In Mark 3 we found Jesus being accused of all sorts of things and the source of his authority had been challenged. In Mark 4 we find one of the only blocks of Jesus teachings in the entire Gospel, which is probably a response to those attacks. All of the teachings have some connection with planting and growing a crop. Jesus takes on the posture of a teacher by sitting in the boat. He begins to teach the crowd who is standing on the shore. Mark literally tells us that the crowd is standing on the ground by the lake, a word he will repeat 8 more times in the chapter (NIV dynamic equivalent translation = “shore” loses that connection).
The Land, the Ground, and the Heart (4:1-20)
How could teaching about the ground, crops, and land have anything to say in response to his critics? The first thing you have to remember is that when God made a covenant with Abraham he promised him a land (Gen 15:17-20). When the people were leaving Egypt they were reminded of that promise (hence the “promised land”). The people of Israel had a special connection with the land. They believed it was there right, their destiny, their inheritance from God.
The vineyard was a popular symbol in the Old Testament for God’s people,
“It is not God’s only because God loves it, but because he painstakingly prepared the land and planted it. He also carefully protected it. In this way the parable describes God’s election of Israel as a nation (Deut 7:7-11) and his providential care of it. As with any vineyard, the vinedresser does all this work with the expectation of a fruitful and bountiful harvest” (Dictionary of Bib Imagery, 915).
In the Old Testament God spoke through the prophet Isaiah comparing the people in the land to grapes in a vineyard (Isa 5:1-7). In that passage God says he cared for the vineyard, cleared it, picked a fertile hillside, planted it with choice vines, put a wall and a watchtower in it for protection (reminds me of Deut6:10-15). But when he looked for a good crop of good grapes he found only “bad fruit.” What follows was a passage of judgment – God would destroy its protective walls, make it a wasteland, and guess what would grow up in its place? Briars and thorns. The passage concludes like this,
“The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
The Israelites had rejected God and his prophets in the past. They produced bloodshed in place of justice and distress instead of righteousness. Here they go again. In walks the Sower who sows God’s seed (God’s word/Gospel) onto the hearts of men. Some fell on the path, some fell in rocky places, and other seed fell among the thorns. None of those produced good fruit because they were not rooted in good soil. But the seed that fell on the good soil produced fruit so big that no human could claim responsibility for the produce. The seed exposes who we really are. The typical question we ask ourselves in studying this parable is, “What kind of soil are you?” But I think the better question is this, “What are you producing?” If you are good soil you will produce good fruit but if your soil is in poor condition you will not produce good fruit.
A Lamp on a Stand (4:21-25)
Just as the seed exposes our hearts so does Jesus (who is, by the way, the Word of God – John 1). Jesus continues his farming language by saying when you light a lamp you don’t cover it with a bushel (NIV – “bowl” – misses the connection with the surrounding stories). Instead you put it on a stand and it exposes us for who we really are. That means 4:24-25, the verses many people use to talk about judging others, cannot be about judging others. It just doesn’t fit the context of the kingdom Jesus is talking about here. “With the measure you use (more farming language), it will be measured to you…” Jesus is saying if you embrace the kingdom you will receive more than you could have ever understood. But if you reject it (“those who do not have”) you will lose everything.
The Parable of the Growing Seed (4:26-29)
You cannot make a stock go up by watching the stock ticker. It just doesn’t work that way. The same is true with the kingdom. The kingdom grows apart from the skill of the farmer. The farmer does not make seeds germenate. They do that on their own. The word Jesus uses for “all by itself” – αυτηματη (sounds like automatic). It happens on its own. The naysayers want to point fingers at Jesus and say the kingdom hasn’t come. Jesus is saying that is like standing in a field full of wheat and shouting, “This land is worthless for farming!” That would be insane. Look around you. Don’t you see all the signs! The sick are healed. Demons and evil spirits are being cast out. Teaching is being done with authority. All the signs are here. Don’t deny the obvious. And don’t take credit for what you aren’t able to do yourself. God is the one bringing in the kingdom whether you like it or not.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed (4:30-34)
When I was a kid I always thought the mustard plant was a HUGE tree that towered above everything else. I was wrong. Apparently when you plant mustard seeds you better get ready for what happens next because there is no stopping it. It is like kudzu. When you cut kudzu you better cut and run because if you don’t it will catch you. When you plant this plant in your garden you cannot contain it. You cannot be assured of where it will spread to. You cannot put boundaries on it. All sorts of little critters may end up living in there (BWIII, 172). So it is with the kingdom. When the kingdom takes root you better get ready because it is going to grow all over the place. There is no stopping it. There is no putting boundaries on it. It was made to grow and grow it will.
I think many of our problems in our Christian walk stem from the fact that we have forgotten how powerful the kingdom of God actually is. We have forgotten that it will grow like wildfire. It will grow in places we didn’t realize it could be. It will turn our expectations upside down and renew in us a sense of hope because we realize that who and what we belong to cannot and will not be stopped. So hang on tight and get ready and don’t be afraid to invite people into it because it was made to grow.