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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Mark 4

 

 

Verse 1-2

Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4:1-2, 10-13 (Mark 4:1-2; Mark 4:10-13)

THE PARABLES

"And again He began to teach by the sea side. And there is gathered unto Him a very great multitude, so that He entered into a boat, and sat in the sea; and all the multitude were by the sea on the land. And He taught them many things in parables, and said unto them in His teaching. . . .

"And when He was alone, they that were about Him with the twelve asked of Him the parables. And He said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them. And He saith unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how shall ye know all the parables?" Mark 4:1-2; Mark 4:10-13 (R.V.)

AS opposition deepened, and to a vulgar ambition, the temptation to retain disciples by all means would have become greater, Jesus began to teach in parables. We know that He had not hitherto done so, both by the surprise of the Twelve, and by the necessity which He found, of giving them a clue to the meaning of such teachings, and so to "all the parables." His own ought to have understood. But He was merciful to the weakness which confessed its failure and asked for instruction.

And yet He foresaw that they which were without would discern no spiritual meaning in such discourse. It was to have, at the same time, a revealing and a baffling effect, and therefore it was peculiarly suitable for the purposes of a Teacher watched by vindictive foes. Thus, when cross-examined about His authority by men who themselves professed to know not whence John's baptism was, He could refuse to be entrapped, and yet tell of One Who sent His own Son, His Beloved, to receive the fruit of the vineyard.

This diverse effect is derived from the very nature of the parables of Jesus. They are not, like some in the Old Testament, mere fables, in which things occur that never happen in real life. Jotham's trees seeking a king, are as incredible as Aesop's fox leaping for grapes. But Jesus never uttered a parable which was not true to nature, the kind of thing which one expects to happen. We cannot say that a rich man in hell actually spoke to Abraham in heaven. But if he could do so, of which we are not competent to judge, we can well believe that he would have spoken just what we read, and that his pathetic cry, "Father Abraham," would have been as gently answered, "Son, remember." There is no ferocity in the skies; neither has the lost soul become a fiend. Everything commends itself to our judgment. And therefore the story not only illustrates, but appeals, enforces, almost proves.

God in nature does not arrange that all seeds should grow: men have patience while the germ slowly fructifies, they know not how; in all things but religion such sacrifices are made, that the merchant sells all to buy one goodly pearl; an earthly father kisses his repentant prodigal; and even a Samaritan can be neighbor to a Jew in his extremity. So the world is constructed: such is even the fallen human heart. Is it not reasonable to believe that the same principles will extend farther; that as God governs the world of matter so He may govern the world of spirits, and that human helpfulness and clemency will not outrun the graces of the Giver of all good?

This is the famous argument from analogy, applied long before the time of Butler, to purposes farther-reaching than his. But there is this remarkable difference, that the analogy is never pressed, men are left to discover it for themselves, or at least, to ask for an explanation, because they are conscious of something beyond the tale, something spiritual, something which they fain would understand.

Now this difference is not a mannerism; it is intended. Butler pressed home his analogies because he was striving to silence gainsayers. His Lord and ours left men to discern or to be blind, because they had already opportunity to become His disciples if they would. The faithful among them ought to be conscious, or at least they should now become conscious, of the God of grace in the God of nature. To them the world should be eloquent of the Father's mind. They should indeed find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones. He spoke to the sensitive mind, which would understand Him, as a wife reads her husband's secret joys and sorrows by signs no stranger can understand. Even if she fails to comprehend, she knows there is something to ask about. And thus, when they were alone, the Twelve asked Him of the parables. When they were instructed, they gained not only the moral lesson, and the sweet pastoral narrative, the idyllic picture which conveyed it, but also the assurance imparted by recognizing the same mind of God which is revealed in His world, or justified by the best impulses of humanity. Therefore, no parable is sensational. It cannot root itself in the exceptional, the abnormal events on which men do not reckon, which come upon us with a shock. For we do not argue from these to daily life.

But while this mode of teaching was profitable to His disciples, and protected Him against His foes, it had formidable consequences for the frivolous empty followers after a sign. Because they were such they could only find frivolity and lightness in these stories; the deeper meaning lay farther below the surface than such eyes could pierce. Thus the light they had abused was taken from them. And Jesus explained to His disciples that, in acting thus, He pursued the fixed rule of God. The worst penalty of vice is that it loses the knowledge of virtue, and of levity that it cannot appreciate seriousness. He taught in parables, as Isaiah prophesied, "that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again and it should be forgiven them." These last words prove how completely penal, how free from all caprice, was this terrible decision of our gentle Lord, that precautions must be taken against evasion of the consequences of crime. But it is a warning by no means unique. He said, "The things which make for thy peace . . . are hid from thine eyes" (Luke 19:42). And St. Paul said, "If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that are perishing"; and still more to the point, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (2 Corinthians 4:3; 1 Corinthians 2:14). To this law Christ, in speaking by parables, was conscious that He conformed.

But now let it be observed how completely this mode of teaching suited our Lord's habit of mind. If men could finally rid themselves of His Divine claim, they would at once recognize the greatest of the sages; and they would also find in Him the sunniest, sweetest and most accurate discernment of nature, and its more quiet beauties, that ever became a vehicle for moral teaching. The sun and rain bestowed on the evil and the good, the fountain and the trees which regulate the waters and the fruit, the death of the seed by which it buys its increase, the provision for bird and blossom without anxiety of theirs, the preference for a lily over Solomon's gorgeous robes, the meaning of a red sky at sunrise and sunset, the hen gathering her chickens under her wing, the vine and its branches, the sheep and their shepherd, the lightning seen over all the sky, every one of these needed only to be re-set and it would have become a parable.

All the Gospels, including the fourth, are full of proofs of this rich and attractive endowment, this warm sympathy with nature; and this fact is among the evidences that they all drew the same character, and drew it faithfully.


Verses 3-9

CHAPTER 4:3-9, 14-20 (Mark 4:3-9; Mark 4:14-20)

THE SOWER

"Hearken: Behold the sower went forth to sow: and it came to pass, as he sowed, some seed fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured it. And other fell on the rocky ground, where it had not much earth; and straightway it sprang up, because it had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And other fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And others fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing; and brought forth, thirtyfold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. And He said, Who hath ears to hear, let him hear...

"The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; and when they have heard, straightway cometh Satan, and taketh away the word which hath been sown in them. And these in like manner are they that are sown upon the rocky places, who, when they have heard the word, straightway receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway they stumble. And others are they that are sown among the thorns; these are they that have heard the word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. And those are they that were sown upon the good ground; such as hear the word, and accept it, and bear fruit, thirtyfold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold." Mark 4:3-9; Mark 4:14-20 (R.V.)

"HEARKEN," Jesus said; willing to caution men against the danger of slighting His simple story, and to impress on them that it conveyed more than met their ears. In so doing He protested in advance against fatalistic abuses of the parable, as if we were already doomed to be hard, or shallow, or thorny, or fruitful soil. And at the close He brought out still more clearly His protest against such doctrine, by impressing upon all, that if the vitalizing seed were the imparted word, it was their part to receive and treasure it. Indolence and shallowness must fail to bear fruit: that is the essential doctrine of the parable; but it is not necessary that we should remain indolent or shallow: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."

And when the Epistle to the Hebrews reproduces the image of land which bringeth forth thorns and thistles, our Revised Version rightly brings out the fact, on which indeed the whole exhortation depends, that the same piece of land might have borne herbs meet for those for whose sake it is tilled (Hebrews 1:7).

