In the first of his parables, Jesus told of a sower. Mark used questions from the disciples as a way to link the parable to two different interpretations.
10 Then the disciples came and asked him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" 11 He answered, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that 'seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.' 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: '15 For this people's heart has grown dull, and I would heal them.' 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."
There is a combination of cross-cultural static, and profound truth here.
In Isaiah 6 God tells the prophet to say to the people:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds
and turn and be healed.
These words explained why God had laid waste the land of the 'chosen people,' and indeed, the people themselves. The logic, which made perfect sense at the time, was this: people had been so bad, that God was giving them no chance to repent. We don't see things that way now. Generally, we understand we can't 'force' God to act in a particular way by our behaviour. But in the time of Mark, when it was a mystery why some people could not see what, to Mark's audience, was obvious, the Isaiah answer still 'worked.' It also explained why some of Jesus sayings were so enigmatic. Mark is saying, through Jesus, "Do you remember the time of Isaiah? It's like then, when God stopped up their ears....."
Rather than concentrate on what we find inadequate in Mark's understanding, we should concentrate on the question, which is still here. Why can some people not see, and yet others can?
To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
Why did I read the gospel attributed to Matthew and see, with urgency, that if this were true, I was 'on the wrong side?' Others have seen nothing, and even been repelled. (Aspects of Matthew are repellent!) What has moved me to find hope, whereas my christian friends Mark and Toby killed themselves? Why do people seek and strive and pray, and yet cannot see? Why are the rich made richer while those without seem to lose everything?
I have no answer. What I have found is certainly something undeserved on my part. There was for me a time of wishing I could see- one day I could, and I do not know what made the difference. "There but for the grace of God.... "
It seems to me that Mark's answer, and the later answer of some of the Reformers, (Predestination), make the mistake of insisting on an answer. So they come up with a logical (God controls everything, therefore God must cause it,) and yet barbaric (by its utter lack of compassion and justice in its image of God) and un-christian answer. We are better to admit the mystery, to be compassionate to the one who cannot see, and to let their 'blindness' shine brightly upon our 'knowledge.' It is just possible they cannot see because we are deceiving ourselves!
In this commentary, something should be very clear if the reader has not seen it before now. Mark, and the rest of the Christian scriptures, are not holy words that are written down by God. They are the response of God's people at a certain time in history. They reflect the fallible understandings of those people. They are holy because when we wrestle with them, and let them speak to us, we meet the same Reality called God. And God challenges and transforms us.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.