Principle Lesson: Mark 4:26-34
Have you ever sought to create a vegetable garden. I am sure that your attempts have been far more successful than mine. Mine have, to say the least, have usually been the veritable hot mess. When I created it, I had this romantic idea about growing my own food. I pictured myself admiring my beautiful oasis from my back porch, filling up baskets of produce for friends and family and everyone would envy my ability to cultivate gorgeous tomatoes. Instead of feeding my family, however, all I managed was a rather dismal buffet for the neighborhood squirrels and birds.
My first attempt at real vegetable gardening was to loosely follow something called “Square Foot Gardening” — which is essentially a way of growing a lot of vegetables in a small space. In a way I was successful because there were certainly a lot of vegetables plants in a small space. But before I learned how to prune properly, everything had grown to a point where it was a mess. I couldn’t tell what’s going on, so my tomatoes and cucumbers kind of twisted themselves up together to form a terrifying plant beast.
Purpose of the Parables
Chapter four of Mark’s gospel contains three parables that all begin with the same idea: Someone goes out into a field and puts seed on the ground (4:3; 26). In that first parable, in Mark 4:1-25, there is a farmer, experienced in working the land, who sows seed. The farmer sows the seed in different types of soils – on the path, in rocky ground, among the thorns, and in good soil. The story provides beautiful, striking imagery in which Jesus teaches about spiritual growth and what can happen to God’s word in human hearts.
After the first parable of the sower, right before the second parable, Jesus interjects with a metaphor in which he compares his message (the message for which he was sent) to a lamp meant to shed its light. The lamp, Jesus says, is not meant to be “put under the bushel basket, or under the bed” but rather should be placed “on the lampstand” (Mark 4:21). Jesus’ message, in other words, is a light meant to come so, Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears listen” (Mark 4:23).
Then, in verse 24 (the verse right before our lesson picks up this morning), after explaining that his message must come to light, Jesus implores people to listen. This is the third such plea in this chapter: “Perceive by listening” (4:3); “ “Let anyone with ears listen” (4:23); and, “Pay attention to what you hear” (4:24). It’s almost as if Jesus is inviting us into a process with these parables. Jesus is inviting us to move through our naivety into a critique. We listen! We discern! We struggle with faith, and we move beyond faith into relationship. That’s what the parables invite us to do.
Sitting in the Room of Faith
The two parables we heard this morning pick up after the invitation to listen attentively. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is as if….” “As if…” is an interesting phrase that, in the Greek narrative, is like a pause similar to the English “Ummm” or “Well.” Jesus is pausing in the middle of his thought to find another metaphor, another parable to describe the mysterious nature of the kingdom. Maybe the teacher is struggling a little to find the perfect way.
I coached soccer to little kids for a year. I was trying to teach the perfect way to strike a soccer ball. You see, you don’t want to strike the ball with the tip of the toe or the ball of the heel, you want to use the instep for the perfect combination of control, pace, and accuracy. Well, sometimes you might use the topstep or the outstep if you need the ball to go in a different direction; and, come to think of it, you might use the tip of your toe or the ball of your heel if needed. I tried to explain this to the kids but I had to stop. I had to think of how I was going to teach this thing that I knew so well and thoroughly. How am I going to get this across?
I feel like that is what Jesus is doing here. It’s such a big, beautiful, and complex thing that Jesus is describing, and he’s told this one story already so now he’s literally got to pause and think, “What next?” Understanding this isn’t an analysis of the parable itself; but, rather, is meant to pull back and see what parables do. This is a teaching moment not just for the disciples but for Jesus. This is maybe the moment of trying to grasp just how mysterious and complex the kingdom of God is. This is important for us before we dig into the parable because if we think we have this perfectly figured out and we have the perfect explanation for the kingdom and know exactly what the kingdom should look like then I think we probably need to listen and perceive just a little bit more.
All that to say: This parable is an invitation to sit in the parabolic room of faith – to listen and perceive. This parable is also a way of understanding that Jesus is describing something mysterious and beyond perfect comprehension.
Sowing the Seeds
Let’s look at a few parts of the parables so that we might perceive a little of what Jesus is teaching. The first of the two parables, the second parable of the sower, is unique to Mark without parallel in the other gospels. It is reminiscent of the Pauline teaching in First Corinthians when Paul reminds the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6).
Look, first, at how Jesus begins the parable of the sower: “…if someone would scatter seed on the ground” (Mark 4:26). “Someone” is translated from the Greek word anthropos, which literally means “a human being.” In other words, this is just a random person – not the farmer who would normally sow the seed. Moreover, “casting” (bale in the Greek) is an unusual word for this action. The word implies a haphazard and random action, almost violent in its approach. It is not the work of a professional or experienced planter.
What this demonstrates to me is that despite my best or worst efforts, there is a mystery to the kingdom’s coming! Moreover, the kingdom will come without me or us doing everything. I think that we can get into the mindset that the coming kingdom rests squarely on our shoulders. There is a danger in this thinking because I might then try to build the kingdom in my own image instead of letting God build the kingdom (through me) in God’s image. It risks being my kingdom instead of God’s kingdom. One of the things that this passage teaches me is that it doesn’t rely on me. I’m responsible for my piece – for my scattering even in the haphazard, random way that I might do it – but I am not responsible for the whole kingdom! After all, at the end of the day, it is God’s kingdom and God is working through creation and people far beyond just me and you! And I just find this to be a helpful and refreshing reminder.
Second, notice that the seed sprouts and grows even as the “caster” doesn’t know how. Indeed, somehow, it happens.! There is a mystery about why this seed sprouts and then the stalk and the head and the grain. Do you remember planting that bean in kindergarten? We put the bean in the soil in the clear cup so that we could watch the seed split and watch the sprout shoot up out of the ground. Honestly, it’s still pretty cool! There is an element like that here. The sprouting and growing of the kingdom of God is just so cool – people are trusting each other, loving each other, and caring for each other, and sharing in ways that you don’t understand and didn’t anticipate. It’s a beautiful thing.
Like the Mustard Seed
So then we get to the second parable which we heard today, the one about the mustard seed. There might be more to it than we think or have been taught. The mustard bush was not typically one that a farmer would want in the field or even near the field. It was an invasive, overpowering bush that choked out other plants. And the birds that nested in its branches would swoop down upon the ripened grain in the planted fields. In her notes on the passage, Amy Jo Levine comments:
“The mustard plants were only a few feet high, like many parables this one is humorously satirical. The kingdom is like a shrubby, invasive bush. The parable suggests that the kingdom arises from an inconspicuous beginning but grows miraculously.”
James H. Cone, the great theologian of black liberation, uses the parable of the mustard seed in analogy to black liberation. To paraphrase: One would never imagine that a liberation struggle that began with a few escaped slaves would lead to insurrections; would then lead to the Abolitionist Movement and the American war to end slavery, and then would lead to Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Era. As he writes,
“God’s liberating reign has certainly become large enough that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
While it is not all about us, we do indeed have our part to play as sower of the seed. I love beginning this season after Pentecost, the season of the Church, with these parables because of what they remind us. It’s not all on our shoulders, but we should still do our part, even if only small things are done with great love.