Having said "Hearken," Jesus added, "Behold." It has been rightly inferred that the scene was before their eyes. Very possibly some such process was within sight of the shore on which they were gathered; but in any case, a process was visible, if they would but see, of which the tilling of the ground was only a type. A nobler seed was being scattered for a vaster harvest, and it was no common laborer, but the true sower, who went forth to sow. "The sower soweth the word." But who was he? St. Matthew tells us "the sower is the Son of man," and whether the words were expressly uttered, or only implied, as the silence of St. Mark and St. Luke might possibly suggest, it is clear that none of His disciples could mistake His meaning. Ages have passed and He is the sower still, by whatever instrument He works, for we are God's husbandry as well as God's building. And the seed is the Word of God, so strangely able to work below the surface of human life, invisible at first, yet vital, and grasping from within and without, from secret thoughts and from circumstances, as from the chemical ingredients of the soil and from the sunshine and the shower, all that will contribute to its growth, until the field itself is assimilated, spread from end to end with waving ears, a corn-field now. This is why Jesus in His second parable did not any longer say "the seed is the word," but "the good seed are the sons of the kingdom" (Matthew 13:38). The word planted was able to identify itself with the heart.

And this seed, the Word of God, is sown broadcast as all our opportunities are given. A talent was not refused to him who buried it. Judas was an apostle. Men may receive the grace of God in vain, and this in more ways than one. On some it produces no vital impression whatever; it lies on the surface of a mind which the feet of earthly interests have trodden hard. There is no chance for it to expand, to begin its operation by sending out the smallest tendrils to grasp, to appropriate anything, to take root. And it may well be doubted whether any soul, wholly indifferent to religious truth, ever retained even its theoretic knowledge long. The foolish heart is darkened. The fowls of the air catch away for ever the priceless seed of eternity. Now it is of great importance to observe how Jesus explained this calamity. We should probably have spoken of forgetfulness, the fading away of neglected impressions, or at most of some judicial act of providence hiding the truth from the careless. But Jesus said, "straightway cometh Satan and taketh away the word which hath been sown in them." No person can fairly explain this text away, as men have striven to explain Christ's language to the demoniacs, by any theory of the use of popular language, or the toleration of harmless notions. The introduction of Satan into this parable is unexpected and uncalled for by any demand save one, the necessity of telling all the truth. It is true therefore that an active and deadly enemy of souls is at work to quicken the mischief which neglect and indifference would themselves produce, that evil processes are helped from beneath as truly as good ones from above; that the seed which is left today upon the surface may be maliciously taken thence long before it would have perished by natural decay; that men cannot reckon upon stopping short in their contempt of grace, since what they neglect the devil snatches quite away from them. And as seed is only safe from fowls when buried in the soil, so is the word of life only safe against the rapacity of hell when it has sunk down into our hearts.

In the story of the early Church, St. Paul sowed upon such ground as this in Athens. Men who spent their time in the pursuit of artistic and cultivated novelties, in hearing and telling some new thing, mocked the gospel, or at best proposed to hear its preacher yet again. How long did such a purpose last?

But there are other dangers to dread, besides absolute indifference to truth. And the first of these is a too shallow and easy acquiescence. The message of salvation is designed to affect the whole of human life profoundly. It comes to bind a strong man armed, it summons easy and indifferent hearts to wrestle against spiritual foes, to crucify the flesh, to die daily. On these conditions it offers the noblest blessings. But the conditions are grave and sobering. If one hears them without solemn and earnest searching of heart, he has only, at the best, apprehended half the message. Christ has warned us that we cannot build a tower without sitting down to count our means, nor fight a hostile king without reckoning the prospects of invasion. And it is very striking to compare the gushing and impulsive sensationalism of some modern schools, with the deliberate and circumspect action of St. Paul, even after God had been pleased miraculously to reveal His Son in him. He went into seclusion. He returned to Damascus to his first instructor. Fourteen years afterwards he deliberately laid his gospel before the Apostles, lest by any means he should be running or had run in vain. Such is the action of one penetrated with a sense of reality and responsibility in his decision; it is not the action likely to result from teaching men that it suffices to "say you believe" and to be "made happy." And in this parable, our Savior has given striking expression to His judgment of the school which relies upon mere happiness. Next to those who leave the seed for Satan to snatch away, He places them "who, when they have heard the word, straightway receive it with joy." They have taken the promises without the precepts, they have hoped for the crown without the cross. Their type is the thin layer of earth spread over a shelf of rock. The water, which cannot sink down, and the heat reflected up from the stone, make it for a time almost a hot bed. Straightway the seed sprang up, because it had no deepness of earth. But the moisture thus detained upon the surface vanished utterly in time of drought; the young roots, unable to penetrate to any deeper supplies, were scorched; and it withered away. That superficial heat and moisture was impulsive emotion, glad to hear of heaven, and love, and privilege, but forgetful to mortify the flesh, and to be partaker with Christ in His death. The roots of a real Christian life must strike deeper down. Consciousness of sin and its penalty and of the awful price by which that penalty has been paid, consciousness of what life should have been and how we have degraded it, consciousness of what it must yet be made by grace--these do not lead to joy so immediate, so impulsive, as the growth of this shallow vegetation. A mature and settled joy is among "the fruits of the spirit:" it is not the first blade that shoots up.

Now because the sense of sin and duty and atonement have not done their sobering work, the feelings, so easily quickened, are also easily perverted: "When tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway they stumble." These were not counted upon. Neither trouble of mind nor opposition of wicked men was included in the holiday scheme of the life Divine. And their pressure is not counter-weighted by that of any deep convictions. The roots have never penetrated farther than temporal calamities and trials can reach. In the time of drought they have not enough. They endure, but only for a while.

St. Paul sowed upon just such soil in Galatia. There his hearers spoke of such blessedness that they would have plucked out their eyes for him. But he became their enemy because he told them all the truth, when only a part was welcome. And as Christ said, Straightway they stumble, so St. Paul had to marvel that they were so soon subverted.

If indifference be the first danger, and shallowness the second, mixed motive is the third. Men there are who are very earnest, and far indeed from slight views of truth, who are nevertheless in sore danger, because they are equally earnest about other things; because they cannot resign this world, whatever be their concern about the next; because the soil of their life would fain grow two inconsistent harvests. Like seed sown among thorns, "choked" by their entangling roots and light-excluding growths, the word in such hearts, though neither left upon a hard surface nor forbidden by rock to strike deep into the earth, is overmastered by an unworthy rivalry. A kind of vegetation it does produce, but not such as the tiller seeks: the word becometh unfruitful. It is the same lesson as when Jesus said, "No man can serve two masters. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

Perhaps it is the one most needed in our time of feverish religious controversy and heated party spirit, when every one hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation, but scarcely any have denied the world and taken in exchange a cross.

St. Paul found a thorny soil in Corinth which came behind in no gift, if only gifts had been graces, but was indulgent, factious and selfish, puffed up amid flagrant vices, one hungry and another drunken, while wrangling about the doctrine of the resurrection.

The various evils of this parable are all of them worldliness, differently manifested. The deadening effect of habitual forgetfulness of God, treading the soil so hard that no seed can enter it; the treacherous effect of secret love of earth, a buried obstruction refusing to admit the gospel into the recesses of the life, however it may reach the feelings; and the fierce and stubborn competition of worldly interests, wherever they are not resolutely weeded out, against these Jesus spoke His earliest parable. And it is instructive to review the foes by which He represented His Gospel as warred upon. The personal activity of Satan; "tribulation or persecution" from without, and within the heart "cares" rather for self than for the dependent and the poor, "deceitfulness of riches" for those who possess enough to trust in, or to replace with a fictitious importance the only genuine value, which is that of character (although men are still esteemed for being "worth" a round sum, a strange estimate, to be made by Christians, of a being with a soul burning in him); and alike for rich and poor, "the lusts of other things," since none is too poor to covet, and none so rich that his desires shall not increase, like some diseases, by being fed.

Lastly, we have those on the good ground, who are not described by their sensibilities or their enjoyments, but by their loyalty. They "hear the word and accept it and bear fruit." To accept is what distinguishes them alike from the wayside hearers into whose attention the word never sinks, from the rocky hearers who only receive it with a superficial welcome, and from the thorny hearers who only give it a divided welcome. It is not said, as if the word were merely the precepts, that they obey it. The sower of this seed is not he who bade the soldier not to do violence, and the publican not to extort: it is He who said, Repent, and believe the gospel. He implanted new hopes, convictions, and affections, as the germ which should unfold in a new life. And the good fruit is borne by those who honestly "accept" His word.

