‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
-Mark 4:10-12 (NRSV)
I always read Mark 4:10-12 several times whenever I get to it. The statement that Jesus says seems so counterintuitive to everything else he says or at least to what I imagine Jesus to be like. The passage seems to be indicating Jesus’ parables are given to intentionally to keep people from forgiveness. This doesn’t gel well with our theology of evangelism as Christians, and doesn’t even gel well with Jesus’ own words just a few verses later in verses 21-22 where he states “whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed.” What is going on?
To understand this passage it’s important to look at its context. It’s no coincidence that this passage is sandwiched between the parable of the sower and its explanation. The sower parable is described by Jesus in verse 13 as something of a decoder ring for all his other parables. It seems as if the words are placed early on in Mark’s Gospel as a framework by which you can understand the remainder of the book, and the life of Jesus. R.T. France argues in his commentary on Mark (The Gospel of Mark, Eerdmans, 2002) that the “everything” in verse 11 could be read as the life and works of Jesus not simply his teachings. The question is now, are we to see Jesus enigmatic words and life as intentionally beguiling OR is beguilement a natural consequence of what Jesus is doing?
Verse 12 consists mostly of a condensed quotation of Is. 6:9-10. This passage had been controversial even before Jesus used it for many of the same reasons it is controversial today. In the LXX we see that the language is somewhat softened to indicate the preaching of the prophet is causative rather than intentionally initiated to blind the people. There is also a rabbinical tradition that views the Isaiah passage as a promise rather than a treat (France, pg 200). The text doesn’t seem to indicate Jesus was taking this line at all. Instead he used the controversial ινα at the beginning of verse 12, which could mean a variety of things but in any case does not support the view that Jesus viewed this passage as a promise. Others like B. Hollenbach translate the whole passage with an air of sarcasm, while some translate the ινα as simply a quotation marker and sidestep intention all together.
France points out that this passage is directed at insiders, who were not always insiders. The people Jesus reveals the “secret of the Kingdom of God” is not a static set of folks, and the “secret” is not something that has the same connotation in the Greek at it does in English. The word in Greek is μυστατηρον and in this context it is something that “once known is to be shared” (France, 201). The extent to which the secret is to be shared is hard to know. As I mentioned before Jesus’ second parable is about disclosing what is hidden. However we must not ignore the places where Jesus does censure people from speaking of what he’s done (8:30 and 9:9).
I would like to conclude by saying that we are not in a position in which we are called to be silent. As a Christian I have been called to proclaim the secret of the Kingdom of God. In doing so there will be many upon which my words will fall on deaf ears. It is not within my power to open ears, hearts, or lives, but that task continues to be done. The secret has always had an outward momentum and in that momentum there is a grace to make the enigma incarnate in our own identity.