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Riddles and Parables

What’s the good word? Today I will be writing a little about riddles and parables in the Gospel According to Mark. Often in a novel or in a short story, a character will ell a brief story or recount a dream. As I have been reading about TED Talks, this is one of the components of these talks that have made them so popular. In TED’s world- tell a good story. Now the interpretation of the character’s story might not be clear at first, but the story told by the character is invariably meant to be important in the larger encompassing story told by the narrator. Mark’s Gospel has many such “stories within the story,” for the protagonist tells stories that illuminate the whole Gospel.


The stories that Jesus mainly tells are called parables. The word parable has really become overloaded with many meanings and because the Markan parables are often cryptic and obscure, theologian David Rhoads says they really should be called riddles. I know, first thing that comes to my mind is the Riddler from Batman. But perhaps he isn’t too far off.


If you think about it, riddles are cryptic. The Markan riddles are about the hidden presence about the rule of God in the story world; that is, they are cryptic stories about a hidden reality. Depending on who hears them, the riddles will reveal more about the reign of God or they will obscure matters further. Jesus’ riddles in Mark are allegories-analogies with several points of correlation- that interpret events and people in the framework of the rule of God. This function becomes apparent when we look at the riddles that Jesus explains to the disciples.

An example of this is the story we will be concentrating on this week with the parable of the sower. Jesus tells this “parable” and then explains it allegorically in relation to the proclamation of the rule of God and the responses to it. The sower is the one who proclaims, the seed is the word, and the soils correlate with the response of various characters in the Gospel as a whole.


Later, Jesus tells a riddle about defilement, then explains what it means: Unclean food will not defile people, but evil plans and actions will. Then he tells another one about a man who went away and told his doorkeeper to keep watch, then draws allegorical parallels with his own impending absence and how the disciples, and others, are to stay alert for his return.

Now there are those that Jesus explains and there are riddles that Jesus does NOT explain in Mark’s Gospel, but all of them have a dual purpose. ON one hand, Jesus tells them as a call to understanding. He usually always prefaces or concludes these riddles with things like, “Hear! Look!” or “Anyone who has ears, let them hear!” “Hear me everyone and understand!” And he also tells them  so that those who reject God’s rule or God’s kingdom will not understand. when Jesus gets to this point in the story and states this reason for telling them, the authorities have already rejected Jesus and committed a “sin to eternity” of claiming that Jesus is possessed by an unclean spirit.

Sometime Jesus telling these riddles helps him avoid arrest, as we will see later on in the story. By telling a riddle about binding the strong one rather than by making a direct statement, Jesus avoids a charge of blasphemy. All in all, we are in a better position to understand these riddles than the characters in the story are, and that is important to remember. And that’s the good word for today!

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