Monday, October 14, 2019

Mark 4 1 - 20

and he began again to teach by the sea side
and there was gathered unto him a great multitude
so that he entered into a ship
and sat in the sea
and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land

The last time Jesus went down to the beach, there were so many people that he asked the disciples to get a boat ready. This time, he actually gets into the boat: the crowd must be even larger. Once he's in the boat, he starts to teach. (That word again: teaching as opposed to proclaiming.)

I don't think we are supposed to imagine that he is shouting at a huge crowd from a boat. How on earth would they hear? (I think some irreverent comedians could probably come up with a clever sketch based on just that question.) I have heard this story many times, and I have always assumed that Jesus preached from the boat, to the people on land: that he was using the ship as a floating pulpit. But I now think this is incorrect. I think that what actually happened is that the multitude who converged on the beach mainly wanted to see miracles and ask for healings and Jesus withdrew onto the boat in order to teach his disciples. A few pages ago, Jesus was inside Peter's house, teaching, while a mob were outside, breaking the ceiling down, because they wanted miracles. In this story a boat has taken the place of Peter's house. For all we know it may have been Peter's boat. 

Jesus has not got into the boat to make it easier for the crowd to hear him: he has got into the boat to make jolly sure that they can't.

and he taught them many things by parables,
and said unto them in his doctrine,

there went out a sower to sow:
and it came to pass, as he sowed,

some fell by the way side,
and the fowls of the air came 
and devoured it up.

and some fell on stony ground
where it had not much earth;
and immediately it sprang up
because it had no depth of earth:
but when the sun was up, 
it was scorched;
and because it had no root, 
it withered away.

and some fell among thorns,
and the thorns grew up,
and choked it,
and it yielded no fruit.

and other fell on good ground,
and did yield fruit that sprang up
and increased
and brought forth, some thirty
and some sixty
and some an hundred

This is the first time we readers have been allowed to listen in on one of Jesus' seminars, so Mark gives it a big build up. He tells us twice that Jesus is about to start teaching. "He taught them lots of things using parables; this is what he taught them in his teaching." Then he hands the floor over to Jesus. Jesus tells everyone to listen, and then he tells everyone to use their imagination and look. And then the seminar starts.

But it is strange sermon; a meta-sermon: preaching about preaching, teaching about teaching. We may get to the end of the Sermon on the Boat more baffled than when we started. And, alarmingly, this may be the whole point of it.

First comes the story of the sower. Unless you are a Martian, or a Hindu, or Prof Richard Dawkins, you know this story. Well, it is hardly a story: it is little more than an image. A farmer throws seed out at random, without regard for where it goes; so naturally, some of it comes up and some of it doesn't. This is called broadcasting, but you would normally only broadcast seed when you want the crops to come up densely over a whole area — sowing a lawn, say. The Sower is being profligate and wasteful with his seed: that's the point of the story. Jesus was an artisan; his disciples are fishermen: perhaps they take it for granted that all farmers are idiots.

"There's this farmer, right — and imagine this — he just chucks his seed everywhere without paying any attention to where it goes. And, do you know, in a funny way, God is a bit like that silly farmer….."

and he said unto them,
he that hath ears to hear, let him hear

We've all got ears. Very nearly all of us, at any rate. And hearing is very much what ears are best at doing. So one's first reaction to this phrase is "Since we all have ears, this story is meant for everyone." But then we stop and think, and realize that it could mean "If you are capable of hearing this, you should. But not all of you can…." So perhaps this story is only meant for a minority. The minority on the boat, perhaps.

and when he was alone,
they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable

So. It's a simple story. A sower plants some seeds. Some of them come up, some of them don't. Maybe because it is so simple, some of Jesus students ask him what it means. His answer pretty much throws the whole of the book of Mark, and everything we think we know about Jesus, into disarray.

Mark seems to refer to two groups: "those who were about him" and "the twelve". Jesus is alone at the center telling the story. Around him are his twelve chosen envoys. Further out is a larger group of students who can still be said to be near to him. And some distance away is a huge undifferentiated beach-bound crowd, who can't hear what is being said.

unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God:
but unto them that are without,
all these things are done in parables:
that seeing they may see,
and not perceive;
and hearing they may hear,
and not understand;
lest at any time they should be converted,
and their sins should be forgiven them.

We are all familiar with the idea of fables. They tend to be vivid concrete examples of self-evident moral precepts; they don't contain any esoteric secrets or mystical revelations. We know that lying is wrong. We know that people doubt the word of habitual liars even when they are telling the truth. The story about the little boy who kept setting off the wolf-alarm when there was no wolf-emergency and as a result got eaten by a wolf doesn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. But it fixes it in our minds; it helps us remember it. I suppose it may scare children by showing that a fairly small offence might have a catastrophic consequence. (And anyway, children like stories in which other people are naughty and cop it.) Platitudes are conveniently expressed in concrete form: it is relatively hard to say "I wonder if it has occurred to you that projects can be overstaffed as well as understaffed". It is easy to say "Well, you know what they say about too many cooks…."

