New Testament Reading | Mark 4
This is the first chapter where we start getting into significant teachings, now that Mark has established why Jesus is worth listening to. It's fitting then that he should start with the nature of faith, since anything else has to come from there.
Jesus went out teaching along the sea, and such a great crowd gathered that he had to stand in a boat on the water, with the crowd all around him on land. And he taught them via many parables, and in his teaching he said to them:
“Listen. A sower went sowing. And it happened that some of the seeds fell on the road, and birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell in the rocky ground, where there was not much earth, and they grew quickly because the soil was shallow. But as soon as the sun came up, it burned them, and they withered from lack of root. Other seeds fell among the brambles, which overgrew them, and the seeds did not bear much fruit. Then other seeds fell on good ground, and flourished, and gave fruit by the 30s and 60s and hundreds.”
And Jesus said, “Let whoever has ears to hear, hear.”
(Later, when they were alone, those around Jesus, together with the Twelve, asked about the parables. And he told them, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God. To the others, it is all in parables, so that 'seeing, they may see and not perceive, and hearing, they may hear and not understand, so that they do not repent and receive forgiveness.'”)
Then Jesus said, “If you do not understand this parable, how will you understand all the others?
“The sower is sowing the Word. First, we have the ones sown on the road: as soon as they hear it, Satan comes and snatches up the Word that was in them. Then others are sown on the rocky ground. They take the Word with joy, but it does not have roots in them, and is temporary. Then when they face trials or tribulations because of the word, they desert it. Next we have the seeds sown in the brambles. These are the ones who hear the Word, but worldly anxieties, the treachery of riches, and other desires enter into them and crowd out the Word, and they become barren. The last are the ones sown on good ground, who hear the Word and take it up, and who bear fruit in 30s and 60s and hundreds.”
Then he said to them, “Does the light come in order to be put under a basket or a bed? Or does it come to be put on a candlestick? Nothing is hidden that will not appear, nothing is made secret that will not come to light. Let whoever has ears to hear, hear.
“Heed what you hear. Whatever you measure out will be measured out for you, and more. More will be given to those who have, and all will be taken from those who do not.”
Then he said, “So is the Kingdom of God: as a man plants a seed in the earth, then sleeps and awakens night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not know how. The earth bears fruit on its own, first shoot, then stalk, then head, then whole grain in the head. Once it is ripe, he goes with his sickle, for the harvest is ready.
“How can we compare the Kingdom of God, or in what parables can we set it out? It is like the mustard seed, which when scattered on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on Earth, but once it grows, it becomes greater than any herb, and makes huge branches, such that the birds of the sky can make nests in its shade.”
And he taught them many parables like these, as much as they could hear. He did not teach them any other way, except, once they were alone, he gave it all to his disciples.
Then when evening had come, he said, “Let's cross to the other side.” Once the crowd had left, his discipiles put him in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.
And a great storm came, and waves crashed over the boat, such that it filled with water. Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern. His disciples woke him, and said, “Teacher! Don't you care that we may die?”
Jesus arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea: “Be still, be quiet.” The wind stopped, and there was a great calm.
Then he said to his disciples, “Why are you afraid like this? How is it that you have no faith?”
They were greatly afraid, and spoke to one another: “Who in the world is he, that the wind and the sea obey him?”
Much is made of the parables that start this chapter, but I think it's important not to take them in isolation. Instead, the whole chapter is focused on one thing: the nature of faith.
Too often, both believers and non-believers alike see faith as coming from blindness, from the gaps. It's easy to be tempted into using it to fill in what we don't know, and as a way to indirectly try to control what is ultimately uncontrollable. At first blush, Jesus' teaching in this chapter may seem to support this: talking about the mustard seed, he specifically says that faith grows in ways we don't understand. I think this is true as far as it goes, but isn't the whole picture.
Instead, most of what this chapter focuses on is our role in faith. Even the parable of the mustard seed starts with active, purposeful choice: to plant the seed in the ground to begin with. The Parable of the Sower too discusses the different places that the Word can fall, and is about what we can do to make it prosper. But what kind of ground we are isn't random. For example, the seeds that fall among the brambles are crowded out by worldly cares, which is something we have some control over. Moreover, Jesus criticizes his disciples for not having faith (and there's another aspect of this I'll get into later). This only makes sense if it's a choice, as it doesn't make sense for Jesus to rebuke someone for something they can't control.
It's also worth looking at the word faith itself. The Greek word is πίστις (PIS-tis), and as with so many terms that we now take for granted, it predates Christianity by quite a bit. So it's worth looking briefly at where this word came from, and considering why it was the one chosen by Mark and the other New Testament authors. During the Classical period (a few hundred years before Christ's birth), πίστις was used to mean a variety of things, including both belief or trust in a person and even the thing that made something creditable. In a commercial context, meanwhile, it was akin to our word “creditworthy,” as in someone whom you could trust to repay a loan. But with all of these uses, there's nothing to suggest that they weren't based on experience. Meanwhile, Jesus criticizes his disciples for not believing, but notice he's never done that to anyone else who's doubted him. He's responded to attacks by the Pharisees, but with argument, not with some blanket demand that they take him seriously. The difference of course is that his disciples have seen. They've been privy to instance after instance of Jesus doing miraculous things, and they've heard him teach. They've also chosen to follow him. Thus I take Jesus' rebuke to mean, “how can you not have any faith after seeing everything you've seen?” And at this point, we've had almost three full chapters devoted to showing why Jesus is someone we should take seriously.
So it is that I don't believe that we're called to believe blindly. We have to put ourselves in a place where we're open to the idea, but it's also about what our own experiences tell us.
This is actually a place where faith and science aren't actually different. We have faith that science will lead us to better places, but that faith is based on experience. Yet there has to be a measure of doubt in both instances, since it's all ultimately based on a logical fallacy, the fallacy of induction. Briefly, this says that we cannot truly prove that just because something happened a certain one one time, that it will always do so. Instead, all we can do is experiment and hope for the best, because that's ultimately all we have. Science does its best, and is (hopefully) improving, but it's wrong to say that it's somehow more grounded in “reality” than religious belief. The question is ultimately whether something works for a given end, but this too is simply a matter of something being “good enough.” Newton's Laws of Motion aren't actually 100% accurate, since they don't take into account relativity. They're good enough for many applications, so we use them where applicable. But GPS wouldn't be possible if we didn't understand relativity.
This is also a large part of why I'm a universalist. Just as I think it's arrogant for an atheist to assume that, just because they haven't had an experience that suggests they should believe, no one else could, the contrary is also true. My own faith is based on my own experiences, but it was also something that I had to be open to. I could dismiss every religious experience with some other explanation, but that too is based on a faulty assumption, namely that a scientific explanation precludes a religious one. Why do we assume that God can't operate within the laws of our universe? It's like those who refuse to accept evolution, saying that somehow it contradicts God's hand in the world. But by doing that, they're making God awfully weak. Couldn't He instead have set the evolutionary processes in motion?
At the end of the day, we're given choice, and we have to choose what to make of the world. God doesn't want robots or slaves. It's not that some of us will get it right and some won't, but that we're all wrong in our views of the world, or at least incomplete. None of us can encompass the infinite. So instead, we have to do our best with our limited faculties, something that is equally true in science and religion both. We've been given eyes to see, ears to hear, and minds to ponder, and I for one don't think any of them are extraneous.