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Bible Commentaries
Mark 4

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verses 1-40

IV:1-34 Teaching in Parables; cf.Matthew 13:1-52; Luke 8:4-18—1-2. The enthusiasm of the crowds for Christ is undiminished as they gather again to hear his teaching. The sloping shores of an inlet of the lake would have provided a natural amphitheatre for the crowds whom he addressed from a boat moored near the shore. This was not the first occasion on which Jesus made use of parables (cf.Mark 2:19-22; Mark 3:23-27), but both Mk and Mt seem to indicate this day by the lake-shore as the ’day of parables’ in a special way. Mark records only two of the ’parables of the kingdom’ which are found in Mt 13, but he has one parable, 4:26-29, which is not found in the other Evangelists.

3-9. The Parable of the Sower depicts a situation familiar to Christ’s audience. The cultivated land was not fenced off by walls or hedges, the only boundary marks being stones fixed at intervals. The ’wayside’ was frequently nothing more than a rough path. Seed which fell on it had not even a light covering of earth to protect it from the birds which, according to modern observers, sometimes snatch the seed as it is falling to the ground from the sower’s hand. Much of the soil of Palestine is stony, with frequent outcroppings of rock or only a light covering of soil over the underlying rock. The seed which fell there sprang up quickly but, because of the lack of moisture, the corn withered in the burning heat of the sun. The thorn-growths were not uprooted in the preparation of the soil. Usually they were burned together with the straw which remained after the preceding harvest, but roots left in the earth and seed which had fallen to the ground produced a new growth which smothered the grain-crop.

9. This phrase is used by Christ (cf.Matthew 11:15) to impress upon the listeners the importance of what he has said and to urge them to ponder upon its meaning.

10-12 The Reason Jesus spoke in Parables; cf.Matthew 13:10-15; Luke 8:9 f.—10. This question about the parables was put to Jesus by ’those about him with the twelve’ at a later stage, when the crowds were not present.

11a. ’The mystery of the kingdom of God’ is the secret design of God for establishing the Messianic kingdom. It is called a ’mystery’ because it proceeds from the inscrutable wisdom of God whose hidden purpose is not ascertainable by human reason apart from divine revelation. Knowledge of this design of God, of the nature of the kingdom, the manner of its foundation, the conditions of entry into it, is given to the disciples on whom would fall the duty of proclaiming the kingdom after Christ’s death. By their docility and faith in Christ they had shown that they were fitted to receive a more profound and clearer understanding of God’s design.

11b. ’Those outside’ are not neglected; they are taught in parables. The expression ’those outside’ includes Christ’s avowed enemies, the Scribes, Pharisees and Herodians, and also the crowds who, though attracted by Christ and impressed by his teaching and miracles, had not become faithful followers. It was not Christ’s intention, in teaching through parables, to prevent them from understanding his doctrine. The Evangelist tells us that Christ spoke to them in parables according to their capacity to understand, 33. Parables, by their very nature, are calculated to arouse the interest and to enlighten, but a certain effort is called for if one is to grasp the truth enshrined in the imagery of the parable. In adopting parables as a method of instruction Christ’took account of the dispositions of ’those outside’ and of their mistaken notions of the kingdom. Prevalent misconceptions of the role of the Messias and of the character of his kingdom made it necessary to propound the true doctrine to the people in a manner which would neither destroy such goodwill as could be found among them nor provoke a conflict with the Roman authorities; cf. 1:34. Christ’s appeal for earnest consideration of his teaching, 9, was not to be dismissed lightly in view of the manifest signs of God’s approval which his mission had received. Men of goodwill would reflect on the parables and be enlightened. Those who, like the disciples, sought further explanation would receive it from Christ. But for the ill-disposed, who neglected the grace thus offered to them, the parables would be the occasion of a further hardening of their hearts.

12. In its original context in Isaiah 6:9 f. this passage predicts the failure of the prophet’s mission, a mission of mercy which, because of the blindness and obduracy of the Jews to whom he was sent, resulted in further hardening of their hearts. At first sight the passage seems to mean that the purpose of the prophet’s mission was to blind and harden. But the text must be understood in accordance with Hebrew idiom and the Hebrew conception of divine causality in which little account was taken of secondary causes. The final result of God’s merciful action in sending. Isaias is stated as if it were the purpose of his mission. Actually of course, that foreseen result was brought about by the evil dispositions of those to whom he was sent; cf. Kissane, The Book of Isaiah ( Dublin 1941), Vol. 1, 75 f. The situation contemplated in the text of Isaias has a parallel in the mission of Christ. He too came on a mission of mercy and taught ’those outside’ in parables, because that was the method most suited to their dispositions and capacity for understanding his doctrine; cf. Vosté, Parabolae selectœ D. N. Jesu Christi (Romae 1933).

13-20 Explanation of the Parable of the Sower; cf. Matthew 13:18-23; Luke 8:11-15—The key to the meaning is given in 14. The seed represents the message of the kingdom which Christ is preaching. As the fate of a seed depends upon the type of soil on which it falls, so the success of Christ’s teaching and the growth of the kingdom depend upon the dispositions and loyal co-operation of those who hear him. If his message is to bear fruit it must find a fruitful soil in the minds and hearts of the listeners. This lesson had a special significance for the Jews of the time of Christ. Many of. them imagined that membership of the Chosen People, irrespective of moral qualifications, would secure entry into the Messianic kingdom, but the parable emphasizes the necessity of good dispositions.