I think that most of us are also familiar with the idea of allegories. They are stories which require some sort of key or explanation. The seem to be about one thing, but they are really about something else. There is a story about a traveler who is captured by a giant in a swamp and imprisoned in a castle, but manages to escape when he finds a key. It is a rousing little story if you like that kind of thing. And I suppose you could read it as a fable: the moral of the story is "Don't give up. However bad things look, there is always a chance they will turn out okay." But it is actually an allegory. In the background, the voice of the author provides a key. The traveler is named Christian, the swamp is named Despond, the giant is called Despair, his castle is called Doubt but the key is called Hope. If you ask me, that is quite a complicated way of telling us that if a Christian has hope he will never despair. (Pilgrim's Progress. Boring book; excellent theme song.)

A parable literally means a juxtapositioning; putting two different things alongside each other, so we can spot the similarities. But according to Mark, Jesus's parables aren't fables, to help us hold onto a truth, or allegories, to make a moral message palatable. According to Mark, Jesus's parables are more like puzzles. Riddles, even. The Kingdom of God is a Mystery.

There were, in the classical world, many "mystery religions" which taught their rituals and doctrines only to initiates. In medieval times, the word "mystery" simply meant "trade secret" or even just "trade". The religious "mystery plays" were plays put on by the different craft guilds, and have nothing to do with mysteries in the religious sense. It isn't exactly clear when "Mystery" took on its present meaning as "puzzle" or in particular "a story about an unsolved crime". The title of the 1794 story which Jane Austen lampoons is The Mysteries of Udolpho. I've always taken that to mean "the puzzles which our intrepid heroine had to solve" but it could still have meant "the experience which was in a funny way like an initiation".

The kingdom of God is a Mystery. There are people on the inside — on the boat? — who know the secret; and people on the outside — on the beach -— who do not. So Jesus preaches in parables to make sure that the people on the beach don't find out the secret.

The "lest" part is particularly troubling. If the people on the shore solve the puzzle, they would turn their lives around and send their sins away. And we wouldn't want that, would we?

and he said unto them,
know ye not this parable?
and how then will ye know all parables?

the sower soweth the word.
and these are they by the way side,
where the word is sown;
but when they have heard,
Satan cometh immediately,
and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.

and these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground;
who, when they have heard the word,
immediately receive it with gladness;
and have no root in themselves,
and so endure but for a time:
afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended.

and these are they which are sown among thorns;
such as hear the word,
and the cares of this world,
and the deceitfulness of riches,
and the lusts of other things entering in,
choke the word,
and it becometh unfruitful.

and these are they which are sown on good ground;
such as hear the word,
and receive it,
and bring forth fruit,
some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.

If we don't understand this parable, we won't understand any of the other parables either. That could be taken two ways. Is Jesus saying that this is the master parable, and that once you have decoded it you will be able to solve all the others? Or is he merely saying "I am surprised you need my help to solve this: it's actually one of the easier ones."

Jesus is preaching. It's his biggest gig ever: more people than can get onto the beach. But he is withdrawn with a small number of students; more than twelve but less than fifty. And they have questions. Why is it that such a lot of people listen to you, but so few hear you? Is there a problem with the Word? Maybe you need to focus group a New Improved Word? Maybe you could triangulate with the Pharisees and come up with some Word that would have better market penetration?

To which the answer is: "You don't blame the seed because of where it lands. If it lands in bad soil, it doesn't come up. If it lands in good soil, it does."

The key to the allegory isn't that surprising or complicated. Different types of soil equals different types of people. Some people give up following the Word because it gets too hard: when being a follower of Jesus becomes dangerous or unpopular. Some people give up following the Word because it gets too easy: when there is money and fun and lipstick to be had instead. And some people never hear the Word in the first place: one of those Dirty Ghosts can get in between the preacher and the listener.

So: at whom is the story directed? Is Jesus talking to the soil? "Try hard not to be the kind of soil which has weeds growing in it. Try hard not to be the kind of soil which isn't deep enough for wheat to take root? Try hard to be good soil."

Is he talking to the people outside the process? "You may wonder why not all the seeds come up. But don't worry. There is nothing wrong with the seed, although there may be something wrong with the soil."

Or is he talking to other sowers? "Don't worry if not all your seed comes up. That's not your fault. You can't second guess what kind of soil your seed will land in. Carry on sowing."

We can't change what kind of soil we are. The seed is the seed. The message is for the people already with Jesus, on the boat. "Don't worry. You will always be a minority. You are good soil. But the ear-less majority will never hear what I am saying."