Fruitfulness is never in the gospel the condition by which life is earned, but it is always the test by which it proves it. In all the accounts of the final judgment, we catch the principle of the bold challenge of St. James, "Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works." The talent must produce more talents, and the pound (dollar) more pounds (dollars); the servant must have his loins girt and a light in his hand; the blessed are they who did unto Jesus the kindness they did unto the least of His brethren, and the accursed are they who did it not to Jesus in His people.

We are not wrong in preaching that honest faith in Christ is the only condition of acceptance, and the way to obtain strength for good works. But perhaps we fail to add, with sufficient emphasis, that good works are the only sufficient evidence of real faith, of genuine conversion. Lydia, whose heart the lord opened and who constrained the Apostle to abide in her house, was converted as truly as the gaoler who passed through all the vicissitudes of despair, trembling and astonishment, and belief.

"They bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and an hundredfold." And all are alike accepted. But the parable of the pounds shows that all are not alike rewarded, and in equal circumstances superior efficiency wins a superior prize. One star differeth from another star in glory, and they who turn many to righteousness shall shine as the sun for ever.


Verses 10-13

elete_me Mark 4:10-13

Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4:1-2, 10-13 (Mark 4:1-2; Mark 4:10-13)

THE PARABLES

"And again He began to teach by the sea side. And there is gathered unto Him a very great multitude, so that He entered into a boat, and sat in the sea; and all the multitude were by the sea on the land. And He taught them many things in parables, and said unto them in His teaching. . . .

"And when He was alone, they that were about Him with the twelve asked of Him the parables. And He said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them. And He saith unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how shall ye know all the parables?" Mark 4:1-2; Mark 4:10-13 (R.V.)

AS opposition deepened, and to a vulgar ambition, the temptation to retain disciples by all means would have become greater, Jesus began to teach in parables. We know that He had not hitherto done so, both by the surprise of the Twelve, and by the necessity which He found, of giving them a clue to the meaning of such teachings, and so to "all the parables." His own ought to have understood. But He was merciful to the weakness which confessed its failure and asked for instruction.

And yet He foresaw that they which were without would discern no spiritual meaning in such discourse. It was to have, at the same time, a revealing and a baffling effect, and therefore it was peculiarly suitable for the purposes of a Teacher watched by vindictive foes. Thus, when cross-examined about His authority by men who themselves professed to know not whence John's baptism was, He could refuse to be entrapped, and yet tell of One Who sent His own Son, His Beloved, to receive the fruit of the vineyard.

This diverse effect is derived from the very nature of the parables of Jesus. They are not, like some in the Old Testament, mere fables, in which things occur that never happen in real life. Jotham's trees seeking a king, are as incredible as Aesop's fox leaping for grapes. But Jesus never uttered a parable which was not true to nature, the kind of thing which one expects to happen. We cannot say that a rich man in hell actually spoke to Abraham in heaven. But if he could do so, of which we are not competent to judge, we can well believe that he would have spoken just what we read, and that his pathetic cry, "Father Abraham," would have been as gently answered, "Son, remember." There is no ferocity in the skies; neither has the lost soul become a fiend. Everything commends itself to our judgment. And therefore the story not only illustrates, but appeals, enforces, almost proves.

God in nature does not arrange that all seeds should grow: men have patience while the germ slowly fructifies, they know not how; in all things but religion such sacrifices are made, that the merchant sells all to buy one goodly pearl; an earthly father kisses his repentant prodigal; and even a Samaritan can be neighbor to a Jew in his extremity. So the world is constructed: such is even the fallen human heart. Is it not reasonable to believe that the same principles will extend farther; that as God governs the world of matter so He may govern the world of spirits, and that human helpfulness and clemency will not outrun the graces of the Giver of all good?

This is the famous argument from analogy, applied long before the time of Butler, to purposes farther-reaching than his. But there is this remarkable difference, that the analogy is never pressed, men are left to discover it for themselves, or at least, to ask for an explanation, because they are conscious of something beyond the tale, something spiritual, something which they fain would understand.

Now this difference is not a mannerism; it is intended. Butler pressed home his analogies because he was striving to silence gainsayers. His Lord and ours left men to discern or to be blind, because they had already opportunity to become His disciples if they would. The faithful among them ought to be conscious, or at least they should now become conscious, of the God of grace in the God of nature. To them the world should be eloquent of the Father's mind. They should indeed find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones. He spoke to the sensitive mind, which would understand Him, as a wife reads her husband's secret joys and sorrows by signs no stranger can understand. Even if she fails to comprehend, she knows there is something to ask about. And thus, when they were alone, the Twelve asked Him of the parables. When they were instructed, they gained not only the moral lesson, and the sweet pastoral narrative, the idyllic picture which conveyed it, but also the assurance imparted by recognizing the same mind of God which is revealed in His world, or justified by the best impulses of humanity. Therefore, no parable is sensational. It cannot root itself in the exceptional, the abnormal events on which men do not reckon, which come upon us with a shock. For we do not argue from these to daily life.

But while this mode of teaching was profitable to His disciples, and protected Him against His foes, it had formidable consequences for the frivolous empty followers after a sign. Because they were such they could only find frivolity and lightness in these stories; the deeper meaning lay farther below the surface than such eyes could pierce. Thus the light they had abused was taken from them. And Jesus explained to His disciples that, in acting thus, He pursued the fixed rule of God. The worst penalty of vice is that it loses the knowledge of virtue, and of levity that it cannot appreciate seriousness. He taught in parables, as Isaiah prophesied, "that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again and it should be forgiven them." These last words prove how completely penal, how free from all caprice, was this terrible decision of our gentle Lord, that precautions must be taken against evasion of the consequences of crime. But it is a warning by no means unique. He said, "The things which make for thy peace . . . are hid from thine eyes" (Luke 19:42). And St. Paul said, "If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that are perishing"; and still more to the point, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (2 Corinthians 4:3; 1 Corinthians 2:14). To this law Christ, in speaking by parables, was conscious that He conformed.

But now let it be observed how completely this mode of teaching suited our Lord's habit of mind. If men could finally rid themselves of His Divine claim, they would at once recognize the greatest of the sages; and they would also find in Him the sunniest, sweetest and most accurate discernment of nature, and its more quiet beauties, that ever became a vehicle for moral teaching. The sun and rain bestowed on the evil and the good, the fountain and the trees which regulate the waters and the fruit, the death of the seed by which it buys its increase, the provision for bird and blossom without anxiety of theirs, the preference for a lily over Solomon's gorgeous robes, the meaning of a red sky at sunrise and sunset, the hen gathering her chickens under her wing, the vine and its branches, the sheep and their shepherd, the lightning seen over all the sky, every one of these needed only to be re-set and it would have become a parable.

All the Gospels, including the fourth, are full of proofs of this rich and attractive endowment, this warm sympathy with nature; and this fact is among the evidences that they all drew the same character, and drew it faithfully.


Verses 14-20

elete_me Mark 4:14-20

CHAPTER 4:3-9, 14-20 (Mark 4:3-9; Mark 4:14-20)

THE SOWER

"Hearken: Behold the sower went forth to sow: and it came to pass, as he sowed, some seed fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured it. And other fell on the rocky ground, where it had not much earth; and straightway it sprang up, because it had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And other fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And others fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing; and brought forth, thirtyfold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. And He said, Who hath ears to hear, let him hear...

"The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; and when they have heard, straightway cometh Satan, and taketh away the word which hath been sown in them. And these in like manner are they that are sown upon the rocky places, who, when they have heard the word, straightway receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway they stumble. And others are they that are sown among the thorns; these are they that have heard the word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. And those are they that were sown upon the good ground; such as hear the word, and accept it, and bear fruit, thirtyfold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold." Mark 4:3-9; Mark 4:14-20 (R.V.)

