As we have seen, the first three chapters of Mark go at a rapid pace. In them, we meet this person Jesus, who at times draws attention to himself and his message, and at other times tells people not to say a word about what they have seen.
On the one hand Jesus seems to be claiming some kind of messiah status, in what he says – for example claiming authority over sin (2:10) and over the Sabbath (2:28); and in what he does – healing and casting out demons. On the other hand he wants to stay ‘under cover’ (1:34, 44 & 3:12).
The way the parable of the sower is presented in chapter 4 almost mirrors this paradoxical picture of Jesus that Mark has already painted. It seems that Jesus is intent on revealing himself and yet hiding himself all at the same time. The phrase ‘Open Secret’ is not original, but it seems to fit with what is happening here.
It is as if Jesus is aware that his message will be need to be an ‘open secret.’
Robert Capon (In the Parables of the Kingdom) puts it something like this. (I paraphrase)
Jesus knows that he has a special mission from God. He also knows that what he will say and do will upset some people, especially the religious leaders. (He will mix with outcasts, he heals on the Sabbath, he claims to forgive sin). So he tries to keep a low profile and stay out of the public eye as far as possible. Now in chapter 4, we reach a major turning point in the Gospel as Jesus starts to teach. It’s as if he makes a conscious decision to be provocative and cryptic in his method. He knows that there will be things about him and his message that will go against people’s expectations of a messiah. He is not going to be the kind of messiah that people expect, or even want. So, when he comes to tell the parables, it’s as if he takes this hidden, mysterious, upside down approach and makes it central.
Here are the verses that follow immediately after the parable:
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 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; 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.’”
Jesus is not pronouncing judgment on unbelievers, but saying “This is how it is”. The kingdom of God is not what you think it is. There will be people who will simply not get it.
In an earlier post, I wrote about a woman who had met her daughter’s killer as part of a restorative justice programme. When the mediator who was arranging the meeting first went into the prison to meet Gary (the killer), the prison governor did not understand what the mediator was talking about. His mind was so locked into justice as retribution that he could not get his head around what they were trying to do in meeting Gary.
And yet, when Linda met her daughter’s killer something amazing happened. Over a period of four hours they talked, and at the end Linda embraced Gary in a hug. In that encounter they both changed. Some of Linda’s family cannot watch that film. They have heard her talk about what happened, but they don’t understand. They have seen the difference in her, but they do not ‘see’ it for themselves. They have not reached a turning point in their own lives. For them, there is still no forgiveness.