In reading through the parables of Jesus from Mark chapter 4, there are certain parts that have always stood out to me as being difficult to understand. While we might normally gravitate to the familiar parables, I figured that if I found some parts tricky, you might also. So let’s take the difficult path and look at two tricky bits.
First Tricky Bit: Is God keeping secrets, and keeping people outside?
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 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.’ ” Mark 4:10-12
From verse 11 we might wonder if God is keeping secrets and from verse 12 we might wonder if He does so because He does not want people to be forgiven. This seems a direct contradiction of 2 Peter 3:9:
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
So how are we to understand this? First off, the word translated “secret” by the NRSV may be better translated as “mystery”. However, even that word comes with baggage as we tend to think of mystery as something we could never know. Here the idea is that though we couldn’t know it before, it has been revealed to us and can now be known. While a secret is something meant to be kept hidden, this “mystery” is something shared.
However, those “outside” (verse 11) won’t be able to understand this mystery while those on the inside will. The point is not that we should pity the people outside, but that we should invite them in. The point is not that those outside should stay there, but that they should push in. We have seen people pushing in to see Jesus before in Mark’s Gospel. We can think of the paralytic in chapter 2 whose friends were so desperate to get him before Jesus they dug a hole in the roof and lowered him in. Note that the first thing Jesus tells him is that his sins are forgiven. That kind of thing happens when you press in to Jesus.
The parables are meant to get people thinking and questioning. Are you outside, thinking that you know everything you need to know and there is noting about Jesus or yourself that you need to learn? Or are you pressing in to find out? The question is not, “are you stuck outside?”, the questions is “are you coming in?”
Second Tricky Bit: Is God being harsh when those who have nothing lose everything?
And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25 For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Mark 4:24-25
It seems both harsh and without logic to say that those who have nothing will lose everything. What are we to make of this? Imagine you have nothing, but are given a house. You don’t even send a thank you note to the generous person who gave you the house. You go on with your life, living in the home, but you put no work into it. You never clean it and do no maintenance of any sort even though water has started pouring in from the roof, windows and foundation. You live in it, but you turn your back on it. Your benefactor, being very generous indeed, offers to give you a much better home, but you turn your nose up at the offer. Though you earned nothing, even what you do have will eventually be lost when the house falls apart. This is like our relationship with God. God has been good to every one of us in that He has given us life. Life is a gift from his hands, a sign of grace. Now suppose, though you live now by the grace of God, you turn your back on Him and refuse to have anything to do with Him. You refuse the offer of a further gift of eternal life. What will happen? Even what you have though have not earned, namely life, will be taken away from you. Separation from God, what we often call hell, is not harsh on God’s part. It is a natural consequence of the sin that separates us from God. It is what happens when we refuse the generous gift of Jesus who deals with that sin.
While the parables reveal truths about God’s Kingdom, they also reveal truths about us. God is bringing His kingdom. Are you pressing into it, or turning your back on it?
God is offering you a love relationship. Are you pressing into that relationship or turning your back? Jesus didn’t turn His back on you when he could have, when perhaps he should have. His back was to the cross.
(All Scripture references are taken from NRSV)