEAR CONTRADICTION
The dual meaning of the word "parable" and the strange behavior of the
Markan Jesus who reserves the explanation of the parable to the inner
circle of the Twelve create a tension in the text. We are confronted
here with a contradiction. The contradiction is in the text. I am not
What matters at this initial stage of our investigation is the
recognition of the contradiction. It would be still premature to try and
resolve the riddle. Let us continue with our investigation of the Markan
A CONTRADICTION OF ANOTHER KIND
Let us turn our attention to verses 10-12, which divide the parable in
***10 When he was alone, those who were around him with the Twelve asked
him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, "To you has been given
the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything
comes in parables (riddles); 12 in order that <<they may indeed look,
but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that
they may not turn again and be forgiven.>>***
The question in verse 10 asks Jesus about the parables in the plural
form, not about the parable of the sower. It has a place in the end of
the parabolic discourse. In this different scenario, the disciples would
have enquired about the use Jesus made of the parables. The normal
answer would have been then something like this: The analogy with real
life situation is a good way of explaining what pertains to the
invisible spiritual reality of the kingdom. In other words, we go from
the visible reality to the invisible one.
What seems to have happened is that the question in verse 10 has been
shifted from one context to another one. The shift to another context
has the effect of calling for a totally different answer. All of a
sudden the good people who gathered to hear Jesus and who admired him
are dismissed as outsiders who are excluded from salvation!!! This is
precisely a point that makes no sense. In this new context, the parable
becomes a riddle. Instead of enlightening, it obscures. Instead of
making sense, it makes no sense at all. The real meaning of the parable
is thus corrupted, and the words of the prophet Isaiah are applied
erratically to the genuine admirers of Jesus.
The context in which the opposition between insiders and outsiders
applies is a post-Easter context. I am thinking of the second ending of
Mark, where the resurrected Christ tells the eleven: **Go into all the
world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who
believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe
will be condemned** (Mk 16:15-16). So verses 11 and 12, which separate
the two parts of the parable, anticipate in a pre-Easter context what
belongs in the post-Easter context (the judgment context).
A FIRST DRAFT OF MY THEORY
Originally the parable of the sower was told in its entirety to the
public. It was split in two parts and verses 10-12 were inserted between
the two parts "after the resurrection". If I may use here an analogy, I
would say that the ocean bed of the parable was spilt by the eruption of
the molten lava of verses 11-12. If the two parts of the parable are as
sedimentary rock, verses 11-12 are as volcanic rock. This means that we
are dealing here with rocks of different natures and different origins.
The force that caused the volcanic eruption to occur and split the ocean
bed is the Easter force.
What I am saying here is just an intuition. Nothing has been proven yet.
But most discoveries are made in this fashion. They begin as a lucky
intuition, which proves to be correct once it has been submitted to the
AN INHERENT DIFFICULTY
Why would someone in his right mind go back to the parable of the sower
and split it in two, so as to produce the Markan version of it? Because
I have been unable to think of someone in his right mind who would have
acted in this fashion, I felt the need to allow for the possibility of
someone who had a deeply disturbed mind as a potential suspect.
I will stop here today, just because it is getting late.
P.O. Box 116-2088
Telephone (961) 1 423 145
- The parable of the sower 2
In the initial post, I have shown that the story as it is told in GMark
makes no sense. Jesus could not have told the parable to the public
without its explanation. On the other hand, the theological explanation
of this behavior (verses 10-12) makes no sense in the pre-Easter context
of the parable.
In order to shed some light on this strange situation, I propose to
analyze another passage, where the same question of spiritual blindness
is discussed. I am speaking of the pericope known as **the Yeast of the
Pharisees** (Mk 8:14-21).
In this pericope, the situation of the disciples is reversed. Instead of
being in the category of the privileged insiders who are entitled to the
mystery of the Kingdom, the disciples find themselves in the category of
the outsiders who see without perceiving and hear without understanding.
