The Problem With Parables

Mark 4:1-34

When we started with the gospel of Mark a few weeks back I mentioned that Mark is kind of approaching the way he tells his story like he’s got a secret.  But not a secret secret because most people already know the stories, just a secret about faith in Christ that not everyone around him will understand just yet.

Hence, in today’s reading we have a series of parables.  Parables are handy dandy stories that are useful in the way they impart understanding about God, people, and faith.  Parables use familiar items or scenes to help us understand our faith in Christ.  Jesus delivers a bunch of parables rapid fire this morning.

Interestingly enough, right in the middle of these rapid fire parables, Jesus makes this statement:

11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

What in the world, Jesus?  What are you trying to do to us?  You giveth us a parable, and then you taketh it away?  Well, kind of.

I’ll get back to that in a second but I want to highlight a good example of something we run into occasionally.  In these two verses we find one of those landmines we can step on if we’re not careful with our reading in the Bible.  To begin with, I can’t begin to explain how the Bible verses got divvied up.  The first English Bible with verse numbers didn’t happen until the 16th century so they’re fairly new inventions.  Pay attention to verse divisions because in this case it would be very easy to read v11, 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;” and make the statement, “Well, the Bible in Mark 4:11 says that there is insiders and outsiders and those of us on the inside know the real truths.”  Which, as it happens, is the exact opposite of what is going on here.  We must remember to not pick single verses for our interpretation, particularly verses that end in a semi-colon and continue on with, “12 in order that… ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” The explanation is right there but the two verses have to go together or the interpretation is completely wrong.  Never stop at one verse when you’re trying to make sense of something.

Now, that doesn’t make it any easier to make sense of this particular reading in the Bible but it is worth the effort to be accurate.  Because the irony is that not everything in the Bible, or more specifically here not everything Jesus says, is going to make sense to us the first time we run across it.  That’s the problem with parables.  And that’s okay.  That’s what Jesus is telling the disciples here.  Some of them get some of the parables and others, well, not so much.  From what I can tell, that dynamic hasn’t changed much over the past couple of millennia. Some things we understand, and other things?  Not so much.  And that’s okay.

What it comes down to is that we really need to get out of our own way when it comes to our faith.  It is easy to try to line things up in the Bible in a systematic way that makes some sort of logical sense to us in the moment.  It is also rare that our attempt to line things up in the Bible in a systematic and logical fashion will lead us to the place that God is trying to get us to.  Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of saying, “The universe doesn’t owe us an explanation” and I’d add a corollary to that, “God isn’t required to make systematic and logical sense to us.”  Which is kind of scary for those of us that are more comfortable, MUCH more comfortable, with things that line up systematically and logically.

Here’s why this is important, and I think why Jesus is explaining things the way he is, is because what happens when something doesn’t make sense to us?  Is your first reaction to something that doesn’t make set to dig in deeper and spend a lot of mental cycles trying to figure it out?  Or do you tend to set it aside and move on?  I suppose if it’s something I’m interested in we’ll dig in but for a lot of things, but for the random stuff that doesn’t make sense, who has the time?

Of course, we’re all interested in our faith, that’s why we come out to church on a freezing cold day.  You could have stayed home in relative comfort and safety but you didn’t.  Thanks for that.  And we’re willing to do some digging in and study.  But there’s a limit, I think, to just how much time we’ll spend drilling down trying to figure something out.  And there’s the danger, if something, even something we’re interested in, doesn’t make sense for a long enough time, we’ll set it aside and move on.  That’s fine with something you run across on YouTube but with our faith it’s not a good thing.

The parables are showing us, and Jesus is telling us, to let go and trust God with this.  For some of us that like to delude ourselves into thinking we’re in control, that’s not easy to do.  What we can do, is pay attention and be diligent with study and prayer.  It can be easy to just let things go and set them aside but that’s never a good thing with our faith.  Parables, and lots of things in the Bible, have parts that don’t make sense to us.  Yet.  But they may well in the future.  Celebrate the things you do understand and be patient as you learn the others.

And be assured that whether we understand something or not, God is ever present with us.  In the good times and in the bad times the presence of God never leaves.

2 thoughts on “The Problem With Parables

  1. Well done. I’ve found that far too often, we get so caught up in what we want the Word to be, that we don’t let it be what God intended it to be. I cannot count how many times I came back to a verse or group of verses sometime after initially reading it and receive a different message than 1) what I expected and 2) what I thought I needed. Thanks for sharing

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