In the first chapters of his gospel Mark highlights the remarkable actions of Jesus in the towns near the Sea of Galilee as he confronts demons and heals many. Only in chapter 4 does Mark give examples of his teaching. For Mark, what Jesus did was more important than what he said. When he taught, he 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 drew from life around him for his teaching, from the natural, religious and political worlds he and his hearers knew so well.
Galilee was a land of farms and vineyards, farmers and fishermen. When Jesus spoke of the ways of seed and soil, of nets cast into the sea, he shared a world his hearers also knew. When he spoke of David feeding his followers on the Sabbath or Elijah the prophet, or scribes and Pharisees, his hearers knew those figures as well.
His references to the political world – if we follow Mark’s indications, for example– were more carefully couched. When the scribes from Jerusalem accused him of casting out devils by the power of Beelzubel, the prince of devils, Jesus responded: “A house divided against itself cannot stand… How can Satan drive out Satan?” (Mark 3: 23-24)
The world Jesus lived in was a divided house politically, as the descendants of Herod the Great fought each other for power and control. Like other political dynasties, they were powerful at the time, but then fell.
The economy of Galilee in Jesus’ time was expanding under Herod Antipas. Large cities like Tiberias, Sephorris, Caesarea Philippi, Caesarea Maritima were being built, roads to ship Galilee’s produce laid out, funding for the development put in place. Some were enriched by it; many others were not. Jesus spoke of the failures of his society in his parables.
The parables of Jesus do not simply describe his world; they’ re meant, in C. H. Dodd’s words “to tease the mind into active thought.” Jesus wanted those who heard him to think and question, to wonder and continue to explore. His parables don’t leave us knowing everything. Rather they ask “What do you think and what will you do about it ?”
If we hear ourselves saying “ I know that story, I heard it before” we haven’t heard .
We don’t live in the time of Jesus, but his parables still teach us. His parables drawn from nature may be especially important today as our world faces climate change. We need to re-engage more deeply with nature and it seasons and its care
We also need to engage in our religious and political worlds as he did. We’re not spectators looking on, accepting what we see on a screen. We’re meant to have minds teased into active thought. What do you think and what will you do about it ?”
“What do you think of your church and what will you do about it?”
“What do you think of your world and what will you do about it?”