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NOTE: For the mustard seed parable, check out: Parables and Paradise
Our text is composed of two parables that both illustrate the basileia of God. The first, about the seed growing secretly, is the only parable unique to Mark. The second, about the mustard seed, is found in Mt 13:31-32; Lk 13:18-19; and Thomas 20:1-4.
In the outline of Mark that I use, 4:1-34 is called "Teaching by Parables." This is followed by 4:35-5:43 where Jesus is "Teaching by Miracles". The section concludes with Jesus being rejected at Nazareth (6:1-6a).
R. T. France (The Gospel of Mark) calls 4:1-34: "Explanatory Discourse: The Paradox of the Kingdom of God." In the preceding chapter, a "great multitude from Galilee followed him" (3:7). People come to him "in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon" (3:8). At the same time, there are people say that "He has gone out of his mind" (3:21b). Scribes from Jerusalem say, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons" (3:22). How can there be such diverse responses to Jesus? If Jesus is proclaiming the coming of the basileia of God, how can people respond so differently? Why isn't he being universally embraced? If demons recognize and confess who Jesus is, why not the religious leaders? Chapter 4 seeks to answer these questions.
France states about ch. 4: "This is, therefore, a discourse about God's kingship, and it aims to explain the paradoxical fact that a proclamation of such ultimate importance can be ignored or even opposed by some who hear it" (p. 182). The reason given in this chapter: Jesus teaches in parabolai. France goes on to say: "And their meaning, when discovered, is not likely to lie at the purely cognitive level, but will include (indeed, may even simply be) a call to response at the level of attitude, will, and action. To understand a parabole is usually to be changed (or at least challenged to change), not just enlightened." (p. 183)
These parables are like seeds sown into our lives. They may sprout and grow or they may not. It depends upon the type of soil they land on.
This phrase is usually translated "kingdom of God." There are at least two difficulties with this. The first is, that although basileia can refer to the area ruled by a king (e.g., "kingdom"); it can also refer to the power or authority to "rule" as king. The idea of "kingdom" can make us think of a place -- such as a place we go when we die. More properly, I think, we should think of basileia as the ruling power that emanates from God -- perhaps translating the phrase as "God rules" or "God's power." As such, it is more about our relationship -- being under the "king's" authority, than about a place.
The second difficulty is the complete lack of experience of most of our members of living under an absolute ruler. Living under the authority and power of a "king" or "lord" or "master" is foreign to most of us. Whatever the basileia of God is, it is not a democracy.
Reading through Mark from the beginning, this phrase is uttered by Jesus in 1:15; but it is not said again until 4:11:
And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret [or mystery] of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables."
There is a distinction between insides and outsiders. This picks up the different responses seen in chapter 3.
Basileia of God appears again at the beginning of each of our parables (vv. 26 & 30).
"God's rule" is presented as something like a joke or a riddle. Some will "get it" and some will not. It may be that the harder we try to "get it" -- e.g., analyzing a joke, the less likely we are to be enraptured by it -- e.g., laughing (with others) at the absurdity of it all.
Eugene Boring in the New Interpreter's Bible (Matthew) writes:
In the preaching of Jesus, parables were not vivid decorations of a moralistic point but were disturbing stories that threatened the hearer's secure mythological world -- the world of assumptions by which we habitually live, the unnoticed framework of our thinking within which we interpret other data. 
This leads me to wonder as we look at these parables, "What was Jesus seeking to threaten in the hearer's world of assumptions by which they habitually live?" And, "What in our hearer's world of assumptions might Jesus be seeking to threaten today?" How do we preach in such a way that our hearer's assumptions might be threatened? (Or, "Am I brave enough to preach in such a way?" The ultimate response to Jesus' preaching was a raise -- but it wasn't in his salary, but the lifting up of his body on a cross.)
In a book completely unrelated to parables, Music in Churches, by Linda J. Clark, she writes:
I wish to return to something I said earlier about the nature of the event called 'art.' I said that it had to be transparent. I use the term transparency to describe that quality of music that allows the release of meaning to take place in both the work itself and the 'worker' (the singer). Art is an event in which the life embodied in an art work and the life of the beholder or performer meet. In order that any meaning be expressed by a composition, or a painting, or a play, it must work. It must be adequate to the task of evoking or carrying this meaning event. [p. 9]
Similarly, I think that "parable" is an art-form that creates an "event" between the life in the story and the life of the reader. Parables are created, I think, not to be studied and interpreted so much as to be experienced.
This is the only parable that is found only in Mark.
Williamson (Mark, Interpretation Commentaries) writes:
The point is that the Kingdom of God grows in a hidden, mysterious way, independently of human effort. Though the parable speaks of growth, its meaning is not that the Kingdom of God develops naturally in history thanks to human efforts; nor is the function of the parable hortatory. Rather, growth is spoken of as the miraculous work of God and harvest as an outcome that is both gift and miracle.
The parable is significant whenever and wherever we Christians take ourselves and our efforts too seriously, seeking by our plans and programs to "bring in the kingdom of God." Against such arrogant self-importance stands "of itself" (automate), a subtle allusion to God's hidden presence and power. [pp. 97-98]
Schweizer (The Good News According to Mark) agrees with this interpretation:
The parable with its assurance that the harvest will come stands in opposition to any form of doubt or care which, instead of waiting for God to fulfill his promise, endeavors to force the coming of the Kingdom or to build it -- by a revolution like the Zealots, by exact calculations and preparation like the Apocalyptists, or by complete obedience to the law like the Pharisees. Thus the parable is asking if we are willing, for Jesus' sake, to wait with him for God to do what he is sure to do, and if we are willing to wait with the carefree attitude which is becoming to the children of God, without any spiritual maneuvering or misguided efforts. To build one's life in this way -- entirely upon God's promise and no longer upon one's own ability or inability -- demands all the feeling, thinking, doing, and speaking of which we are capable. [p. 103]
While I agree that this is a valid understanding of the parable; it is not too helpful if we already have a congregation full of people sitting around waiting for God to take care of everything. Often our problem is not with people thinking that their work will bring in the kingdom; but with people who are doing no work.
