Jesus and the Prophet Isaiah
Between the event in the previous post and today’s study, Mark has moved briskly through the following events:
- Jesus healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on Sabbath;
- Jesus preached to huge crowds from Galilee and from Idumea, Tyre and Sidon (non-Jewish audience);
- Evil spirits identified Jesus as the Son of God;
- Jesus chose the twelve;
- Jesus’s own people tried to take him into their care, thinking him mad;
- Jesus identified those who do God’s will as his family;
- Jesus told the parable of the sower and the seed.
When his disciples ask him about his parables, this is his response.
“To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables; in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they return again and be forgiven” (Mark 4:11-12).
This quotation links the ministry of Jesus with the prophetic ministry of Isaiah:
"Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here am I. Send me!' And He said, 'Go, and tell this people: "Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand." Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and repent and be healed'" (Isaiah 6:8-9).
This is from the famous passage where Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, with a train that fills the temple. Isaiah responds with terror, as anyone would, and identifies himself as a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. The word “unclean” has a history in the Law; people were rendered unclean by touching a dead body, by bodily discharges, by leprosy, by numerous causes, and in an unclean state were prohibited from engaging in worship with the community. We can infer that Isaiah had not made himself unclean in these ways since he was in the temple.
But he sees himself as essentially unclean when he sees the holiness of God, and in this he represents all of us. His cry, “Woe is me!” is the cry of all humanity when we see the difference between ourselves and God. His immediate understanding that he is a person of polluted language and boundaries (things represented by lips) applies to all of us.
And it makes the reaching out of God to humanity through Jesus so necessary and important. As Jesus, who identified himself always as the son of humanity, says, “Whoever has seen me has seen my Father.”
The sting in this quotation is for those who do not perceive their essential neediness before God, those who listen but do not hear, who see but do not understand. These will never turn back to God, will never face into God’s holiness and their own need. These people can be completely religious, and yet not healed.
By identifying himself with the vision and calling of Isaiah, Jesus also admits and predicts a similar certainty that many people will not see, listen, or understand his own person and ministry; therefore they will not repent, and by this lack of repentance they will be judged. The parables are therefore challenges to us: will we listen with our spirits and imaginations? Will we look for how they call us to repent?