Essay 6 - Is Mark's Use of Parables the same as that of Jesus?

At the beginning of the treatment of parables it is important to define 'parable'. The Hebrew concept of embraces any kind of imaged speech, whereas the popular English notion of a parable is confined to stories, or what is known as 'narrative '. In Mark there are only two extended story-parables, the Sower and the Wicked Husbandmen. Shorter narrative occur also in the Seed Growing Secretly, the Mustard Seed and the Watchful Servants. In addition to these there are also little images, such as the Bridegroom Taken Away, the Wineskins, the Patch of Cloth, the Lamp under a Bushel, the Measure. Of these little figures only the first will be considered in detail; the other four are too fragmentary and instantaneous to admit of detailed treatment.

The other element of the comparison, the parables used by Jesus, is difficult to define, on account of the difficulty of deciding which of the parables in Mt, Lk and Jn were Jesus' own. The parables of Jn are so different from the synoptic parables (e.g. the Good Shepherd, the Gate of the Sheepfold) that they may well be Jn's own. Typically they are centred upon Jesus, as is so much of Jn's gospel, proclaiming him rather than the Kingdom which he came to bring. Michael Goulder has argued forcefully in Midrash and Lection in Matthew, and Luke - A New Paradigm that the parables of these evangelists do not stem from Jesus but from the evangelists themselves. While he has not made his point altogether successfully, the parables of these evangelists are at least so thoroughly imbued with and shaped by the theological and linguistic trade-marks of each that it is impossible to recover the original parable of Jesus and its usage. We will therefore leave them out of consideration.

The only way, therefore, of establishing the other element of the comparison is by attempting to reconstruct the Sitz im Leben Jesu of the Markan parables. This in its turn can be done only by examining the likely alterations made by the evangelist himself and, before that, in the Sitz im Leben Ecclesiae.

Initially, however, two probable arguments may be put forward that Mark's parables stem originally from Jesus himself:

1. Mark's parables are all concerned with the present coming of the Kingdom, which was uncontrovertibly at the centre of Jesus' message. This differs notably from Luke's example-stories, such as the Prodigal Son (urging the Lukan theme of repentance) or the Good Samaritan (explaining who is my neighbour, again a Lukan emphasis). It differs also from the heavy Matthean emphasis on final judgement, as in the Wedding Garment and the Sheep and the Goats. This is, however, only a probable argument, since it would be presumptuous to confine Jesus' story-telling to one element. But although other parables also may be from Jesus, at any rate the probability is high that at least the Mark parables were.

2. The imagery of the Markan parables is harmonious, all drawn from the Galilean countryside. Although it is strictly unprovable, it is an attractive suggestion that this countryside imagery is that of Jesus himself. It is unprovable since we cannot get behind Mark to this extent; it is possible that all the imagery comes from Mark himself (Goulder again has made a strong case that the vastly expanded religious imagery in Matthew and the sophisticated commercial imagery in Luke stem from those two evangelists). But if there is any feature which is common to the parables it is this; if this imagery is denied to Jesus, we truly know little about his message.

IIWe begin by treating the two major story-parables in Mark and the use made of them by the evangelist. Each is placed at a turning-point in the gospel. The Sower comes (with other parables, forming Mark's parable-chapter) at the turning-point when Jesus turns from instructing the crowds to instructing the disciples. It is preceded by the attestation that not only the scribes accuse him of being in league with Beelzebul, but even his own family fail to understand him (a Markan sandwich and so emphatic and deliberate, 3.20-35). The Husbandmen comes centrally in the Jerusalem ministry of Jesus, flanked by the crucial cleansing of the temple and rejection of Jesus' authority, and the group of four controversies which seems to sum up the Jerusalem opposition to Jesus. The group is constituted either by featuring successively the main opponents of Jesus, the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and scribes, or (as Daube argued) a group of subjects which occurs together also in rabbinic controversies. In either case it is an artificial rather than a historical grouping. The Husbandmen constitutes, therefore, an image or illustration of the bankruptcy of the leadership of Israel. The positioning of these parables, and the significance consequently attached to them, must therefore be attributed to Mark - which does not in itself prove that it is alien to Jesus.