Clearly the disciples were obsessed by this question. On the one hand,
Jesus took special care of them. He instructed them in the mystery of
the Kingdom. On the other hand, however, they had remained blind. They
could not see something very important. Everything took place as if a
mysterious force had prevented them from seeing something essential. Is
there a way of identifying the specific thing in relation to which they
As far as we can tell, Jesus made one day an enigmatic declaration
concerning the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod. According to
Matthew, he was talking about doctrinal questions, not about physical
bread (cf. Mt 16:12). According to Luke, Jesus warned the disciples
about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Lk 12:1).
Most likely, the historical kernel of the story is an enigmatic
declaration concerning the Pharisees. The question could have been
settled very easily by asking Jesus to clarify his thought. But, as is
usual in GMark, the usual is not what happens. The unusual and the
complicated happen instead. This leads me to believe that we are dealing
here not with a normal mind who thinks normally, but with a disturbed
mind who thinks erratically. A simple incident is blown up out of
proportion. It becomes a formidable problem.
THE NONSENSICAL DIMENSION OF THE PROBLEM
In the second prediction of the Easter event, the disciples don't
understand what Jesus told them. Normally they should have asked him to
explain what was not clear to them. But the disciples are prevented from
doing what is normal. They were paralyzed by fear. Something similar
prevents them on this other occasion from asking the normal question.
Instead they remain in their ivory tower and mumble to themselves. Jesus
guesses what they are thinking about and attacks them in no tender way.
Jesus' behavior is just as erratic as the disciples'. What does he say
***Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive
or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to
see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I
broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of
broken pieces did you collect" they said to him, "Twelve." "And the
seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did
you collect?" and they said to him, "Seven." Then he said to them, "Do
you not understand?"***
It is now my turn to say that I don't understand what this is all about.
What was there to understand about the feeding of the five and four
thousand that the disciples did not understand? Was Jesus an ambulant
bakery that could deliver bread at will? Was it enough to have one loaf
of bread to feed the little group of the disciples? Were the disciples
to live in a dream world and cease to worry about food?
How are we to understand all this talk about hardened hearts and blinded
eyes? I do not see any common measure between a simple misunderstanding
of an enigmatic declaration and this heavy talk about divinely-induced
blindness and deafness. The reference to the prophets' sayings about
hardened hearts is out of place here. The Jesus who is talking here is
just as disturbed as the disciples. This leads me to believe that
nothing in this talk is historical. The disciples have used the incident
of the yeast of the Pharisees as an anchor point for inserting what went
on in their disturbed mind. The Jesus they have produced is as disturbed
as they are.
The recognition of this fact is important if we want to correctly
interpret the text. If all this is the product of the disturbed mind of
the disciples, we should seek to identify the real problem with which
they are struggling.
In the context of the parable of the sower, they recognize that Jesus
did initiate them into the mystery of the Kingdom of God. In the context
of the yeast of the Pharisees, they find themselves left out of the
mystery. Their situation is totally reversed. They are left in the dark.
But this time the darkness concerns the Christian mystery, not the
mystery of the Kingdom. The Christian mystery is signified here through
the Eucharistic dimension. The feeding of the five and four thousand is
a clear reference to what was going to become the Eucharist. Jesus
blames the disciples for not understanding that dual event. This is an
echo of what was admitted in the context of the walk on the water. The
incident ends with the following remark: "They did not understand about
the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mk 7:52).
This is the way the disciples recognize that Jesus did not initiate them
into the Christian mystery, which is the Easter revelation concerning
Jesus Christ. In what pertains to the mystery of the Kingdom of God,
Jesus treated them as insiders and made sure they were well initiated
into his views about this central topic of his message. But in what
pertains to the Christian mystery, Jesus treated them as outsiders. He
left them in the dark. Everything took place as if a mysterious force
had prevented them from seeing and understanding. This means that the
resurrection took the disciple by surprise. Nothing in the words and
acts of Jesus could have allowed them to anticipate the resurrection. He
had not initiated them into the Easter mystery. This was the stumbling
block that disturbed the disciples.
