Monday, October 21, 2019

Mark 4 21-45


is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed?
and not to be set on a candlestick?
for there is nothing hid,
which shall not be manifested;
neither was any thing kept secret,
but that it should come abroad.

if any man have ears to hear, let him hear.

Annoying people love to point out that popular proverbs sometimes contradict each other. It is undoubtedly true that many hands make light work but it is equally true that too many cooks spoil the broth. So the consensus of homely folk wisdom appears to be that you should have lots of helpers for jobs that need lots of helpers and fewer helpers for jobs that need fewer helpers, or, put another way, the right number of people for the job.

Thanks, homely folk wisdom.

But there can be deeper ways in which things can be contradictory but also true. A teacher may very well assert one truth; and then assert an apparently different truth; and hope that his students will tease out a third truth somewhere in the space between them. Casting the I-Ching involves randomly generating two different pieces of advise and trying to understand how the transition from one to the other describes your present situation.

Jesus has just said that he preaches in parables in order to hide and conceal his true meaning. He now says "Do you think anyone would light a candle or a lamp and then cover it up? And do you think anything can really stay a secret forever?" He says it twice. Everything which is hidden (krypton) will be revealed; and every thing  — every event  — which is secret (apokryphon) will come to light.

So we have two different teachings, placed next to each other either by Jesus himself, or by Mark. "The Gospel is a big secret. Shhh...don't tell anyone." "There is no such thing as a secret. Everything eventually gets out into the open."

and he said unto them,

take heed what ye hear:
with what measure ye mete,
it shall be measured to you:
and unto you that hear shall more be given.

A literal translation of this passage would go something like "With whatever measure you measure shall it be measured unto you, and more will be added to you." With what measure / you measure / it will it be measured are three single words in Greek: metro metreite metrethesatai. "Metron" is literally a "measure" — a measuring device — but it could also be taken to mean "standard". It's where we get our word metric from. So: "The same measuring device you use to measure and weigh with will be used to measure and weigh you — and even more so."

The Good News Bible chooses to render this as: “The same rules you use to judge others will be used by God to judge you — but with even greater severity." This is not a translation, but a commentary, and a tendentious one. Metron is a literal or figurative measuring device, so I suppose they went looking for an English word which could be used in both senses. And they came up with the word "rule" which could refer to either a piece of wood with feet and inches marked on it, or the  regulations of a game or an organisation. (The word "rule" in the first sense has been completely superseded by "ruler". School teachers occasionally refer to "meter rules" because "meter rulers" would have been a bit of a mouthful.) But having said "rule" the first time the word comes up, they decide to say "judge" the second and third time. The Bible never uses metron in the sense of "judgement"; it turns in contexts like "go and measure the walls of the city." And prostithémi doesn't mean "treat with greater severity": it simply means add, or increase. You could just as well gloss the passage as "The same standard you use to decide what gifts to give others will be used by God to decide what gifts to give you — but with even greater generosity." Except there is no need to bring God into it. Mark doesn't. It could be a general piece of advice: "If you are mean you will experience meanness — even more so. If you are generous, you will experience generosity — even more so."

People have asked me why I have a bee in my bonnet about the Good News Bible. This is why. 

Jesus has not, up to this point, been talking about rules or gifts or punishments. He has been talking about listening and understanding. So surely the verse is actually saying: "You will understand in proportion to how carefully you listen — even more so, in fact."

for he that hath,
to him shall be given:
and he that hath not,
from him shall be taken
even that which he hath

It is certainly true that poor people tend to get poorer and end up with nothing, while rich people carry on getting richer. But Jesus is presumably not talking about economics. He is still talking about preaching, and understanding, and listening. You have to understand Jesus' sayings before you can understand Jesus' sayings. If you start out understanding, you'll understand more. If you don't understand to start with, you'll get to the end of a parable understanding less than you did before. Grasp a little bit? That's great. We can work with that. Fail to grasp even the simplest parable? Sorry, but there is nothing that can be done for you.

and he said,

so is the kingdom of God,
as if a man should cast seed into the ground;
and should sleep, and rise night and day,
and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.

for the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself;
first the blade,
then the ear,
after that the full corn in the ear.
but when the fruit is brought forth
immediately he putteth in the sickle,
because the harvest is come.

For a moment, it sounds as if Jesus is going to tell us the secret. This is the kingdom of God... The kingdom of God is like this... But anyone expecting a Big Reveal will be sorely disappointed. 