"HEARKEN," Jesus said; willing to caution men against the danger of slighting His simple story, and to impress on them that it conveyed more than met their ears. In so doing He protested in advance against fatalistic abuses of the parable, as if we were already doomed to be hard, or shallow, or thorny, or fruitful soil. And at the close He brought out still more clearly His protest against such doctrine, by impressing upon all, that if the vitalizing seed were the imparted word, it was their part to receive and treasure it. Indolence and shallowness must fail to bear fruit: that is the essential doctrine of the parable; but it is not necessary that we should remain indolent or shallow: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."

And when the Epistle to the Hebrews reproduces the image of land which bringeth forth thorns and thistles, our Revised Version rightly brings out the fact, on which indeed the whole exhortation depends, that the same piece of land might have borne herbs meet for those for whose sake it is tilled (Hebrews 1:7).

Having said "Hearken," Jesus added, "Behold." It has been rightly inferred that the scene was before their eyes. Very possibly some such process was within sight of the shore on which they were gathered; but in any case, a process was visible, if they would but see, of which the tilling of the ground was only a type. A nobler seed was being scattered for a vaster harvest, and it was no common laborer, but the true sower, who went forth to sow. "The sower soweth the word." But who was he? St. Matthew tells us "the sower is the Son of man," and whether the words were expressly uttered, or only implied, as the silence of St. Mark and St. Luke might possibly suggest, it is clear that none of His disciples could mistake His meaning. Ages have passed and He is the sower still, by whatever instrument He works, for we are God's husbandry as well as God's building. And the seed is the Word of God, so strangely able to work below the surface of human life, invisible at first, yet vital, and grasping from within and without, from secret thoughts and from circumstances, as from the chemical ingredients of the soil and from the sunshine and the shower, all that will contribute to its growth, until the field itself is assimilated, spread from end to end with waving ears, a corn-field now. This is why Jesus in His second parable did not any longer say "the seed is the word," but "the good seed are the sons of the kingdom" (Matthew 13:38). The word planted was able to identify itself with the heart.

And this seed, the Word of God, is sown broadcast as all our opportunities are given. A talent was not refused to him who buried it. Judas was an apostle. Men may receive the grace of God in vain, and this in more ways than one. On some it produces no vital impression whatever; it lies on the surface of a mind which the feet of earthly interests have trodden hard. There is no chance for it to expand, to begin its operation by sending out the smallest tendrils to grasp, to appropriate anything, to take root. And it may well be doubted whether any soul, wholly indifferent to religious truth, ever retained even its theoretic knowledge long. The foolish heart is darkened. The fowls of the air catch away for ever the priceless seed of eternity. Now it is of great importance to observe how Jesus explained this calamity. We should probably have spoken of forgetfulness, the fading away of neglected impressions, or at most of some judicial act of providence hiding the truth from the careless. But Jesus said, "straightway cometh Satan and taketh away the word which hath been sown in them." No person can fairly explain this text away, as men have striven to explain Christ's language to the demoniacs, by any theory of the use of popular language, or the toleration of harmless notions. The introduction of Satan into this parable is unexpected and uncalled for by any demand save one, the necessity of telling all the truth. It is true therefore that an active and deadly enemy of souls is at work to quicken the mischief which neglect and indifference would themselves produce, that evil processes are helped from beneath as truly as good ones from above; that the seed which is left today upon the surface may be maliciously taken thence long before it would have perished by natural decay; that men cannot reckon upon stopping short in their contempt of grace, since what they neglect the devil snatches quite away from them. And as seed is only safe from fowls when buried in the soil, so is the word of life only safe against the rapacity of hell when it has sunk down into our hearts.

In the story of the early Church, St. Paul sowed upon such ground as this in Athens. Men who spent their time in the pursuit of artistic and cultivated novelties, in hearing and telling some new thing, mocked the gospel, or at best proposed to hear its preacher yet again. How long did such a purpose last?

But there are other dangers to dread, besides absolute indifference to truth. And the first of these is a too shallow and easy acquiescence. The message of salvation is designed to affect the whole of human life profoundly. It comes to bind a strong man armed, it summons easy and indifferent hearts to wrestle against spiritual foes, to crucify the flesh, to die daily. On these conditions it offers the noblest blessings. But the conditions are grave and sobering. If one hears them without solemn and earnest searching of heart, he has only, at the best, apprehended half the message. Christ has warned us that we cannot build a tower without sitting down to count our means, nor fight a hostile king without reckoning the prospects of invasion. And it is very striking to compare the gushing and impulsive sensationalism of some modern schools, with the deliberate and circumspect action of St. Paul, even after God had been pleased miraculously to reveal His Son in him. He went into seclusion. He returned to Damascus to his first instructor. Fourteen years afterwards he deliberately laid his gospel before the Apostles, lest by any means he should be running or had run in vain. Such is the action of one penetrated with a sense of reality and responsibility in his decision; it is not the action likely to result from teaching men that it suffices to "say you believe" and to be "made happy." And in this parable, our Savior has given striking expression to His judgment of the school which relies upon mere happiness. Next to those who leave the seed for Satan to snatch away, He places them "who, when they have heard the word, straightway receive it with joy." They have taken the promises without the precepts, they have hoped for the crown without the cross. Their type is the thin layer of earth spread over a shelf of rock. The water, which cannot sink down, and the heat reflected up from the stone, make it for a time almost a hot bed. Straightway the seed sprang up, because it had no deepness of earth. But the moisture thus detained upon the surface vanished utterly in time of drought; the young roots, unable to penetrate to any deeper supplies, were scorched; and it withered away. That superficial heat and moisture was impulsive emotion, glad to hear of heaven, and love, and privilege, but forgetful to mortify the flesh, and to be partaker with Christ in His death. The roots of a real Christian life must strike deeper down. Consciousness of sin and its penalty and of the awful price by which that penalty has been paid, consciousness of what life should have been and how we have degraded it, consciousness of what it must yet be made by grace--these do not lead to joy so immediate, so impulsive, as the growth of this shallow vegetation. A mature and settled joy is among "the fruits of the spirit:" it is not the first blade that shoots up.

Now because the sense of sin and duty and atonement have not done their sobering work, the feelings, so easily quickened, are also easily perverted: "When tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway they stumble." These were not counted upon. Neither trouble of mind nor opposition of wicked men was included in the holiday scheme of the life Divine. And their pressure is not counter-weighted by that of any deep convictions. The roots have never penetrated farther than temporal calamities and trials can reach. In the time of drought they have not enough. They endure, but only for a while.

St. Paul sowed upon just such soil in Galatia. There his hearers spoke of such blessedness that they would have plucked out their eyes for him. But he became their enemy because he told them all the truth, when only a part was welcome. And as Christ said, Straightway they stumble, so St. Paul had to marvel that they were so soon subverted.

If indifference be the first danger, and shallowness the second, mixed motive is the third. Men there are who are very earnest, and far indeed from slight views of truth, who are nevertheless in sore danger, because they are equally earnest about other things; because they cannot resign this world, whatever be their concern about the next; because the soil of their life would fain grow two inconsistent harvests. Like seed sown among thorns, "choked" by their entangling roots and light-excluding growths, the word in such hearts, though neither left upon a hard surface nor forbidden by rock to strike deep into the earth, is overmastered by an unworthy rivalry. A kind of vegetation it does produce, but not such as the tiller seeks: the word becometh unfruitful. It is the same lesson as when Jesus said, "No man can serve two masters. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

Perhaps it is the one most needed in our time of feverish religious controversy and heated party spirit, when every one hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation, but scarcely any have denied the world and taken in exchange a cross.

St. Paul found a thorny soil in Corinth which came behind in no gift, if only gifts had been graces, but was indulgent, factious and selfish, puffed up amid flagrant vices, one hungry and another drunken, while wrangling about the doctrine of the resurrection.

