Mark 4

The Word Made Fresh

1Jesus went out again beside the sea to teach. A huge crowd gathered, so many that he was forced to get into a boat and speak to them from the water while the crowd stood together on the seashore. 2He began by teaching them in parables, and said to them, “Listen! A man went out to scatter seeds in his field. 4As he walked along, some of the seed fell on the path where the birds quickly ate them all up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground that had little soil, and even though they did grow despite the lack of soil 6when the sun rose the ground was scorched, and since the seeds had not put down strong roots, they withered away. 7Still other seeds fell among the briars, and the briars grew around them and choked them so that they produced no grain. 8But some of the seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain that grew up and yielded thirty, and sixty, and a hundred times as much as was sown.” 9Then Jesus called out, “Let everyone who has ears to hear, pay attention.”

10Later, when Jesus was alone, the people who remained with him, along with the twelve, asked him about the parables. 11Jesus told them, “You have been given the secret to the mystery of God’s kingdom. To those outside, though, everything is explained in parables. 12That is why they can look, but not see; they can listen, but not understand; and they will not change their ways and be forgiven.”

13Then he asked them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14The sower scattered the word, 15but on the path where the word is scattered, as soon as the word is heard, Satan immediately comes to take away the word that was sown. 16Other seeds were sown on rocky ground. When they hear the word they immediately receive it joyfully. 17But they aren’t rooted there, so they live only a short time. Then when troubles or persecutions arise they fall away quickly.  18Still other seeds were sown among the briars; they are the ones who hear the word, 19but the troubles of the world around them and the lure of wealth, and the continuing desire for other things come in and choke the word so that it yields nothing. 20Then there are the ones that have fallen on good soil; they hear the word and accept it, and they produce a harvest of thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

21He asked them, “Is a lamp brought inside to be placed under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a lampstand? 22There is nothing hidden that won’t be uncovered, and nothing made secret that won’t be revealed. 23Whoever has ears to hear, listen!”

24Then he said, “Listen carefully; you will receive however much you give others, and then some. 25More will be given to those who have, and those who have nothing will lose nothing.”

26He also told them, “The kingdom of God is like someone who scatters seed on the ground, 27then day after day sleeps and rises while the seed sprouts up and grows. He has no idea how it happens, 28but the ground puts forth first the stalk, then the head, then the grain in the head. 29And as soon as the grain ripens, he goes in with the sickle and gathers the harvest.”

30He also said, “To what can the kingdom of God be compared? Can a parable describe it? 31Well then, the kingdom is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds on earth when it is sown. 32But, when it is sown, it sprouts up and becomes the largest of all the shrubs. It puts forth strong branches, and the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33Jesus used as many such parables as needed to teach them. 34That’s how he taught the crowds, but in private with his disciples he explained everything. 35When evening came later that day he told them, “Let’s go across to the other side.” 36Then he left the crowd behind and went with his disciples in the boat just as he was. Other boats went with him. 37A heavy wind arose, and the waves beat against the boat and began to swamp it. 38Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him up. “Teacher!” they cried, “Don’t you care that we’re going to die?” 39He awoke and reprimanded the wind and spoke to the waves, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stopped and the sea was calm. 40He said to them, “Why were you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41They were astounded and began to say to one another, “Who is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”


1-9: Jesus’ fame is growing, and the crowd is now so numerous that there is no appropriate meeting place where he can teach except at the lakeside. Mark presents the scene as an example of what was likely a series of lessons Jesus delivered as a kind of informal school to which everyone who was interested could come. The invitation Jesus gives is an open one: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” It is natural that what people remembered from these lessons were some of the stories he told, and these verses recount one of the most popular parables about the kind of soil needed to produce a suitable crop. The application of the parable seems to me to be obvious: teaching is a community transaction in which the students have at least as much responsibility as the teacher.

10-12: Many of his parables, however, are not so easily understood, and Jesus explains his reason for using parables as a teaching method: the parables reveal things that are hidden, but in such a way that the character of the listener is as important as the words of the teacher.

13-20: Surprisingly, he has to explain the parable of the seed and the soil to them, a hint that his closest followers are not going to understand him very well. There are also hints that Mark includes this explanation for the benefit of the future church as a way of warning the first Christians that following the teachings of Jesus in the Roman world is not going to be easy.

21: It is not clear at what point Jesus is addressing the crowds and at what point he is instructing just his disciples, but it is clear that Jesus is preparing the disciples to take over the task of proclaiming the gospel and calling the world to repentance. They are not to keep his teachings to themselves.

22-23: The movement Jesus is instituting will not be a secret society. His teaching is to be shared freely with anyone who will listen.

24: The Christian faith is an ever-rising spiral of understanding. He tells them that if they attend to his teachings they will be rewarded with understanding and will then be able to receive more teaching.

25: In that way what they have (in terms of understanding God’s will) will grow. If they don’t attend to his teaching, what little they understand will soon dissipate.

26-29: Scholars call this a parable, but it really is a metaphor for how, once some understanding has taken root, the Holy Spirit works quietly within us to help us go on to perfection.

30-32: This is another metaphor to describe how faith grows until it is the most important thing in our lives, and enables us to become the kind of people in whom others can find shelter.

33-34: Mark indicates here that the preceding parables were delivered to the crowds. Jesus explains them to his disciples in private; unfortunately, Mark doesn’t record all those explanations.

35-41: We return to the scene established in verse 1. They are already in the boat, and having finished his “school” for the day Jesus orders them to cross the lake. Mark mentions that there are other boats with him, but that detail disappears as the story unfolds. Jesus is asleep when a storm strikes, and the scene described reminds us of the story of Jonah (Jonah 1:5-6). The disciples, though some of them are experienced fishermen, are afraid, which says something about the severity of the storm. They are dismayed that Jesus is unconcerned. Many scholars have commented that Jesus addresses the storm in the same way he might have addressed a demon. Mark’s earliest readers surely read the story as an account of an attack on Jesus by the forces of evil. If that is the case, then Jesus’ words juxtaposing fear and faith take on different shading. I am reminded of Martin Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God:

“And though this world with devils filled
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.”

The experience leaves the disciples wondering about Jesus’ true identity.


The Kingdom of God is the goal of all who believe.