21-25 The Mystery of the Kingdom will be revealed; cf.Matthew 5:15; Matthew 7:2; Matthew 10:26 f.; 13:12; 25:29; Luke 8:16-18—The instructions contained in the parables of the Lamp, 21, and of the Measure, 24, appear to be directed specially to the Apostles and disciples.

21-23. The knowledge of the kingdom which has been given to the disciples, 11, is not for them alone. They are ’the light of the world’, Matthew 5:14-16, and as the function of a lamp is to give light, so it will be the function of the disciples to proclaim to all mankind the knowledge of Christ and his teaching which has been entrusted to them. For the moment ’those outside’ are incapable of appreciating the doctrine of the kingdom, but the time will come when that knowledge will be proclaimed from the housetops, Matthew 10:26 f.

24-25. The semi-proverbial statements of 24b and 25a contain a warning which recalls the teaching of the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. Knowledge of the kingdom is a favour from God which, like all God’s graces, demands the co-operation of man if it is to be understood and to prove fruitful. The measure of understanding and fruitfulness is in proportion to the attention and goodwill with which the message is received. Those who make use of the knowledge they have received will be granted an increase. This teaching obviously has a special interest for the disciples who would have the duty of preaching to others.

26-49 The Seed growing by Itself —In this parable, which is found only in Mk, the central point of comparison with the kingdom of God is the manner in which the seed, once it has been sown, grows to maturity without further intervention from the sower. While he goes about his daily round, the seed, through its own hidden energies, develops in the soil until it is fit for harvesting. The chief lesson of this parable appears to be as follows: just as the seed develops gradually until it has formed the full-grown ear ripe for harvesting, so the kingdom of God established on earth by Christ, will develop gradually, but none the less surely, until it reaches the final consummation. This doctrine of the gradual but persistent growth of the kingdom was a timely corrective to the false ideas of those who looked for an immediate and highly dramatic inauguration of the Messianic kingdom. The parable inculcates patience and confidence in the mysterious plans of God who will secure the growth of the kingdom without the aid of violent revolutionary upheavals or the theatrical manifestations which were part of popular expectation.

30-32 The Mustard Seed; cf.Matthew 13:31 f.; Luke 13:18 f. —The mustard seed, though not absolutely the smallest of all seeds, was proverbial for its smallness, Matthew 17:20. From this tiny seed, however, grows a plant which attains the dimensions of a tree. Flocks of birds gather on its branches to eat the ripe grains of mustard seed. This growth from small beginnings provides the term of comparison in the present parable. The kingdom has an apparently insignificant beginning; the preaching of the Gospel is an apparently inadequate method of inaugurating the Messianic age. But Christ foretells a remarkable development to which history bears testimony in the spread of the Gospel.and the growth of the Church. He also discredits mistaken ideas of a sudden manifestation of the kingdom in all its fullness, and directs attention to the latent powers which achieve this extraordinary expansion.

33-34 Concluding Remarks on the Parables; cf.Matthew 13:34 f.—33b. ’According to their capacity to understand’. These words make it clear that the evangelist did not consider that the purpose of the parables was to blind and harden; cf. 4:10-12. The reason for failure to understand the doctrine of the kingdom propounded in them must be sought in lack of goodwill and failure to give due attention to Christ’s teaching. His mission had evident marks of divine approval and, consequently, his teaching merited the most earnest consideration.

34. The disciples showed their goodwill by seeking explanations, 10, and they received from Christ the fuller knowledge which would not have been refused to ’those outside’ if they had seriously sought it.

35-40 The Storm on the Lake; cf.Matthew 8:18, Matthew 8:23-27; Luke 8:22-25—Mark’s narrative mentions several details not found in the other Synoptics, e.g. ’they took him as he was, in the boat’, ’other boats accompanied him’, 36, ’he was in the stern sleeping on a cushion’, 38. These unimportant details which make the narrative more graphic without affecting the substance of the story, clearly imply that the evangelist’s information came from an eyewitness. This internal evidence is in complete harmony with the tradition that Mk is a record of the preaching of Peter. The realism and graphic quality of the narrative, as well as certain other features of the second Gospel, are traceable to the eyewitness Peter.

37-38. In the sudden violent storms which sweep down on the Lake of Galilee waves rise to a height of more than six feet and small craft caught in these squalls are in grave danger. 39. ’Be silent! be muzzled!’ Christ addresses the winds and waves as if they were living things. 40. The disciples were not completely lacking in faith—their appeal to Christ shows that they relied on him to help, 38—but their faith was still imperfect.

40b. The disciples were awed by this manifestation of the power that Christ possessed over the forces of nature, a power which in the OT is attributed to Yahweh. The Fathers see in the boat tossed upon the waters a symbol of the Church subjected to persecutions and trials.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on Mark 4". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/mark-4.html. 1951.
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