The various evils of this parable are all of them worldliness, differently manifested. The deadening effect of habitual forgetfulness of God, treading the soil so hard that no seed can enter it; the treacherous effect of secret love of earth, a buried obstruction refusing to admit the gospel into the recesses of the life, however it may reach the feelings; and the fierce and stubborn competition of worldly interests, wherever they are not resolutely weeded out, against these Jesus spoke His earliest parable. And it is instructive to review the foes by which He represented His Gospel as warred upon. The personal activity of Satan; "tribulation or persecution" from without, and within the heart "cares" rather for self than for the dependent and the poor, "deceitfulness of riches" for those who possess enough to trust in, or to replace with a fictitious importance the only genuine value, which is that of character (although men are still esteemed for being "worth" a round sum, a strange estimate, to be made by Christians, of a being with a soul burning in him); and alike for rich and poor, "the lusts of other things," since none is too poor to covet, and none so rich that his desires shall not increase, like some diseases, by being fed.

Lastly, we have those on the good ground, who are not described by their sensibilities or their enjoyments, but by their loyalty. They "hear the word and accept it and bear fruit." To accept is what distinguishes them alike from the wayside hearers into whose attention the word never sinks, from the rocky hearers who only receive it with a superficial welcome, and from the thorny hearers who only give it a divided welcome. It is not said, as if the word were merely the precepts, that they obey it. The sower of this seed is not he who bade the soldier not to do violence, and the publican not to extort: it is He who said, Repent, and believe the gospel. He implanted new hopes, convictions, and affections, as the germ which should unfold in a new life. And the good fruit is borne by those who honestly "accept" His word.

Fruitfulness is never in the gospel the condition by which life is earned, but it is always the test by which it proves it. In all the accounts of the final judgment, we catch the principle of the bold challenge of St. James, "Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works." The talent must produce more talents, and the pound (dollar) more pounds (dollars); the servant must have his loins girt and a light in his hand; the blessed are they who did unto Jesus the kindness they did unto the least of His brethren, and the accursed are they who did it not to Jesus in His people.

We are not wrong in preaching that honest faith in Christ is the only condition of acceptance, and the way to obtain strength for good works. But perhaps we fail to add, with sufficient emphasis, that good works are the only sufficient evidence of real faith, of genuine conversion. Lydia, whose heart the lord opened and who constrained the Apostle to abide in her house, was converted as truly as the gaoler who passed through all the vicissitudes of despair, trembling and astonishment, and belief.

"They bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and an hundredfold." And all are alike accepted. But the parable of the pounds shows that all are not alike rewarded, and in equal circumstances superior efficiency wins a superior prize. One star differeth from another star in glory, and they who turn many to righteousness shall shine as the sun for ever.


Verses 21-25

CHAPTER: 4:21-25 (Mark 4:21)

LAMP AND STAND

"And He said unto them, Is the lamp brought to be put under the bushel, or under the bed? and not to be put on the stand? For there is nothing hid, save that it should be manifested; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light. If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear. And He said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete it shall be measured unto you: and more shall be given unto you. For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath." Mark 4:21-25 (R.V.)

JESUS had now taught that the only good ground was that in which the good seed bore fruit. And He adds explicitly, that men receive the truth in order to spread it, and are given grace that they may become, in turn, good stewards of the manifold grace of God.

"Is the lamp brought to be put under the bushel or under the bed, and not to be put on the stand?" The language may possibly be due, as men have argued, to the simple conditions of life among the Hebrew peasantry, who possessed only one lamp, one corn-measure, and perhaps one bed. All the greater marvel is it that amid such surroundings He should have announced, and not in vain, that His disciples, His Church, should become the light of all humanity, "the lamp." Already He had put forward the same claim even more explicitly, saying, "Ye are the light of the world." And in each case, He spoke not in the intoxication of pride or self-assertion, but in all gravity, and as a solemn warning. The city on the hill could not be hid. The lamp would burn dimly under the bed; it would be extinguished entirely by the bushel. Publicity is the soul of religion, since religion is light. It is meant to diffuse itself, to be, as He expressed it, like leaven which may be hid at first, but cannot be concealed, since it will leaven all the lump. And so, if He spoke in parables, and consciously hid His meaning by so doing, this was not to withdraw His teaching from the masses, it was to shelter the flame which should presently illuminate all the house. Nothing was hid, save that it should be manifested, nor made secret, but that it should come to light. And it has never been otherwise. Our religion has no privileged inner circle, no esoteric doctrine; and its chiefs, when men glorified one or another, asked, What then is Apollos? and what is Paul? Ministers through whom ye believed. Agents only, for conveying to others what they had received from God. And thus He Who now spoke in parables, and again charged them not to make Him known, was able at the end to say, In secret have I spoken nothing. Therefore He repeats with emphasis His former words, frequent on His lips henceforward, and ringing through the messages He spoke in glory to His Churches. If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear. None is excluded but by himself.

Yet another caution follows. If the seed be the Word, there is sore danger from false teaching; from strewing the ground with adulterated grain. St. Mark, indeed, has not recorded the Parable of the Tares. But there are indications of it, and the same thought is audible in this saying, "Take heed what ye hear." The added words are a little surprising: "With what measure ye mete it shall be measured unto you, and more shall be given unto you." The last clause expresses exactly the principle on which the forfeited pound was given to him who had ten pounds already, the open hand of God lavishing additional gifts upon him who was capable of using them. But does not the whole statement seem to follow more suitable upon a command to beware what we teach, and thus "mete" to others, than what we hear? A closer examination finds in this apparent unfitness, a deeper harmony of thought. To "accept" the genuine word is the same as to bring forth fruit for God; it is to reckon with the Lord of the talents, and to yield the fruit of the vineyard. And this is to "mete," not indeed unto man, but unto God, Who shows Himself froward with the froward, and from him that hath not, whose possession is below his accountability, takes away even that he hath, but gives exceedingly abundantly above all they ask or think to those who have, who are not disobedient to the heavenly calling.

All this is most delicately connected with what precedes it; and the parables, hiding the truth from some, giving it authority, and color, and effect to others, were a striking example of the process here announced.

Never was the warning to be heedful what we hear, more needed than at present. Men think themselves free to follow any teacher, especially if he be eloquent, to read any book, of only it be in demand, and to discuss any theory, provided it be fashionable, while perfectly well aware that they are neither earnest inquirers after the truth, nor qualified champions against its assailants. For what then do they read and hear? For the pleasure of a rounded phrase, or to augment the prattle of conceited ignorance in a drawing-room.

Do we wonder when these players with edged tools injure themselves, and become perverts or agnostics? It would be more wonderful if they remained unhurt, since Jesus said, "Take heed what ye hear . . . from him that hath not shall be taken even that he hath." A rash and uninstructed exposure of our intellects to evil influences, is meting to God with an unjust measure, as really as a willful plunge into any other temptation, since we are bidden to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of the spirit as well as of the flesh.


Verses 26-29

CHAPTER 4:26-29 (Mark 4:26-29)

THE SEED GROWING SECRETLY

"And He said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed upon the earth; and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he knoweth not how. The earth beareth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is ripe, straightway he putteth forth the sickle, because the harvest is come." Mark 4:26-29 (R.V.)

ST. Mark alone records this parable of a sower who sleeps by night, and rises for other business by day, and knows not how the seed springs up. That is not the sower's concern: all that remains for him is to put forth the sickle when the harvest is come.

It is a startling parable for us who believe in the fostering care of the Divine Spirit. And the paradox is forced on our attention by the words "the earth beareth fruit of herself," contrasting strangely as it does with such other assertions, as that the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, that without Christ we can do nothing, and that when we live it is not we but Christ who liveth in us.

