Could familiarity with Matthew cause you to miss a powerful sequence of meaning in Mark? Could some of Yeshua’s sayings be used in different contexts to mean very different things? Are they multi-use?
Mark 4:21-34 is an important sequence of sayings whose meaning in the context of Mark is often obscured by readers who are more familiar with the sayings from Matthew. That is to say, the order in which we read the gospels sometimes affects our interpretation. How does this happen?
The different synoptic evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke) often include the same sayings in different contexts. The context of the saying often influences interpretation. The modern reader might wonder if: (a) the sayings are all given in arbitrary contexts with the evangelists rarely if ever knowing what context they may have been uttered in, (b) if the sayings were often repeated again and again so that they occurred in multiple contexts, (c) if each evangelist had his own literary reasons for including the sayings in the contexts where they show up. I choose (c), which does not mean there are no cases where the context and the saying are matched to “what actually happened.” It is quite possible that sometimes the evangelists give us a saying in the actual context of events in which Yeshua uttered the words. But the gospels as we have them are literary compositions and we can get far more out of them by regarding them as such without inserting historical questions into the details.
Remember that Mark’s gospel is the first to be written down and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. Therefore, it is useful to view the lamp, measure, seed, and mustard weed sayings first as Mark used them. And it turns out the context and the sequence of these sayings in Mark is very meaningful.
How Matthew Influences a Reader’s View of These Sayings
The “lamp under a bushel” saying in Matthew is in the Sermon on the Mount (5:15) and its meaning there is about the disciples shining their “lamp” to reveal God’s glory to the world. As I will argue in Part 2, Mark puts this saying in a different context and the one shining his “lamp” is Yeshua, lifted up on the cross.
The “measure” saying in Matthew is in the Sermon on the Mount (7:2). There it refers to the measure or standard of judgment a person uses for another. God will judge us with the same measure we judge others. In Mark (as also in Luke), the measure saying is about giving (giving love, giving money, giving service).
The “to him who has more will be given” saying in Matthew 13:12 is about having the mystery of revelation of the kingdom. Those who learn the kingdom’s mysteries will be given more. In Mark, it seems that what the disciple has is reward, not revelation (God’s reward for the deeds of service).
The “scatter seed” saying from Mark 4:26 is unique, not found in Matthew or Luke. It is a rare case of material unique to Mark.
The “mustard seed” parable is used in Matthew in a very similar context to Mark’s use of it, but in a different sequence of sayings about the kingdom. Probably both Matthew’s use and Mark’s use of the saying is about the remarkable growth. Still, I will argue in Part 2 that Mark’s context for the “mustard seed,” and also Mark’s unique “scattered seed” parable, is about Yeshua sowing the seed more so than the disciples sowing it.
Readers who are used to the traditional order of the gospels (Matthew first) tend to give priority to Matthew’s setting for the sayings. Thus, when reading Mark 4, many readers have a pre-formed opinion about the “lamp” and the “measure” and the “seed.” It is easy to miss how Mark uses them.
Preview: Multi-Use Sayings
If a saying like the lamp and bushel could possibly, as I will try to demonstrate in Part 2, have two meanings as diverse as “disciples shine your light” and “Yeshua’s light will shine from the cross,” should we conclude that the evangelists had no understanding of the meaning of Yeshua’s words?
Not at all. First, it is more than likely that Yeshua himself used the same or similar sayings not only in different contexts, but with different meanings at times for the key terms. Second, many of Yeshua’s sayings are images with multiple layers of meaning. It is possible that multiple traditions of interpretation of a saying like the “lamp under a bushel” developed by the time the gospels were written. Is Matthew right and Mark wrong? They truly could both be right.
Next part: Interpreting Mark 4:21-34 in context.