They could not recognize the problem openly. The only way they could
recognize it was through a coded language concocted by their disturbed
mind. We have in the parable of the sower and the incident of the yeast
of the Pharisees (passing in between through the walk on the water) a
coded discourse in which the disciples admitted their blindness and
understood it in the light of what the prophets had said. God had
prevented them from recognizing in Jesus, during his life, the Christ of
the Easter revelation. In the context of the demonic revelation of the
Christian identity of Jesus, they explained the Lord's behavior by
saying that he had to keep his Christian identity secret until the
resurrection. This specific theme runs through the profession of faith
of Peter and the Transfiguration.
Today we have the choice between following the disciples' explanation
and departing from it. In the latter case, one would simply say that the
historical Jesus ignored the Easter revelation, because he was not what
the Christian faith made of him.
P.O. Box 116-2088
Telephone (961) 1 423 145
- By way of introduction, let me share with the list that I have been in
conversation with Joseph off-board about his earlier posting about the
three "predictions of the resurrection" now found in Mark, which he
seeks to explain in terms of how the original apostles revised their
views concerning Jesus as a result of their "Easter experiences."
Since it seemed to me that he was in effect offering an alternative to
Wrede's lodging this in the redactional editing of the author of Mark by
relocating this revision to the originating stage of "the Jesus
tradition." This is of course a possibility but as Tony has so ably
pointed out already, there are other ways of viewing the process which
led to what we now find in Mark.
I must admit that along with Tony I regret that Joseph has not yet
responded to the questions already raised but I do hope that Joseph
might yet respond to what Tony has asked on-board and which I have
raised off-board, although my own principal recommendation has been
is simply the suggestion that he really ought to read Wrede's book, "The
Messianic Secret (E.T.)."
But instead of pursuing this earlier theme/thread, we now find Joseph
raising other possibilities about other "oddities" found in the Gospel
of Mark by offering his own take about the "parable of the sower" in Mk.
4, to which Jeffrey has already asked Joseph to position his views in
terms of various notable scholars who have already treated this material
and treated it well.
But it seems to me that we must expand Jeffrey's suggested list, for I
find that the real issue has to do not so much with this parable as the
nature of parables in general, since the author of Mark offers a
particular explanation about why Jesus taught in parables, an oddity
which Joseph properly objects to. Thus, I would add to Jeffrey's list
at least C. H. Dodd, if only because he insisted that Jesus himself
never allegorizes the parables, which Dodd (correctly, I think) finds
in the Gospel of Mark; indeed, I would myself yoke up this particular
Marcan approach to Jesus' parables with the over-all theme we call "the
Messianic secret," since Mk. 4 seems to find as the "secret meaning"
of this parable (and the others as well) as that Jesus the Messiah is
already present and active as the "hidden agenda" of both his actions
and his teachings.
In this regard, Joseph has come close to "getting it right," at least in
terms of what we now find in the Gospel of Mark, but I do have one
slight but significant revision to the basis for his analysis, for he
>THE DUAL MEANING OF THE WORD "PARABLE"Almost but not quite on target - yes, a "parable" (which in the Greek
>In Mark's fourth chapter, the word "parable" is used in two meanings.
>Normally a parable is an analogy which helps understand the spiritual
>reality of the Kingdom. But when the parable of the sower is told
>without its explanation, it becomes a riddle. Instead of helping
>understand the spiritual message, it obscures it. This amounts to a
>radical corruption of the concept and of the entire operation.
simply means to "lay alongside one another two different things," i.e.
to "make a comparison") is an analogy ... but not necessarily about
"spiritual things" or about just "the kingdom" or any other religious
topic or theme, since it is simply the common literary device of using a
"metaphor" or a "simle" by which the speaker seeks to assist the hearer
in understanding his/her points by using something familiar in order to
explain something unfamiliar. Yes, it might well be a topic of
theological or religious discourse but as a literary technique, it can
be employed in explicating any topic deemed unfamiliar to those
listening. In this case, the "things/subjecting being explained" is
surely "the kingdom," but why does this parable need any follow-up or
explanation, in order to be understood?