It will often help us to understand a paradox if we can discover another like it. And exactly such an one as this will be found in the record of creation. God rested on the seventh day from all His work, yet we know that His providence never slumbers, that by Him all things consist, and that Jesus defended His own work of healing on a Sabbath day by urging that the Sabbath of God was occupied in gracious provision for His world. "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work." Thus the rest of God from creative work says nothing about His energies in that other field of providential care. Exactly so Jesus here treats only of what may be called the creative spiritual work, the deposit of the seed of life. And the essence of this remarkable parable is the assertion that we are to expect an orderly, quiet and gradual development from this principle of life, not a series of communications from without, of additional revelations, of semi-miraculous interferences. The life of grace is a natural process in the supernatural sphere. In one sense it is all of God, who maketh His sun to rise, and sendeth rain, without which the earth could bear no fruit of herself. In another sense we must work out our own salvation all the more earnestly because it is God that worketh in us.

Now this parable, thus explained, has been proved true in the wonderful history of the Church. She has grown, not only in extent but by development, as marvelously as a corn of wheat which is now a waving wheat-stem with its ripening ear. When Cardinal Newman urged that an ancient Christian, returning to earth, would recognize the services and the Church of Rome, and would fail to recognize ours, he was probably mistaken. To go no farther, there is no Church on earth so unlike the Churches of the New Testament as that which offers praise to God in a strange tongue. St. Paul apprehended that a stranger in such an assembly would reckon the worshippers mad. But in any case the argument forgets that the whole kingdom of God is to resemble seed, not in a drawer, but in the earth, and advancing towards the harvest. It must "die" to much if it will bring forth fruit. It must acquire strange bulk, strange forms strange organisms. It must become, to those who only knew it as it was, quite as unrecognizable as our Churches are said to be. And yet the changes must be those of logical growth, not of corruption. And this parable tells us they must be accomplished without any special interference such as marked the sowing time. Well then, the parable is a prophecy. Movement after movement has modified the life of the Church. Even its structure is not all it was. But these changes have every one been wrought by human agency, they have come from within it, like the force which pushes the germ out of the soil, and expands the bud into the full corn in the ear. There has been no grafting knife to insert a new principle of richer life; the gospel and the sacraments of our Lord have contained in them the promise and potency of all that was yet to be unfolded, all the gracefulness and all the fruit. And these words, "the earth beareth fruit of herself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear," each so different, and yet so dependent on what preceded, teach us two great ecclesiastical lessons. They condemn the violent and revolutionary changes, which would not develop old germs but tear them open or perhaps pull them up. Much may be distasteful to the spirit of sordid utilitarianism; a mere husk, which nevertheless within it shelters precious grain, otherwise sure to perish. If thus we learn to respect the old, still more do we learn that what is new has also its all-important part to play. The blade and the ear in turn are innovations. We must not condemn those new forms of Christian activity, Christian association, and Christian councils, which new times evoke, until we have considered well whether they are truly expansions, in the light and heat of our century, of the sacred life-germ of the ancient love.

And what lessons has this parable for the individual? Surely that of active present faith, not waiting for future gifts of light or feeling, but confident that the seed already sown, the seed of the word, has power to develop into the rich fruit of Christian character. In this respect the parable supplements the first one. From that we learned that if the soil were not in fault, if the heart were honest and good, the seed would fructify. From this we learn that these conditions suffice for a perfect harvest. The incessant, all-important help of God, we have seen, is not denied; it is taken for granted, as the atmospheric and magnetic influences upon the grain. So should we reverentially and thankfully rely upon the aid of God, and then, instead of waiting for strange visitations and special stirrings of grace, account that we already possess enough to make us responsible for the harvest of the soul. Multitudes of souls, whose true calling is, in obedient trust, to arise and walk, are at this moment lying impotent beside some pool which they expect an angel to stir, and into which they fain would then be put by some one, they know not whom -- multitudes of expectant, inert, inactive souls, who know not that the text they have most need to ponder is this: "the earth beareth fruit of itself." For want of this they are actually, day by day, receiving the grace of God in vain.

We learn also to be content with gradual progress. St. John did not blame the children and young men to whom he wrote, because they were not mature in wisdom and experience. St. Paul exhorts us to grow up in all things into Him which is the Head, even Christ. They do not ask for more than steady growth; and their Master, as He distrusted the fleeting joy of hearers whose hearts were shallow, now explicitly bids us not to be content with any first attainment, not to count all done if we are converted, but to develop first the blade, then the ear, and lastly the full corn in the ear.

Does it seem a tedious weary sentence? Are we discontent for want of conscious interferences of heaven? Do we complain that, to human consciousness, the great Sower sleeps and rises up and leaves the grain to fare He knows not how? It is only for a little while. When the fruit is ripe, He will Himself gather it into His eternal garner.


Verses 30-34

CHAPTER 4:30-34 (Mark 4:30-34)

THE MUSTARD SEED

"And He said, How shall we liken the kingdom of God? or in what parable shall we set it forth? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown upon the earth, though it be less than all the seeds that are upon the earth, yet when it is sown, groweth up, and becometh greater than all the herbs, and putteth out great branches; so that the birds of the heaven can lodge under the shadow thereof. And with many such parables spake He the word unto them, as they were able to hear it: and without a parable spake He not unto them: but privately to His own disciples He expounded all things." Mark 4:30-34 (R.V.)

ST. Mark has recorded one other parable of this great cycle. Jesus now invites the disciples to let their own minds play upon the subject. Each is to ask himself a question: How shall we liken the kingdom of God? or in what parable shall we set it forth?

A gentle pause, time for them to form some splendid and ambitious image in their minds, and then we can suppose with what surprise they heard His own answer, "It is like a grain of mustard seed." And truly some Christians of a late day might be astonished also, if they could call up a fair image of their own conceptions of the kingdom of God, and compare it with this figure, employed by Jesus.

But here one must observe a peculiarity in our Savior's use of images. His illustrations of His first coming, and of His work of grace, which are many, are all of the homeliest kind. He is a shepherd who seeks one sheep. He is not an eagle that fluttereth over her young and beareth them on her pinions, but a hen who gathereth her chickens under her wings. Never once does He rise into that high and poetic strain with which His followers have loved to sing of the Star of Bethlehem, and which Isaiah lavished beforehand upon the birth of the Prince of Peace. There is no language more intensely concentrated and glowing than He has employed to describe the judgment of the hypocrites who rejected Him, of Jerusalem, and of the world at last. But when He speaks of His first coming and its effects, it is not of that sunrise to which all kings and nations shall hasten, but of a little grain of mustard seed, which is to become "greater than all the herbs," and put forth great branches, "so that the birds of the heaven can lodge under the shadow of them." When one thinks of such an image for such an event, of the founding of the kingdom of God, and its advance to universal supremacy, represented by the small seed of a shrub which grows to the height of a tree, and even harbors birds, he is conscious almost of incongruity. But when one reconsiders it, he is filled with awe and reverence. For this exactly expresses the way of thinking natural to One who has stooped immeasurably down to the task which all others feel to be so lofty. There is a poem of Shelley, which expresses the relative greatness of three spirits by the less and less value which they set on the splendors of the material heavens. To the first they are a palace-roof of golden lights, to the second but the mind's first chamber, to the last only drops which Nature's mighty heart drives through thinnest veins. Now that which was to Isaiah the exalting of every valley and the bringing low of every mountain, and to Daniel the overthrow of a mighty image whose aspect was terrible, by a stone cut out without hands, was to Jesus but the sowing of a grain of mustard seed. Could any other have spoken thus of the founding of the kingdom of God? An enthusiast over-values his work, he can think of nothing else; and he expects immediate revolutions. Jesus was keenly aware that His work in itself was very small, no more than the sowing of a seed, and even of the least, popularly speaking, among all seeds. Clearly He did not overrate the apparent effect of His work on earth. And indeed, what germ of religious teaching could be less promising than the doctrine of the cross, held by a few peasants in a despised province of a nation already subjugated and soon to be overwhelmed?

