In the first chapters of his gospel we’re reading these days, Mark emphasizes the remarkable actions of Jesus, confronting demons and healing many in the towns and places around the Sea of Galilee as he begins his mission. He taught the crowds and those who followed him; they were amazed at his teaching, but only in chapter 4 of his gospel does Mark give us examples of his teaching– some of the parables he taught.
What Jesus did was more important than what he said, Mark seems to s ay. When he did teach, Jesus taught in parables– “without parables he did not speak to them.”
“A parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” (C.H. Dodd)
Jesus’ teachings were drawn from nature and life around him. He drew from life around him, for example, when the scribes from Jerusalem accused him of casting out devils by the power of Beelzubel, the prince of devils. “A house divided against itself cannot stand… How can Satan drive out Satan?” (Mark 3: 23-24)
Those days Palestine was in the midst of a fierce political struggle; the family of Herod the Great were fighting each other, their powerful dynasty was divided, and like other dynasties it was going to fall. Even if it’s not specifically referenced, Jesus’ teaching about “the house divided against itself” draws on what’s happening in his time. He taught using the signs of his time.
Someone more powerful was taking over. In the struggle against Satan, Jesus was the power of God. He’s “the strong man” who breaks into the house and throws Satan out.
Jesus often drew upon nature in his teaching. Going through Galilee today you can’t miss its fertile fields and vineyards. Galilee was like that in Jesus’ time; it provided him with examples that everyone could understand. People hearing him knew the mysterious ways of seed and soil; they also understood the Sower.
C.H. Dodd in his definition of a parable says that Jesus taught “to tease the mind into active thought.” He wanted those who heard him to think and question. He invited them to wonder and continue to explore. He provoked them. The parable doesn’t leave you knowing everything. It says “What do you think?”
If we hear ourselves saying “ I know that story, I heard it before” we haven’t heard it.
It’s said at times that we’re are not an agricultural people like those Jesus lived with; seed and soil, wheat and weeds are not as familiar to us as the cars we drive or the houses we live in. The world of technology is our world. That’s true, to some extent..
But we’re also in a world facing climate change. If anything we need to re-engage now with nature, with the seasons and the natural world. If anything we need to know the natural world more deeply and love it more strongly.
And so for us the parables drawn from nature may more important than ever. The psalms we pray, filled with references to nature may be more important than ever.