About the Sower itself the first feature to be remarked is that it is the only parable in Mark which is fully allegorised. Jülicher famously maintained that Jesus did not allegorise his parables, making a sharp distinction between parable and allegory. The introduction to the allegory introduces also the attitude to parables that they were positively intended to obscure the truth and prevent conversion. The language of these verses (4.10-11) has in a previous essay been shown to be overwhelmingly Pauline. They seem to express more the missionary experience of the apostles than the situation of Jesus himself. Moreover the theory itself of the obscuring purpose may well date from a time when the difficulty of the acceptance of the message has become clear, and indeed when the separation of the parables from their original context has made them more difficult to understand; similarly 'A stitch in time saves nine' may be used in many ways, not all of which can have been intended by its author. The allegorical interpretation is hardly as lucid and obvious as the meaning of other parables; one may legitimately doubt whether it was the meaning intended by the revealer.

In the 'key' to the Sower there are indeed elements which can be replaced in the world of Jesus only with difficulty: the 'lure of riches' has no place in the world of Galilean peasantry, and persecution was a feature of the early Christian community rather than of Jesus' own ministry. The meaning given to the principal image, the seed, as the Word is more familiar from the apostolic preaching than from Jesus' own ministry. Indeed the whole long-term outlook is more suitable for the extended period of preaching than for the crisis of Jesus' preaching of the kingdom. These may all be indications that the allegorical interpretation is not from Jesus himself.

If the allegory is seen to be inauthentic to Jesus, the way is open to search for a Sitz im Leben Jesu for the parable itself. An attractive suggestion - and in such matter the reconstructive imagination must win its own way - is that Jesus was reflecting on the failure of his mission among the many and its success among the small group of disciples who bear so much (note the crescendo of '30-60-100', contrasting with Matthew's pessimistic reversal to '100-60-30') fruit. It is, of course, still possible that Mark elaborated the story, even preparing it for the allegory: the three alternatives (edge of the path, rocky ground and thorns) chime in with Mark's constant feature of triples in his popular style of story-telling. The excitement and the pictorial imagery of its gradual and amazing growth are also masterly, and typical of Mark's story-telling skill. But again, there is no reason to deny all skill in story-telling to Jesus. In either case, Mark would have given the parable its apt and true position at this turning-point of Jesus' Galilean ministry.

The Wicked Husbandmen in its present position again contains allegory; it cannot be dogmatically excised. The image of the vineyard of Israel is so widespread (Isaiah 5, and see marginal references in any good Bible) that it would be an apt and forceful image to throw at the obstinate authorities. The only question is whether the element of the son was originally present or (if present) originally intended to refer allegorically to Jesus himself. Without the allegorical application to Jesus the story would still have its injurious force, a proclamation that the leaders had failed in their task. The decision must depend on a prior decision whether Jesus used the title 'son' of himself elsewhere. In this Mk 13.32 is persuasive of the affirmative, for its ascription of ignorance to the son is unlikely in a world where increasing reverence for Jesus was so marked. However even without this detail, the use made of this parable by Mark is comfortably dominical.


Of Mark's other three narrative two occur in the parable chapter, the Seed Growing Secretly and the Mustard Seed, both being applied to the kingdom. There is no difficulty in supplying a Sitz im Leben Jesu for either of these. Each of them could be a reply either to critics or to depressed followers who expressed disbelief that the kingdom could be constituted by the motley crew who followed Jesus, seemingly so ineffectually. Surely the kingdom must be more forceful, must excite more notice and win more immediate success!

In the Mustard Seed there is certainly an allegorical element. While allegorical elements are not to be excluded a priori, but the quotation from Dan 4.21 is somewhat suspicious. No mustard-tree that I have seen in Israel affords has strength to sustain birdsnests. Furthermore, the imagery of birds nesting in trees is, in Daniel, an image of the nations [note: the image in Mark is confused: in Daniel the beasts under its shade, and the birds nest in its branches]. If this imagery is intended it is a strikingly unusual indication of Jesus' intention of a place for the gentiles in the kingdom.

About the Seed Growing Secretly one may only doubt whether the element of judgement is truly Jesus' own. Threats of judgement are associated more with the Baptist's message (or Matthew's) than with that of Jesus himself. But this extension to judgement is not necessary to the parable itself. On the other hand the whole parable might be interpreted not so much as an image of the secret strength of the kingdom, in the face of accusations of its ineffectuality, but as a reply to those who were surprised that the message of Jesus differed so much from that of the Baptist: the Baptist threatened judgement, but Jesus brought only healing; what then has become of the judgement? 'All in good time', replies Jesus.