If any parable really does require a "part II" in order to be
understood, would not this simply mean that it is a "bab" parable, one
that has not "done the job"? Perhaps I have miread Joseph's point here,
but any parable or comparison that requires explanation or explication
is not so much a "riddle" but is simply a "bad parable," on that just
has not "done the job." And here is another point which Dodd (and
others) helped me learn, that despite the statements in the canonical
gospels, if Jesus in fact did use parables in his teachings then if he
were an effective public speaker then further explanation or commentary
would be quite unnecessary. Here I am reminded about what the poet
Robert Frost used to say about those who asked him about the meaning of
his poetry; his standard comment was that he saw these persons as asking
him to say in other AND WORSE words what he had already expressed! It
thus seems to me that "no explanation" ought be required or expected to
be attached to any of Jesus' parables, a view NOT held by the author of
Mark ... whom Joseph has apparently but unfortunately followed.
The problem then (as I see it) is not so much that this author has
separated the parable from its explanation but rather that the author
has presented Jesus' parables as riddles, which are NOT understandable
except for those who "know the secret" or have the "key" that unlocks
this secret or hidden meaning. Thus, I doubt the accuracy of Joseph's
claim that Mk. 4:33 means that Jesus spoke in order to be understood.
Yes, I think that such was likely the case "in actual history," just not
as we now find the presentation by the author of Mark.
>DID JESUS SPEAK SO THAT PEOPLE WOULD NOT UNDERSTAND HIM?Thus, since the author in this chapter has already laid out his own
>Was he so contemptuous of the crowds who came to hear him as to throw at
>them bones that had no meat on them? The evidence is overwhelmingly
>against this allegation.
>In the conclusion of the parabolic discourse, Mark writes:
>***With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able
>to hear it.*** (Mk 4:33)
>This implies that Jesus spoke the word in such a way as to make it
>understandable. He used the parables correctly, as analogies which were
>particularly conducive to help the audience understand the spiritual
>realities about which he was instructing them.
"theory" about "why Jesus taught in parables," we must turn our
attention back to vv. 10-12, which Joseph does in his next section,
where he says,
>A CONTRADICTION OF ANOTHER KINDYes, this IS a crucial part of this lengthy pericope, as it lays out
>Let us turn our attention to verses 10-12, which divide the parable in
>***10 When he was alone, those who were around him with the Twelve asked
>him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, "To you has been given
>the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything
>comes in parables (riddles); 12 in order that <<they may indeed look,
>but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that
>they may not turn again and be forgiven."
this author's surprising thesis, that Jesus taught in parables SO THAT
"the outsiders" could not grasp their meaning, but would indeed be
simply unintelligible riddles. Thus, Jesus "taught in parables" to
"keep secret things secret," which is as Joseph surmises NOT the reason
for employing comparisons in public discourse. But it clearly IS what
we find in Mark.
So yes, indeed, this author has created difficulties for us by his own
"take on things" but then my attitude is simply, "Welcome to the Gospel
of Mark"! But unlike Joseph who feels the need of some new hypothesis,
I find myself quite content with the hypothesis proferred so long ago by
Wrede, that this treatment of the parables is simply congruent with the
overall theme in Mark, that Jesus is already "the Christ/Messiah" and
already at work "doing the necessary things" but does not want such
"known to the public" ahead of time, knowing that when this "secret"
gets out that he will be killed, as in fact happens in c. 15!
So to Joseph, I now say in public what I have said off-board for the
past week, that both Jeffrey and Tony (and others) have been raising
good questions, which your continued inability or unwillingness to
answer is at least part of the reason for some of us not being able to
react with the respect for you ideas that you apparently consider would
be appropriate; you have joined in a conversation that has been going on
for more than a century now and while it is perfectly legitimate to
disagree with any of the note-worthy scholars of the past, to situate
your own presentation in terms of their views is an appropriate way to
present yourself. This is not "disrespect" but quite the opposite, for
it is an invitation to join in the continuing talk ... but not to ignore
what has preceeded us, as you seem to be doing! So please do address
the questions and concerns already raised.
Clive F. Jacks, Th.D.
Professor of Religion, Emeritus
(but now happily retired back home in the metro Atlanta area!)