Mark 4.3-20 (cf. Matthew 13.18-43, Luke 8.5-15)
In the next chapter (Mark 4), instead of the mini-parables delivered to the Jerusalem scribes, Jesus tells a long parable, that of the sower and his seed, to the assembled multitudes. Later, when his intimates ask him to explain the parable, he does so, because they have been given the secret of the kingdom of God. Others who do not possess this secret
are told nothing more than parables, “so that they may look and not see, hear and not understand” (Mark 4.12). Here Jesus is quoting the words of God to Isaiah that we cited above (chap. 3.3), where He orders Isaiah to deliberately mislead the people.
So, misleading the people is something that we have seen God and His prophets doing to the Israelites of old, and what Paul also said he was doing, and now we find Jesus doing the same thing. But, as Jesus explains the parable, he indicates that there is yet another person in charge of misleading the people, namely, Satan. He says, “Some persons are on the pathway where the word is sown, and when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them” (Mark 4.15).
The question of how evil Satan is must be discussed as we move on to speak of Matthew’s other additions to Mark. To begin with, we note that in the Parable of the Sower, instead of “Satan” taking away the word, it is “the Evil One” (Matt. 13.19). At least that is how the Greek ho Poneros is usually translated. But I object to this translation, because it begs the question of Satan’s moral standing. The adjective poneros is like the Latin malus and the English “bad”: it has a whole range of meanings, from “a bad man” to “a bad cold” to “bad weather.” But “evil” inevitably signifies moral wickedness of a very intense nature. We have invested it with such a profundity of malice that we personify it, talking about “the existence of Evil.” It is incongruous for us to speak of “an evil cold” or “evil weather,” unless we are indulging in humorous exaggeration. Similarly, it sounds funny to talk about “the existence of Bad” or “the prevalence of Badness.”
However, the very oddness of such expressions will help to keep us on our toes and prevent us from jumping to conclusions that might not yet be warranted. We should presume Satan to be innocent of
“blanket evil,” that is, the totality of all wrongfulness or wickedness, and see what specific faults he can be convicted of. Other possibilities for rendering ho Poneros are “the Harmful One” or “the Troublesome One,” or simply “Harm” or “Trouble.” We could even say “Malice,” without thinking of him as totally beyond the Pale, or as the Miltonic villain, alien to all virtue and good intentions and irreversibly condemned to eternal punishment.
After the temptations, Luke says, “When Devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4.13).
Does this mean that Satan intends to continue testing Jesus whenever opportunity presents itself? Perhaps. But some interpreters take these words to mean that the rest of Jesus’s public ministry will be a Satan-free time, and that Satan will return to testing Jesus only when he commandeers Judas just before the Passion. But even though we do not hear of Satan testing Jesus again before this, there is some talk about Satan in the meantime.
The first mention is in the Parable of the Sower, where Luke follows Mark in having Jesus explain that Satan takes away the sown word, but Luke uses “Devil” rather than “Satan” (Luke 8.12).