The image expresses more than the feeble beginning and victorious issue of His work, more than even the gradual and logical process by which this final triumph should be attained. All this we found in the preceding parable. But here the emphasis is laid on the development of Christ's influence in unexpected spheres. Unlike other herbs, the mustard in Eastern climates does grow into a tree, shoot out great branches from the main stem, and give shelter to the birds of the air. So has the Christian faith developed ever new collateral agencies, charitable, educations, and social: so have architecture, music, literature, flourished under its shade, and there is not one truly human interest which would not be deprived of its best shelter if the rod of Jesse were hewn down. Nay, we may urge that the Church itself has become the most potent force in directions not its own: it broke the chains of the Negro; it asserts the rights of woman and of the poor; its noble literature is finding a response in the breast of a hundred degraded races; the herb has become a tree.

And so in the life of individuals, if the seed be allowed its due scope and place to grow, it give shelter and blessing to whatsoever things are honest and lovely, not only if there be any virtue, bur also if there be any praise.

Well is it with the nation, and well with the soul, when the faith of Jesus is not rigidly restricted to a prescribed sphere, when the leaves which are for the healing of the nations cast their shadow broad and cool over all the spaces in which all its birds of song are nestling.

A remarkable assertion is added. Although the parabolic mode of teaching was adopted in judgment, yet its severe effect was confined within the narrowest limits. His many parable were spoken "as they were able to hear," but only to His own disciples privately was all their meaning expounded.


Verses 35-41

CHAPTER 4:35-41; 6:47-52 (Mark 4:35-41; Mark 6:47-52)

THE TWO STORMS (JESUS WALKING ON THE WATER)

"And on that day, when even was come, He saith unto them, Let us go over unto the other side. And leaving the multitude, they take Him with them, even as He was, in the boat. And other boats were with Him. And there ariseth a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling. And He Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion: and they awake Him, and say unto Him, Master, carest Thou not that we perish? And He awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And He said unto them, Why are ye fearful? have ye not yet faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? Mark 4:35-41 (R.V.)

"And when even was come, the boat was in the midst of the sea, and He alone on the land. And seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them, about the fourth watch of the night He cometh unto them, walking on the sea, and He would have passed by them: but they, when they saw Him walking on the sea, supposed that it was an apparition, and cried out: for they all saw Him, and were troubled. But He straightway spake with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I be not afraid. And He went up unto them into the boat; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves. For they understood not concerning the loaves, but their hearts were hardened." Mark 6:47-52 (R.V.)

FEW readers are insensible to the wonderful power with which the Gospels tell the story of the two storms upon the lake. The narratives are favorites in every Sunday school; they form the basis of countless hymns and poems; and we always recur to them with fresh delight.

In the first account we see as in a picture the weariness of the great Teacher, when, the long day being over and the multitude dismissed, He retreats across the sea without preparation, and "as He was," and sinks to sleep on the one cushion in the stern, undisturbed by the raging tempest or by the waves which beat into the boat. We observe the reluctance of the disciples to arouse Him until the peril is extreme, and the boat is "now" filling. St. Mark, the associate of St. Peter, the presumptuous and characteristic cry which expresses terror, and perhaps dread lest His tranquil slumbers may indicate a separation between His cause and theirs, who perish while He is unconcerned. We admire equally the calm and masterful word which quells the tempest, and those which enjoin a faith so lofty as to endure the last extremities of peril without dismay, without agitation in its prayers. We observe the strange incident, that no sooner does the storm cease than the waters, commonly seething for many hours afterwards, grow calm. And the picture is completed by the mention of their new dread (fear of the supernatural Man replacing their terror amid the convulsions of nature), and of their awestruck questioning among themselves.

In the second narrative we see the ship far out in the lake, but watched by One, Who is alone upon the land. Through the gloom He sees them "tormented" by fruitless rowing; but though this is the reason why He comes, He is about to pass them by. The watch of the night is remembered; it is the fourth. The cry of their alarm is universal, for they all saw Him and were troubled. We are told of the promptitude with which He thereupon relieved their fears; we see Him climb up into the boat, and the sudden ceasing of the storm, and their amazement. Nor is that after-thought omitted in which they blamed themselves for their astonishment. If their hearts had not been hardened, the miracle of the loaves would have taught them that Jesus was the master of the physical world.

Now all this picturesque detail belongs to a single Gospel. And it is exactly what a believer would expect. How much soever the healing of disease might interest St. Luke the physician, who relates all such events so vividly, it would have impressed the patient himself yet more, and an account of it by him, if we had it, would be full of graphic touches. Now these two miracles were wrought for the rescue of the apostles themselves. The Twelve took the place held in others by the lame, the halt and the blind: the suspense, the appeal, and the joy of deliverance were all their own. It is therefore no wonder that we find their accounts of these especial miracles so picturesque. But this is a solid evidence of the truth of the narratives; for while the remembrance of such events should thrill with agitated life, there is no reason why a legend of the kind should be especially clear and vivid. The same argument might easily be carried farther. When the disciples began to reproach themselves for their unbelieving astonishment, they were naturally conscious of having failed to learn the lesson which had been taught them just before. Later students and moralists would have observed that another miracle, a little earlier, was a still closer precedent, but they naturally blamed themselves most for being blind to what was immediately before their eyes. Now when Jesus walked upon the waters and the disciples were amazed, it is not said that they forgot how He had already stilled a tempest, but they considered not the miracle of the loaves, for their heart was hardened. In touches like this we find the influence of a bystander beyond denial.

Every student of Scripture must have observed the special significance of those parables and miracles which recur a second time with certain designed variations. In the miraculous draughts of fishes, Christ Himself avowed an allusion to the catching of men. And the Church has always discerned a spiritual intention in these two storms, in one of which Christ slept, while in the others His disciples toiled alone, and which express, between them, the whole strain exercised upon a devout spirit by adverse circumstances. Dangers never alarmed one who realized both the presence of Jesus and His vigilant care. Temptation centers only because this is veiled. Why do adversities press hard upon me, if indeed I belong to Christ? He must either be indifferent and sleeping, or else absent altogether from my frail and foundering bark. It is thus that we let go our confidence, and incur agonies of mental suffering, and the rebuke of our Master, even though He continues to be the Protector of His unworthy people.

On the voyage of life we may conceive of Jesus as our Companion, for He is with us always, or as watching us from the everlasting hills, whither it was expedient for us that He should go.

Nevertheless, we are storm-tossed and in danger. Although we are His, and not separated from Him by any conscious disobedience, yet the conditions of life are unmitigated, the winds as wild, the waves as merciless, the boat as cruelly "tormented" as ever. And no rescue comes: Jesus is asleep: He cares not that we perish. Then we pray after a fashion so clamorous, and with supplication so like demands, that we too appear to have undertaken to awake the Lord. Then we have to learn from the first of these miracles, and especially from its delay. The disciples were safe, had they only known it, whether Jesus would have interposed of His own accord, or whether they might still have needed to appeal to Him, but in a gentler fashion. We may ask help, provided that we do so in a serene and trustful spirit, anxious for nothing, not seeking to extort a concession, but approaching with boldness the throne of grace, on which our Father sits. It is thus that the peace of God shall rule our hearts and minds, for want of which the apostles were asked, Where is your faith? Comparing the narratives, we learn that Jesus reassured their hearts even before He arose, and then, having first silenced by His calmness the storm within them, He stood up and rebuked the storm around.

St. Augustine gave a false turn to the application, when he said, "If Jesus were not asleep within thee, thou wouldst be calm and at rest. But why is He asleep? Because thy faith is asleep," etc. (Sermon 63.) The sleep of Jesus was natural and right; and it answers not to our spiritual torpor, but to His apparent indifference and non-intervention in our time of distress. And the true lesson of the miracle is that we should trust Him Whose care fails not when it seems to fail, Who is able to save to the uttermost, and Whom we should approach in the direst peril without panic. It was fitly taught them first when all the powers of the State and the Church were leagued against Him, and He as a blind man saw not and as a dumb man opened not His mouth.