"This is the kingdom... a man planted some seeds, and they grew into a plants."

This man is an ever bigger idiot than the sower in the first story. He has some valuable seed corn, but he doesn't realize that that is what he has. Maybe he was going to feed it to his chickens. Maybe it's what was left over after the miller made it into flour. For all I know, he has stupidly swapped his cow for a bag of beans. But for whatever reason, he just throws or drops the seed outside his house and forgets all about it. And then a few weeks later corn or sunflowers or a beanstalk pop up outside his front door — to his complete surprise. It seems to him as if the ground outside his house has suddenly come to life all by itself. Not that he's complaining. He picks the flowers or harvests the corn right away.

The first story was an allegory. The sower was Jesus, or perhaps one of Jesus's envoys; the seed was the Word; the Soil were different types of listener. But it is a cardinal mistake to assume that you can take the key to one story and use it to unlock a different story. This second story is not allegorical in the way the first one was. The seed is not the Kingdom of God; the crop is not the Kingdom of God; the man, his house, and the soil are not the Kingdom of God. What is like the Kingdom of God is the whole situation. The Kingdom of God is — will be — a complete surprise. It will just suddenly appear. And it will look as it it had just popped up out of the ground all by itself.


and he said,

whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God?
or with what comparison shall we compare it?

it is like a grain of mustard seed,
which, when it is sown in the earth,
is less than all the seeds that be in the earth:
but when it is sown,
it groweth up
and becometh greater than all herbs
and shooteth out great branches
so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.

It is a mistake, again, to try to find things in parables which are definitely not there. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like mustard seed in one specific respect. We are not entitled to say that the Word of God teaches that the Kingdom is great for flavouring curry or that the Kingdom can be used as an ingredient of massage oil.

Once again, Jesus the carpenter tells his fisherman friends about planting seeds and harvesting crops. Mustard seeds are very small. Not, as certain anti-literalists would want to remind us, the smallest seeds on the planet earth, but very small indeed. And mustard trees are very big shrubs: not necessarily the largest tree in the world; but plenty big enough to provide shade for a passing pigeon. But very probably, we should read the piece as a kind of poetic hyperbole. Imagine if the mighty Canadian Redwood grew out of a tiny powder-like seed. That's what the Kingdom of God is like. A very, very big thing growing up out of a very, very small thing.

and with many such parables spake he the word unto them
as they were able to hear it.
but without a parable spake he not unto them
and when they were alone
he expounded all things to his disciples

Jesus speaks in puzzles. And if we can't see what follows from warnings about men who do not realize that there are seeds growing in their own gardens and huge trees bursting forth from small seeds than we are still outsiders. Without ears; incapable of hearing. 



and the same day
when the even was come,
he saith unto them,
Let us pass over unto the other side.
and when they had sent away the multitude,
they took him even as he was in the ship
and there were also with him other little ships.

I said previously that it was a mistake to treat the second and third chapters of Mark as continuous narrative: they are better thought of as a montage, as a collection of Jesus-stories and Jesus-sayings. But clearly this chapter does have a narrative structure: Jesus goes to beach; teaches his disciples on a boat; sails to the other side of the lake and performs a miracle there. So: is there a thematic or didactic connection between the different sections of the chapter?

Well, of course there is: otherwise I wouldn't have asked the question.

An overwhelmingly huge crowd of people have formed on the West side beach; all wanting miracles and wonders. Jesus gets onto a boat, and teaches his disciples instead. When he has finished teaching, rather than going and ministering to the mob on the beach, he turns the boat around and sails off to a completely different beach, over on the East side. 

and there arose a great storm of wind,
and the waves beat into the ship
so that it was now full.
and he was in the hinder part of the ship,
asleep on a pillow:
and they awake him, and say unto him,
"Master, carest thou not that we perish?
and he arose, 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 so fearful?
how is it that ye have no faith?"
and they feared exceedingly, and said one to another,
"What manner of man is this,
that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

There is a storm. The disciples are scared. They are fishermen. They know this lake. They know what kind of storm is dangerous and what kind the boat can weather. Jesus isn't worried. He's asleep, at the back of the boat. Maybe he is in a state of spiritual serenity. Or maybe he is a land-carpenter and doesn't realize how much trouble they are in. So the disciples wake him up. And he rebukes the wind. He admonishes it; he talks to it sharply. And to the sea he says something like "Silence! Be muzzled."

