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Jesus' Parables: Candles and Seeds (Mark 4:21-34)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Teaches his Apostles

Jesus Teaches his Apostles

    21 And he said unto them, Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? and not to be set on a candlestick? 22 For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was any thing kept secret, but that it should come abroad. 23 If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.
    24 And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given. 25 For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath. 26 And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; 27 And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. 28 For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. 29 But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.
    30 And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: 32 But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.
    33 And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. 34 But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.
    Compare: Luke 8:16-18; Matthew 13:31,32; Luke 13:18,19

Jesus on Candles Casting Light

Having explained the parable of the sower of seeds to his apostles, Jesus launches into several more parables. The timeline of events here is confusing because we were just reading about Jesus talking alone to his apostles, but he is now teaching parables to them — or have we shifted back to an earlier time when he was speaking to the crowd? And why are the explanations of the parables set right alongside the parables themselves?

Perhaps all of the parables were told to the crowd earlier while all of the explanations came later when the listeners had left. Another explanation is that Mark is trying to combine multiple traditions and sayings about Jesus into a single narrative, but not entirely succeeding.

The first of these short parables is probably the most obscure and difficult to understand — what is all of this about a candle, a bushel, and a bed? It helps to keep in mind that Jesus here still isn’t saying anything about his actual message but is instead talking about how his message will be received. The candles represent this message — elsewhere, God’s message is described as a light, for example:

    Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
    (Psalms 119:105)

At later stages of the Christian community, at least, the candlestick was used to represent the Christian church:

    The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.
    (Revelation 1:20)

Because Christian churches were still relatively new at the time Mark was written, it is unlikely that this specific meaning was intended. However, the general idea of setting a candle up to cast light over a further distance seems likely — especially when we contrast it to the image of setting the candle under a bed. In reality no one would do that, but it does sound like an effort to hide the light of the candle so that others can’t see it.

But isn’t that exactly what Jesus is doing by speaking in parables and then only explaining things to a select few? Jesus says that everything which is hidden (in his messages, presumably) will be made known to all, but this contradicts the idea that that which is hidden should be revealed to only a few.

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