The final story-parable in Mark concludes the eschatological discourse. It seems most probable that Mk 13 is composed, possibly by the evangelist himself, from a previous Jewish eschatological tract, made relevant to the Christian expectation of a second coming of Christ by the addition of certain sayings of Jesus. About Jesus' own eschatological expectation it is difficult to pronounce. Notoriously Schweitzer held that Jesus expected the world to come to an end - or be renewed in a way which amounted to the ending of the old world - at his death. Ed Sanders has recently echoed this in an interpretation of the last cry on the Cross as a cry of despair when God failed to come to help him by just such a renewal, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 274-5).

Unjustified though this interpretation may be (the dolorous intonation of the psalm leads, after all, to its triumphant conclusion), there is perhaps insufficient evidence to show that Jesus had any clear idea of, or even any clear interest in, the ultimate fate of the world. It is not essential to his mission that he should have foreseen and calculated all the modalities of the fulfilment of God's Kingship, or even that he should have had an opinion on them. Jesus' task was to alert his contemporaries to the coming of God's Kingship and to form a community which would be a nucleus of that faithful people in which it would be fulfilled. This being the case, it is more likely that the final parable given in Mk 13 originally referred to the present coming of God in Jesus and his message, emphasising the urgency of the situation, than that it originally referred to a future second coming. When the world did not come to an end at the crucifixion, and when the followers of Jesus composed themselves sufficiently to pick up the bits and re-assess the situation they had misunderstood, then they re-assigned this image to a future date, and understood it as a warning to make ready - an attitude which becomes prevalent in Matthew's parables and outlook.

In Jesus' mind, however, this image (or series of images) of the servant alert for the return of his master would have applied to the present time of crisis. After the Lord of Israel had seemed to be away (in the lack of prophets, the domination of the Romans, etc) he was now at hand in the ministry of Jesus, and must be welcomed. As such the parable rejoins the other little non-narrative images which bespeak a renewal, the New Wine, the Patch of Cloth. If Jesus' renewal of the temple was indeed the inevitable climax of his ministry, these images could fit anywhere in the context leading to that renewal: Israel must be radically changed, and his hearers must be prepared to recognise this.

Allegory may again have focussed the image of the Bridegroom Taken Away. The image of the marriage feast is thoroughly familiar of the messianic times in the Old Testament. It is used of Jesus not only here but also in Matthew's parable of the Wedding Feast and in John's Wedding at Cana. On grounds of multiple attestation alone it seems likely that this is a figure used by Jesus to illustrate the import of his coming. But whether he used the extension of the bridegroom being taken away is another matter.

It has been argued that this is a clumsy addition, for wedding-guests do not start fasting simply because the bridegroom leaves the party; if, however, he is physically taken away, they may well be so upset that they lose their appetites. In any case, Jesus might be just as capable of slight clumsiness in his story-telling as a subsequent editor.

It has also been argued that a prediction of the passion at this early stage would be inept. This, however, disregards all the principles of Form Criticism: the place of this pericope in the gospel is no indication of the time of its occurrence in Jesus' ministry. The incident could well have occurred later, only to be replaced here by Mark as part of his chiastic series of controversy-stories which he climaxes by the threatening 3.6.

It is tempting to construe the heavy incidence of doublets around this passage as indication of Markan interference: 'as long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast' (19b) exactly doubles 19a, and 'on that day' also doubles the earlier part of v. 20. Both of these are omitted by Mt and Lk. The saying of v. 19 makes perfect sense without the addition of v. 20. Indeed v. 20 is itself in some sense a doublet of v. 19, negative corresponding to positive. It would obviously be attractive subsequently, after the Passion, to extend and apply the figure, used originally simply of the joyful coming of the bridegroom, the actual celebration of the wedding feast, to justify a Christian practice of fasting.

In conclusion it may be said that Mark is faithful to Jesus' usage of the parables. He extends them into his own time, and applies them, particularly the Watchful Servants, to new circumstances. Other parables he slightly adjusts and enlarges, but in continuity with Jesus' own sense.