Having given the weather a good ticking off, he turns round and chastises his disciples as well. "Why are you fearful? Do you still not have faith?" Don't you trust me yet? You've been my students for a while. Haven't you grasped the basics?

Jesus wants to know why they were afraid of the weather. But his question makes them even more afraid. They "fear with a great fear". But it isn't the sea they are afraid of now: it's Jesus himself.
I think there is a comic note to this scene. The disciples are convinced they are going to drown. A possibly slightly grumpy Jesus gets up from his nap and says "Wind — you are being very, very, naughty! Sea — shut up and put a sock in it right now!" And then, we assume, he goes back downstairs to bed, leaving the dripping wet fishermen in the middle of a dead-calm sea, looking at each other with open mouths.

"Who is this person?"

The Gospel is a secret which not everyone can understand. Jesus teaches in puzzles and cryptograms. The disciples need cheat sheets to solve even the easiest ones. And Jesus's biggest miracle yet raises the biggest question yet. Who is Jesus?

They don't know. They really don't know. 

There is a seed lying in the ground which the daft farmer has forgotten he even planted. The room is pitch dark because someone has put a bucket over the lamp. Someone has a handful of seeds which are so small you can hardly see them. But the tiny seeds are going to turn into massive trees; the daft farmer is going to be surprised, and someone is going to take away the bucket and we'll all be able to see what is going on. 

The big crowd don't know who Jesus is. The disciples don't know who Jesus is. Even Jesus' special twelve don't know who Jesus is.

But we do. We were in on the secret from the first chapter. almost the first verse. We know the mystery of the kingdom. The good soil is us.


Fun Fact:
When someone calls Jesus "Master" they are almost always calling him Didaskolos, teacher—not boss or lord. Until the middle of the 20th century, English school teachers were often referred to as "masters".


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

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

8 comments:

  1. "People have asked me why I have a bee in my bonnet about the Good News Bible. This is why."

    I share your distaste for a book that is (at least in part) a commentary masquerading as a translation. We all get that translation is Difficult, and that one often has to make a hard judgement between preserving the literal meaning of the words and the intended sense of the sentence. But I do think a line has been crossed when "translators" just make things up.

    Exhibit A is The Message, which describes itself as a translation but sometimes appears to go completely off its head. For example, it Matthew 11:29 — which in a fairly literal translation like the RSV is "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart" — is rendered rather inexplicably as "Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you." I mean to say, what?

    ReplyDelete
  2. "What is like the Kingdom of God is the whole situation."

    I think this is exactly right, and it's hard for us modern westerners to grasp. Our nature, and natural tendency, is to pick each parable apart and try to determine which story element represents what real thing. But the parables don't necessarily work that way. (Some do; some don't.) They have a much a much looser, allusive quality to them that I didn't recognise for a long time. I do think some of the questions that often get asked about them are a bit wrong-headed.

    And this applies more generally in the New Testament (and even more so in the Old): that there is a looseness to the story-telling where it's really trying to draw you into a narrative, and into feeling its message — whereas we tend to try to dissect it. (As a scientist myself, that is very much my default mode. That is a defect that I am trying to overcome.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. The Contemporary English version was consciously working with a limited vocabulary; so "my name is 'Lots'" was their best attempt to represent "my name is 'Legion'" with the words they had available. Having had a closer look at it, it seem to work pretty well.

    You could say that "the Message" is doing to John what John (arguably) did to Mark: retelling the story freely, and weaving in new insights and interpretations. But that's not at all the same thing as a translation.

    ReplyDelete
  4. ... with the rather notable difference that Eugene Peterson was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus.

    (I'm not familiar with the CEV.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. The question of eye-witness testimony in the Gospels is one we can leave to another day.

    Do you read Mark Goodacre? I was very taken with the idea that the Gospels are "different instantiations of the same fluid textual tradition".

    https://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2019/05/larsens-challenge-to-studying-synoptic.html

    ReplyDelete
  6. No, I'd not come across Mark Goodacre. I'll take a look at the article you linked. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  7. He's a British professor of God-ology in an American university. I would strongly recommend his New Testament Pod-Cast. His unique selling point is that he doesn't believe in Q.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'll check out the blog, but I don't do podcasts: the structure of my life is such that there's never a time when I can give attention to listening to something. (That's mostly because I have the privilege of not having to commute.)

    ReplyDelete