In its first chapters Mark’s gospel 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 his parables from the natural, religious and political worlds around him. Galilee was a land of farms and vineyards, farmers and fishermen, so when Jesus spoke of the ways of seed and soil, of nets cast into the sea, he spoke of a world his hearers knew well. 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.
What about his political world? Galilee then was ruled by Herod Antipas, an ambitious descendant of Herod the Great and a member of a family fighting fiercely for positions of power under Rome’s thumb. He ambitiously expanded Galilee’s economy. Large cities like Tiberias, Sephorris, Caesarea Philippi, Caesarea Maritima were being built, roads to ship Galilee’s produce were laid out. Funding for its development came from the collection of taxes. Some grew rich; many did not. The burden fell on the poor.
The scribes and pharisees were not the only ones who saw themselves targets of the parables Jesus spoke. The “Herodians”, followers of Herod Antipas, also saw the political world they represented attacked. (Mark 3: 6)
The parables of Jesus, in C. H. Dodd’s words, are meant “to tease the mind into active thought.” They call us to think and question, to wonder and then act. In his parables Jesus asks “What do you think and what will you do about it ?”
We don’t live in the time of Jesus, but his parables still call 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
But 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. HIs parables are meant to tease our minds 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 country and what will you do about it?”
“What do you think of your world and what will you do about it?”