10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of Godhas been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
(Mark 4:10-12 NIV)
Jesus has been speaking to the masses gathered on the lake shore. The crowd had gotten so big that Jesus had to get in a boat to keep from getting swarmed by everyone who wanted to see and touch Him.
Mark tells us that Jesus was speaking in many parables (stories) to the crowd. Mark includes one such story (the parable of the farmer and the seed) in verses 3-9.
In verses 35-36, we see that Jesus is still in the boat, still teaching at the end of the day. In between verse 9 and verse 35, Mark stays on the subject of the parables and fast forwards to a quieter time when Jesus, the Twelve Disciples, and a few other close followers are together and are asking about the meaning of the parables.
Jesus does, in fact, unpack the meaning of the parable of the farmer and the seed in verses 13 – 20. But before He does that, Jesus makes some general comments about His use of parables in His teaching in verses 10 – 12.
When we first read verses 11 – 12, it sounds like Jesus is trying to hide or veil His teachings. Jesus even quotes a shortened and paraphrased version of Isaiah 6:9-10. This is not a particularly easy set of verses to understand. In fact, many pages have been written to talk about possible approaches to understanding what Jesus is saying and what His intent might have been.
However this passage might look at face value, Scholars agree that Jesus is not trying to hide or obscure His message. Jesus’ use of parables in His teaching is not about the speaker, but about the hearers. One author explains it best:
“Jesus does not tell demanding parables so that people will be cut off from forgiveness. If He is perfect, [then] His words are perfect, [and are] the perfect means to communicate the truth of the Gospel. Jesus wants the ones He will send out to understand that as they speak the Word, like Isaiah they will encounter those who refuse to listen. It is an object of prophecy. And it fits perfectly into the flow of the ministry.”
Michael Card, “Mark: The Gospel of Passion”. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012, p. 66. (Bracketed text mine.)
Jesus does not have a fatalistic or pessimistic approach to His ministry or the effect of His words upon His hearers. Rather, Jesus is realistic and is preparing The Twelve and the others in attendance that not everyone will respond to the Gospel when they go out and preach. Jesus is simply reminding them that there were many people did not listen to Isaiah in his day, and there will likely be many who won’t listen to them, just like many who are not listening to Jesus.
While Jesus says that many have hardened their hearts and will not understand the parables, He is also saying that those who will invest the time to inquire about their meaning will be rewarded for their effort and will be given understanding. Jesus then gladly obliges and unpacks the parable of the sower and the seed in verses 13 – 20.
As we approach God’s Word, may we pray first for “good soil” in our hearts, where the seed of God’s Word will grow and produce fruit for His glory first, and our benefit second.
And may we invest the time, mind space, and heart space to hear what He has to say.