The fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospels focuses a great deal on parables – stories Jesus used to reveal the Kingdom in a gradual but deliberate manner. He uses stories from ordinary life – often relating to work – so that we might also seek holiness in these ordinary places. The first parable in Mark is the Parable of the sower, told in verses 3-9 and explained in verses 13-20. Jesus hopes that each of us would provide in our hearts a fertile place for the word of God to grow: that we would both hear it and apply it to our lives. Often, we look at this parable and consider it simply from the results. Those who hear the word of God and obey it are the “good soil” that produces thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold (v. 8); and those whose hearts are hard, or who are distracted by the temptations of the world, or who are stuck in sin represent the “others” Jesus talks about in this parable.
But there’s more to this: God scatters His word everywhere. In other words, regardless of where you find yourself, there is grace and help that you might reach Heaven even if your heart is hard (the Word is sharper than a two-edged sword- Hebrews 2:12), even if you’re distracted by temptations, or stuck in sin. God speaks His Words to you that your heart might be changed. St. Francis de Sales points out that: “every one received his portion as of seed which falls not only upon the good ground but upon the highway, amongst thorns, and upon rocks, that all might be inexcusable before the redeemer, if they employ not this most abundant redemption for their salvation” (Treatise on the Love of God, book 2, chap 7 as quoted in the Navarre Bible.) Basically, He gives each of us what is appropriate and needed for our state in life. It’s for this reason that people like Mother Teresa or John Paul II will repeat over and over again that they are not extraordinary: we are all called to be saints.
Jesus also presents several further parables: the lamp (21-23), the measure (24-25), the seed (26-29), and the mustard seed (30-32). I want to offer a brief comment on each one:
The parable of the lamp, which Jesus tells us ought not be hidden but left on a stand has two meanings. First, that we are not to hide the teachings of Jesus in our hearts by keeping our faith to ourselves, but we are to live and share it with others. But also, we need to remember that there will be no secrets when Christ – as the Gospel of Luke points out: “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:3).
The parable of the measure is something that Jesus repeats which often may not make sense to us: “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Mark 4:24-25). When we hear words like those of Pope Francis which challenge us to care for the poor, it seems like this is a contrary teaching: there is no social justice here. And that is because this parable is speaking more of our interior life of faith. The Lord is scattering seeds in our hearts, and it is our responsibility to develop them, because when it comes to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, there is no limit to how far we are able to develop them. The Navarre Bible here quotes St. Augustine: “If you say ‘enough,’ you are already dead,” or, as St. Padre Pio put it: “In the spiritual life one must always go on pushing ahead and never go backwards; if not, the same thing happens as to a boat which when it loses headway gets blown backwards with the wind.” This is Christ’s warning to the Apostles and to us: don’t stop growing in your faith.
In the parable of the seed, Jesus compares real spiritual growth to gardening/farming. You do all you can to prepare the soil, to properly plant the seed, and to ensure that a fledgling plant is kept safe… but ultimately, the actual work of growth is beyond your ability. My father-in-law, a lifelong farmer, often commented how faith and farming go hand in hand, because at a certain point you have to leave the crop in God’s hands. We do the same with our hearts: open them to receive the word, clear away whatever we can see that might obstruct our growth, and then leave it to God.
The parable of the mustard seed brings with it a powerful image: a tiny seed which grows into a tremendous plant. Jesus is using this to describe both the Church which will grow from the tiny faith of the Apostles; but also to describe the way in which we need to make ourselves small and humble in the presence of God, that He might make us into spiritual giants (cf. Psalm 92:12). This type imagery wound be familiar, as it is also in the Old Testament, when the nations of Babylon (Daniel 4:10-12), Egypt (Ezekiel 31:1-6), and Israel (Ezekiel 17:22-24), are described as being initially small and then growing into mighty “trees.”
This chapter ends with one of my favorite stories in Scripture: the calming of the storm at sea (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus takes His disciples across the sea where He had been teaching, leaving them to manage the boat while He sleeps. As they are traveling (and Christ is asleep), a storm comes in that is so wild, the Apostles think they’re going to die (v. 38). When you consider that among the twelve were several professional fishermen – who would have sailed in storms before – this must have been quite the storm. In spite of this, Jesus remains asleep until they rouse Him, panicked, asking Him whether He cares that they are about to die. Jesus calms the storm before questioning their faith. This whole sequence is a metaphor for life: the storms always come, and it may at times seem like Jesus is asleep. But even as we face these dangers in any manner, and Jesus doesn’t respond in the way we want Him to, we need to recall that He is in the boat. He doesn’t let His disciples perish, and He won’t let us perish, either. As with the farmer and the seed, we do what we can and place our hope in Him, Christ, who deserves our trust – and who is the only one who can calm the storms in our hearts, whether they be trials, temptations, or our own weaknesses.
(By the way, I’m using two commentaries to help me explain this Gospel: the Navarre Bible and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. A good commentary like these is good to help understand translation issues, to look at a passage from a different direction, and to integrate it into the whole of our faith. There is no reason any of us should ever feel like we are interpreting scripture on our own – we have 2000 YEARS of scholars, theologians, teachers, priests, and saints who have all met and shared Christ through the pages of the Bible. Just make sure whatever commentary you’re reading is a good Catholic one… I certainly recommend either of the above as they have been very easy to work with.)