The second storm should have found them braver by the experience of the first; but spiritually as well as bodily they were farther removed from Christ. The people, profoundly moved by the murder of the Baptist, wished to set Jesus on the throne, and the disciples were too ambitious to be allowed to be present while He dismissed the multitudes. They had to be sent away, and it was from the distant hillside that Jesus saw their danger. Surely it is instructive, that neither the shades of night, nor the abstracted fervor of His prayers, prevented Him from seeing it, nor the stormlashed waters from bringing aid. And significant also, that the experience of remoteness, though not sinful, since He had sent them away, was yet the result of their own worldliness. It is when we are out of sympathy with Jesus that we are most likely to be alone in trouble. None was in their boat to save them, and in heart also they had gone out from the presence of their God. Therefore they failed to trust in His guidance Who had sent them into the ship: they had no sense of protection or of supervision; and it was a terrible moment when a form was vaguely seen to glide over the waves. Christ, it would seem would have gone before and led them to the haven where they would be. Or perhaps He "would have passed by them," as He would afterwards have gone further than Emmaus, to elicit any trustful half-recognition which might call to Him and be rewarded. But they cried out in fear. And so it is continually with God in His world, men are terrified at the presence of the supernatural, because they fail to apprehend the abiding presence of the supernatural Christ. And yet there is one point at least in every life, the final moment, in which all else must recede, and the soul be left alone with the beings of another world. Then, and in every trial, and especially in all trials which press in upon us the consciousness of the spiritual universe, well is it for him who hears the voice of Jesus saying, It is I, be not afraid.

For only through Jesus, only in His person, has that unknown universe ceased to be dreadful and mysterious. Only when He is welcomed does the storm cease to rage around us.

It was the earlier of these miracles which first taught the disciples that not only were human disorders under His control, and gifts and blessings at His disposal, but also the whole range of nature was subject to Him, and the winds and the sea obey Him.

Shall we say that His rebuke addressed to these was a mere figure of speech? Some have inferred that natural convulsions are so directly the work of evil angels that the words of Jesus were really spoken to them. But the plain assertion is that He rebuked the winds and the waves, and these would not become identical with Satan even upon the supposition that he excites them. We ourselves continually personify the course of nature, and even complain of it, wantonly enough, and Scripture does not deny itself the use of ordinary human forms of speech. Yet the very peculiar word employed by Jesus cannot be without significance. It is the same with which He had already confronted the violence of the demoniac in the synagogue, Be muzzled. At the least it expresses stern repression, and thus it reminds us that creation itself is made subject to vanity, the world deranged by sin, so that all around us requires readjustment as truly as all within, and Christ shall at last create a new earth as well as a new heaven.

Some pious people resign themselves much too passively to the mischiefs of the material universe, supposing that troubles which are not of their own making, must needs be a Divine infliction, calling only for submission. But God sends oppositions to be conquered as well as burdens to be borne; and even before the fall the world had to be subdued. And our final mastery over the surrounding universe was expressed, when Jesus our Head rebuked the winds, and stilled the waves when they arose.

As they beheld, a new sense fell upon His disciples of a more awful presence than they had yet discerned. They asked not only what manner of man is this? but, with surmises which went out beyond the limits of human greatness, Who then is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?


Verse 39

CHAPTER 4:39, 5:15, 5:31, 5:41 (Mark 4:39; Mark 5:15; Mark 5:31; Mark 5:41)

FOUR MIRACLES

"And there was a great calm." Mark 4:39 (R.V.)

"Behold, him that was possessed with devils, sitting, clothed and in his right mind, even him that had the legion." Mark 5:15 (R.V.)

"Who touched Me?" Mark 5:31 (R.V.)

"Talitha cumi." Mark 5:41 (R.V.)

THERE are two ways, equally useful, of studying Scripture, as there are of regarding the other book of God, the face of Nature. We may bend over a wild flower, or gaze across a landscape; and it will happen that a naturalist, pursuing a moth, loses sight of a mountain range. It is a well-known proverb, that one may fail to see the wood for the trees, losing in details the general effect. And so the careful student of isolated texts may never perceive the force and cohesion of a connected passage.

The reader of a Gospel narrative thinks, that by pondering it as a whole, he secures himself against any such misfortune. But a narrative dislocated, often loses as much as a detached verse. The actions of our Lord are often exquisitely grouped, as becometh Him Who hath made everything not beautiful only, but especially beautiful in its season. And we should not be content without combining the two ways of reading Scripture, the detailed and the rapid, -- lingering at times to apprehend the marvelous force of a solitary verse, and again sweeping over a broad expanse, like a surveyor, who, to map a country, stretches his triangle from mountain peak to peak.

We have reached a point at which St. Mark records a special outshining of miraculous power. Four striking works follow each other without a break, and it must not for a moment be supposed that the narrative is thus constructed, certain intermediate discourses and events being sacrificed for the purpose, without a deliberate and a truthful intention. That intention is to represent the effect, intense and exalting, produced by such a cycle of wonders on the minds of His disciples. They saw them come close upon each other: we should lose the impression as we read, if other incidents were allowed to interpose themselves. It is one more example of St. Mark's desire to throw light, above all things, upon the energy and power of the sacred life.

We have to observe therefore the bearing of these four miracles on each other, and upon what precedes, before studying them one by one.

It was a time of trial. The Pharisees had decided that He had a devil. His relatives had said He was beside Himself. His manner of teaching had changed, because the people should see without perceiving, and hear without understanding. They who understood His parables heard much of seed that failed, of success a great way off, of a kingdom which would indeed be great at last, but for the present weak and small. And it is certain that there must have been heavy hearts among those who left, with Him, the populous side of the lake, to cross over into remote and semi-pagan retirement. To encourage them, and as if in protest against His rejection by the authorities, Jesus enters upon this great cycle of miracles.

They find themselves, as the Church has often since been placed, and as every human soul has had to feel itself, far from shore, and tempest-beaten. The rage of human foes is not so deaf, so implacable, as that of wind and wave. It is the stress of adverse circumstances in the direst form. But Jesus proves Himself to be Master of the forces of nature which would overwhelm them.

Nay, they learn that His seeming indifference is no proof that they are neglected, by the rebuke He speaks to their over-importunate appeals, Why are ye so fearful? have ye not yet faith? And they, who might have been shaken by the infidelity of other men, fear exceedingly as they behold the obedience of the wind and the sea, and ask, Who then is this?

But in their mission as His disciples, a worse danger than the enmity of man or convulsions of nature awaits them. On landing, they are at once confronted by one whom an evil spirit has made exceeding fierce, so that no man could pass by that way. It is their way nevertheless, and they must tread it. And the demoniac adores, and the evil spirits themselves are abject in supplication, and at the word of Jesus are expelled. Even the inhabitants, who will not receive Him, are awe-struck and deprecatory, and if at their bidding Jesus turns away again, His followers may judge whether the habitual meekness of such a one is due to feebleness or to a noble self-command.

Landing once more, they are soon accosted by a ruler of the synagogue, whom sorrow has purified from the prejudices of his class. And Jesus is about to heal the daughter of Jairus, when another form of need is brought to light. A slow and secret decline, wasting the vital powers, a silent woe, speechless, stealthily approaching the Healer--over this grief also He is Lord. And it is seen that neither the visible actions of Jesus nor the audible praises of His petitioners can measure the power that goes out of Him, the physical benefits which encompass the Teacher as a halo envelopes flame.

Circumstances, and the fiends of the pit, and the woes that waste the lives of men, over these He has been seen to triumph. But behind all that we strive with here, there lurks the last enemy, and he also shall be subdued. And now first an example is recorded of what we know to have already taken place, the conquest of death by his predicted Spoiler. Youth and gentle maidenhood, high hope and prosperous circumstances have been wasted, but the call of Jesus is heard by the ear that was stopped with dust, and the spirit obeys Him in the far off realm of the departed, and they who have just seen such other marvels, are nevertheless amazed with a great amazement.

No cycle of miracles could be more rounded, symmetrical and exhaustive; none could better vindicate to His disciples his impugned authority, or brace their endangered faith, or fit them for what almost immediately followed, their own commission, and the first journey upon which they too cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Mark 4:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/mark-4.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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