The Gospel of Mark 3

A study course by The Reverend Christopher Cooke


Parables play an important part in Mark’s Gospel. The Parables he includes are usually taken up by Matthew and Luke. However, both Matthew and Luke contain parables not found in Mark.
Mark’s Parables are mainly grouped into two sections.

  • Mark 4: 1-34.
  • Mark 12:1-12.

Most of them are very short. They are almost aphorisms or perhaps sermon illustrations. There are only two longer Parables in Mark’s Gospel:

  • The Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:1-9 which has an explanation in 4:10-20.
  • The Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Mark 12:1-12 concludes with Scripture.

At one time, scholarly thought was that an explanation could not be from Jesus’ own mouth because that would be something akin to explaining a joke. Therefore, the explanation was the addition of the infant Church as apostles and preachers commented on Jesus’ parables. I am not so sure that is correct now.

This is in part because of the variety of parables and stories that Jesus told. In the other Gospels, there are some quite long Parables rather different to those found in Mark’s Gospel. To name the most obvious:

  • The Ten Maidens or Bridesmaids in Matthew’s Gospel.
  • The Sheep and the Goats in Matthew’s Gospel.
  • The Prodigal Son (or better The Loving Father) in Luke’s Gospel.
  • The Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel.

The sheer variety of Parables may well allow for an explanation of an important one.

In Mark’s Gospel, the two longer Parables have pivotal roles:

  • The Chapter 4 Parables seem to sum up Jesus’ ministry and put down guidelines for the ministry of his followers.
  • The Chapter 12 Parable introduces the Passion and death of Jesus.

Dick France, I think, expresses the meanings of parables well:

“A parabole is a striking pronouncement, short or long, which leaves the hearers to work out for themselves what it was all about. It is likely to leave them stimulated, exhilarated, challenged, perhaps puzzled, but it will not spoonfeed them with a simple prosaic statement. And this means that the same parable may have a very different effect on different people… Parables have been usefully compared with political cartoons in a newspaper… how much you get out of a cartoon depends on how much you bring to it, in terms of knowledge of what is going on in the world…” Dick France.

Chapter 4. Questions

Verses 1-9: The Parable of the Sower.

If we hadn’t already supplied a title for this parable, could it have had a better name?

  • The Parable of the Seeds?
  • The Parable of the type of the Soil?

Do you understand this parable?

If you do, why didn’t the Disciples understand?

Jesus is often described as the greatest of teachers, so what does this say about his teaching methods?

What is this parable telling us?
Try to do this without remembering the explanation!

What do you think about the ending? [Thirty, sixty, a hundredfold…] Compare this with Matthew’s version at Matthew 13:8.

Verses 10-12: The Purpose of Parables.

Here we are presented with another awkward question:
Would this parable have meant one thing to the Disciples and something different to the crowds?

Is the greatest teacher withholding some of his teaching from the crowds?
We notice that the Disciples (the Twelve and others) seem bemused and confused about the Parable.

Do verses 10-12 suggest that there are insiders and outsiders as regards Jesus’ teaching?

Is this fair?

Or does the explanation come to those who ask?

Were the crowds more interested in the spectacle than in understanding?

Is this reflecting the conditions of the soil?

Verses 13-20: An Explanation of the Parable.

Is this explanation helpful?
The seed needs to be sown but the soil needs to be in a condition to receive it:

  • What condition were the Disciples in?
  • What condition were the Crowd in?
  • What condition are we in?

In the end, is it up to each one of us to understand the meaning of this parable and fit it to our own questions and situation?

Does this help us with our understanding of other parables?

Verses 21-25: A Lamp under a Bushel Basket.

There are two little sayings here. The first is well-known and straight forward. Or is it?

What do we do with sources of light?

What do we do with the light that comes from us?

How does this fit in with Jesus’ teaching above that some things are still hidden or unexplained to the crowds?

Or is he looking a little into the future? What is, at present, unclear will soon be clear to everyone?

Rowan Williams sees this as having both a promise and a warning. Do you agree?

It is followed by an even more cryptic saying. What is the measure that is given and got?

Does this point to our responsibility in the process?

Verses 26-29: The Parable of the Growing Seed.

This parable begins: The kingdom/kingship of God is… Dick France paraphrases: This is how God works out his purpose in the world.

Here we have an illustration of arable farming. This is something we celebrate with Rogation-tide and Harvest.

What does God do here?

What does the farmer do?

Tom Wright points out that the word used ‘rise’ night and day is the same word that is used for the resurrection.

Is that relevant?

Do we take pride in a good crop?

Verses 30-32: The Parable of the Mustard Seed.

This is not our mustard and cress, but a bush that can grow to nine feet tall.

So what is this parable about?

Verses 33-34: The Use of Parables.

These verses round off this section of parables.

Does the second part of verse 33, help us understand why Jesus used parables?

Chapter 12.

Verses 1-12: The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

We notice this follows important events in the previous chapter:

  • Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (11:1-11).
  • Jesus Cleanses the Temple (11:15-19).
  • Jesus’ Authority is Questioned (11:27-33).

Do these events inform how we read this Parable?

A vineyard is often used as an image for Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7).

“Of course, there is an element of exaggeration, even of burlesque, in the violence with which the tenants treated the messengers, and still more in the naïve assumption that if they killed the son and heir they would somehow gain a right to property. But this is not the depiction of real life, but a story meant to convey a message”. Dick France.

Is the meaning of this parable obscure or transparent?

If Israel is the vineyard:

  • Who is the owner of the vineyard?
  • Who are the messengers?
  • Who is the son?

Why was his audience so cross (verse 12)?

The quote comes from Psalm 118. This psalm was well-known because it was used for pilgrims going up to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple.

What is rejected?

What is the cornerstone?


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