It starts to seem terrifyingly possible that Jesus was a Calvinist.

In Greek an "ear" of corn is a stachui, and the things on the side of your head are ota and what you do with them is akou. There is no world play between "ear" of corn, a human "ear" or the act of "hearing".

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Mike Taylor said...

" I have always assumed that Jesus preached from the boat, to the people on land: that he was using the ship as a floating pulpit. But I now think this is incorrect. I think that what actually happened is that the multitude who converged on the beach mainly wanted to see miracles and ask for healings and Jesus withdrew onto the boat in order to teach his disciples."

What made you change your mind on this?

How confident are you that everyone else has been misinterpreting this?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am never confident that I am right about anything.

I have been deliberately avoiding reading other interpretations, and parallel passages in the other Gospels, for the purposes of this series of essays. I am trying to read Mark as if for the first time, without preconceptions, and treating it as a text, not a devotional reading.

For much of my life, people have told me that Jesus preached in parables to help people to understand him, where Mark plainly says that he did so in order to make sure that they didn't; so the possibility that the received interpretation is wrong is one I am fairly comfortable with.

I changed my mind:

1: Because of the inherent implausibility of the crowd on land being able to hear Jesus.

2: Because of the distinction between "teaching", "proclaiming" and "good-newsing". "Teaching"; disseminating doctrine, is more naturally done with students than with a a vast crowd.

3: Because I realized that "the disciples" does not always mean "the twelve" but a wider group of Jesus' "students".

4: Because there seems to be a recurrent idea in Mark's Gospel of Jesus trying to avoid "the multitude" and instead teach his students.

5: Because the structure of Mark 4 is a bit muddled if we envisage Jesus shouting to the multitude from the boat. (Does he "flash forward" to the explanation of the parable of the sower; and then return to Jesus' yelling about mustard seed, lamps and bushels to the people on the beach? In which case, are we to assume that at some point further down the line -- after the calming of the storm, the mega-exorcism, and the raising of the dead child -- Jesus students said "Oh, yes, master -- that one about the sower -- we didn't get it?" Or are we to assume that the parable of the sower -- only -- is shouted at the multitude, and the stories of the lamp, the seed growing in secret, and the mustard seed are privately told to the disciples and form part of the explanation of the Sower?)

6: Because the central teaching of the "sermon on the boat" is about the secrecy of the kingdom and the fact that not everyone can apprehend it -- which makes more sense spoken to initiates than delivered to a great crowd.

7: Because Jesus seems to be preaching parables about parables, preaching about preaching. Illustrations about why not everyone responds to his teaching; and about how the word of God may only come to fruition some time after it is planted; and about how the Kingdom is a secret that is one day going to be revealed -- all make much more sense if delivered to the inner circle of students and envoys than if preached to the crowd.

Does that make sense?

Mike Taylor said...

"I have been deliberately avoiding reading other interpretations, and parallel passages in the other Gospels, for the purposes of this series of essays. I am trying to read Mark as if for the first time, without preconceptions, and treating it as a text, not a devotional reading."

That makes sense — in fact it is that very approach that's making this series such fascinating reading.

I'm not sure the text sustains your reading, though. In the NIV, we have "The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables" (Mark 4:1b-2a). Who does the "them" refer to? There has been no mention in this chapter of the twelve, or of any other group than the crowd.

Regarding "the distinction between "teaching", "proclaiming" and "good-newsing"" — I have come to be suspicious of fine distinctions between the meanings of closely related words in the Bible. I think often we're reading in connotations that are in the English words but not in the original Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek. I'm pretty sure in some cases it's the exact same original-language word being translated at different times into different English words.

Not that your other points don't have some weight.

In unrelated news, we just watched The Beast Below for the first time in years. My word, that man is a sensational Doctor. And Amy is superb, too. It's really making me realise how much the Jodie Whittaker season was running on fumes and nostalgia.

James Kabala said...

Apparently Classicists also consider this issue - what are we to make of these scenes in which generals make a speech to the army before battle? Did they really expect to be heard? Did the scenes occur at all, or did Thucydides et al. just make them up as a convention? If I recall correctly, the answer was "Maybe they had developed voice amplification techniques that we microphoned moderns have lost, or maybe not." But there are records of non-microphoned preachers and orators addressing huge crowds successfully into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mike Taylor said...

Surely part of it is just crowd behaviour. Get a big crowd together now to listen to an amplified speech through a PA, and there's a constant rustle of people eating snacks, checking their phones, and generally jostling around. I bet big 18th Century crowds were, by modern standards, frighteningly quiet and still.

James Kabala said...

Oh, I don't know. If anything the crowds are always described as restless and rowdy. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were constantly interrupted by crowd comments.