Light and Darkness (Part Two)
In Part One of this three part study, I discussed Matthew’s Gospel and the context within which the light under a bushel metaphor is presented. In Part Two, I will likewise explore the context within which Light and Bushel imagery is presented in the Gospel of Mark.
Matthew presented his explanation of the Light under a Basket teaching immediately following the Sermon on the Mount. In contrast, Mark makes no direct mention of the teaching of the Beautitudes. Instead, Mark explains Jesus’s teaching of the light we are to be immediately following the Parable of the Sower.
The Parable of the Sower ExplainedThe Parable of the Sower describes evangelism and the spreading of the Gospel, the Good News, to a hungry world. Quite intentionally, Jesus uses an agricultural example for what His disciples would experience. The lesson here is not about where to sow and where not to -- people are sometimes far harder to read and spiritually navigate than the highways and byways – but rather describing what causes some “soil” to be more fertile than others.
13 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. 16 These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; 17 and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. 18 Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, 19 and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” (Mark 4:13-20)
Throughout the Old and New Testament, God through His prophets speaks the metaphor of shaking the dust from your sandals when confronted with those hostile or resistant to the work of God. But not here. Here in the Parable of the Sower, Mark captures Jesus’s teaching that is so much more about the fertile and infertile ground, those who He would have us witness to, not anything of substance about the sower. For truly, it is Jesus who sows, not us, we are merely His messenger.
The ground, hearers of the word but not yet doers, are described as: the wayside (think the shoulder of a modern highway perhaps); stony ground, hard and allowinf no roots to penetrate; ground overgrown with thorns; and good, fertile ground that bears fruit in abundance. The seed we sow is that which we carry from God, a message of good news that will be tidings of great joy to all peoples.
Mark relates how Jesus taught on the quality of the soil. For some who hear the word, Satan comes immediately and snatches away what seeds have landed in their hearts. The enemy confounds the good news, distracts the hearer, and causes that which might have taken root to be pushed aside before any good can come.
For some who hear the word, they take an immediate interest and experience an immediate but transitory joy from the good news. Jesus describes these who “have no root in themselves, and whatever grows from the witness they’ve received will not long ensure. Troubles, tribulations, or persecution for His sake will cause them to stumble. They are stony in that they have no depth of soil, no permanence or rootedness to their faith.
Some hear the world amid a tumult of competing desires and cares, and while the good news may cause peace and understanding for a time, ultimately these will fall away into distraction. The thorns are the cares of this world, “deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things.” Just as with trials and tribulations, riches can pull us away from the perfect peace and fulfillment that God seeks to give us through the Gospel.
Jesus sums up the goal of the Sower, as providing listeners with the opportunity to “Hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit.” When hearers of the word become doers of the word, as admonished by James 1:22), they bear the fruit that Jesus speaks of in this parable. And in completion of the cycle, when they then proceed to witness to others themselves.
Jesus spoke of soil, of sowing seeds. Mark then relates how Jesus spoke of the need to be the Sower he speaks of, and not keep all the seeds to oneself.
Light Under a BasketGranted, Jesus speaks of a different metaphor here, but it is a continuation of a train of thought. You get the sense, reading the Gospels, that Jesus often shifted from one metaphorical construct to another as necessary, to press home the messages He needed to communicate, in terms His listeners needed, in order to fully understand. And as we know, they were sometimes still confused, although things became clearer as the mystery of faith was revealed in Jesus’s death and resurrection.
21 Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
24 Then He said to them, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. 25 For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” (Mark 4:21-25)
Jesus says these words often, “Anyone who has ears to hear, let him hear,” words not only of hope, but also of caution and admonition. Today, perhaps they would be rendered something like, “Alright, Listen up!”
The image of a lampstand may be somewhat alien to modern ears. We may think of a night table, a lamp for reading perhaps, something alongside the sofa or easy chair. I think this misses an essential element of Jesus’s meaning here.
The lamp on the lampstand would form a primary means of illumination, used for all purposes of work, cooking or other food preparation, other household labor. Light was a valuable commodity, as were the implements of sustaining it, oil, oil lamps, wicks, lampstands, and often these objects were prominently featured in religious observances, as well. Lighting the lamps, stories of lamps, figure in major legends of the Hebrews in the Old Testament, as well as sacramental practices (the Mennorah, etc.)
I mentioned in Part One, that the image here is of a central communal lamp, by which the members of a household might gather for an evening meal, or share stories, or otherwise go about making a life extend beyond the natural limits of daylight. It creates possibilities where they would not exist otherwise. And in doing so, this light brings things to light, it is part of a process of revelation. In fact, Jesus here claims that there is “nothing hidden which will not be revealed,” and that any secrets kept will be revealed.
Here in Mark, there is a subtle transformation of the light that Matthew introduced as the light of believers, sharing the gospel. Mark’s description of Jesus’s light under the bushel takes on a deeper significance, as the light is the revelation of God to all humankind, and that that light will not be restrained, and the secrets and mystery of faith from the beginning of the world will be revealed, with witnesses to that light, but without any particular witness.
Jesus exhorts His disciples to hear the words He speaks, and to “take heed.” As they listen to His teachings, as we listen to His teachings, we are to carefully measure His words and their meaning. By constraining the Gospel into our preconceptions or prejudices of what we want it to mean (or sincerely but wrongly believe it to mean), we constrain and limit what God can do with us, the ways He will use us.
Jesus promises that, as we fully hear and take to heart, even more understanding wikll be given us. As we respond to His call into our lives, we are made more ready for the more He has in store for us. We grow in God, we grow in Jesus.
Yet there is a warning of contrast, as well. Those who cannot or will not hear, will lose even that which they have. The sense here is not so much physical or material possessions, but understanding and wisdom. As we receive, hear, absorb, and put into practice His words for our lives, we grow into better containers for the light He gives us to share with others.
The Parable of the Growing SeedMark chronicles how Jesus now returns to the earth, for images of growth and harvest. Yet something more, Jesus now speaks of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus describes it here, is that which is part of the ‘natural order” of things, with the Sower spreading seeds, but God in His wisdom growing the harvest. And in the natural order of things, when the harvest is ready, the Harvester will put “in the sickle, because the harvest is come.”
26 And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, 27 and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. 28 For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)
This is another image that a modern reader might not fully appreciate. The allusion here is of a great burgeoning of a plentiful harvest, one that grows by the grace of God, but as men sow, they may watch in wonder as His bounty proliferates. But this very growth, explosive and vibrant though it may be, is a harbinger of something much more serious. As a latter Hebrew Prophet warned, “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, go down; for the winepress is full, the vats overflow – for their wickedness is great.” (Joel 3:13).
In another parable, Jesus describes that the tare (weeds) will grow along with the wheat, but in the harvest, the seed will be gathered while the tares will b e bundled and tossed in the fire, with “great weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Harvest metaphors often speak to fond experiences of seasons, regeneration and rebirth. But in a spiritual sense, the harvest is a “day of reckoning,” as well. When those of us who have been charged with “sharing the light,” may also be held to account for what we shared, and what we did not share, what seeds we sowed, and what seeds we let fall to the ground, or get devoured.
In Part Three, I will complete my exploration of the context within which Light and Bushel imagery is presented, in the Gospel of Luke.