Some years ago I copied the following from the newsletter of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Roswell, NM
A preacher in the midwest tells of a woman who called him to speak of her dissatisfaction with the program of the Church. He invited her to come to his office and talk the problem over with him. She accepted the invitation and brought to his attention some of the things that were needed and could be done.
He gratefully acknowledged the wisdom of her ideas. He then said, "This is wonderful that you are so concerned and interested in this. You are the very person this Church needs to head up this program. Will you take the job?"
Her reply was just as immediate. "Oh, no, I don't want to get involved. With my clubwork and the hours that I put on some other things, I just don't have the time. But I will be glad to advise you any time."
The preacher's answer was classic and well put: "Good, gracious, lady, that's the problem now. I already have 400 advisers. I need someone who will work."
Can this parable address that problem (or only contribute to the problem)?
Note the different actions of the "person" (anthropos -- v. 26)
casting seed on the earth
sleeping and getting up
putting the sickle to the ripened grain
I'm not sure that I like equating this "person" with God. While the "harvest" is often equated with God's coming judgment, the picture of God doing nothing while life on earth proceeds "naturally" seems way too deistic to me.
It seems more likely to me that the "person" is us. We have our jobs to do: casting seed on the earth and being ready to participate in the harvest when the time is right. God's "job" is to create the "natural" growth.
Rather than just a theme of "doing nothing" to bring about the basileia of God, I think the parable illustrates our need to know what we are to do and what we need to leave up to God.
My congregation has recently gotten involved in Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches. Through their research of 1000 churches in 32 countries, they state with 99.4% certainty that every congregation who scores at least 65 in all eight essential qualities will be a growing church. (In their mathematical scheme, a score of 50 is average, and the standard deviation is 15, so that a score of 65 or more puts that congregation way above average in that area. Similarly, a score of 35 or less puts that congregation way below average in that area.)
Christian A. Schwarz, the author of Natural Church Development, says much the same thing as Rick Warren in The Purpose Drive Church, "I believe the key issue for churches in the twenty-first century will be church health, not church growth" (p. 17).
Although a different word for "growth" is used, these verses from Paul also illustrate our different roles: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor 3:6-7).
If seeds grow "automatically," the concern for the farmer (or pastor or evangelist) who has planted the seed of God's word, is not how to make it grow; but what may be hindering the growth that would come naturally. What keeps our congregations from growing? What is hindering the growth that we believe God wants to give?
While in the parable, the sower does nothing after scattering the seed, "real" farmers (in contrast to parabolic farmers,) spend a lot of time and energy working against forces that might hinder the natural growth of the seed. Pesticides and herbicides or other deterrents against bugs and weeds are used. Fertilizer is applied to make up for nutrients that are lacking in the soil. Forms of irrigation are used to provide water when the clouds don't bring the needed rains. Yet, even with all that "work," farmers still wait in faith. The growth happens while they sleep, not because of their efforts.
Another theme related to the "mystery" or "secret" of God's rule (4:11) is that what may appear to "outsiders" as just natural events, to us "insiders" reveals the power of God as in this Jewish parable.
from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York
All their lives the two young brothers had lived in the city behind great stone walls and never saw field nor meadow. But one day they decided to pay a visit to the country.
As they went walking along the road they saw a farmer at his plowing. They watched him and were puzzled.
"What on earth is he doing that for!" they wondered. "He turns up the earth and leaves deep furrows in it. Why should someone take a smooth piece of land covered with nice green grass and dig it up?"
Later they watched the farmer sowing grains of wheat along the furrows.
"That man must be crazy!" they exclaimed. "He takes good wheat and throws it into the dirt."
"I don't like the country!" said one in disgust. "Only crazy people live here."
So he returned to the city.
His brother who remained in the country saw a change take place only several weeks later. The plowed field began to sprout tender green shoots, even more beautiful and fresher than before. This discovery excited him very much. So he wrote to his brother in the city to come at once and see for himself the wonderful change.
His brother came and was delighted with what he saw. As time passed they watched the sproutings grow into golden heads of wheat. Now they both understood the purpose of the farmer's work.
When the wheat became ripe the farmer brought his scythe and began to cut it down. At this the impatient one of the two brothers exclaimed: "The farmer is crazy! He's insane! How hard he worked all these months to produce this lovely wheat, and now with his own hands he is cutting it down! I'm disgusted with such an idiot and I'm going back to the city!"
His brother, the patient one, held his peace and remained in the country. He watched the farmer gather the wheat into his granary. He saw him skillfully separate the grain from the chaff. He was filled with wonder when he found that the farmer had harvested a hundred-fold of the seed that he had sowed. Then he understood that there was logic in everything that the farmer had done.
The moral of the story: Mortals see only the beginning of any of God's works. Therefore they cannot understand the nature and the end of creation.
France (The Gospel of Mark) summarizes this first parable:
The first parable, then, is a message about rightly interpreting and responding to the period of the apparent inaction of the kingdom of God. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is growing, and the harvest will come. But it will come in God's time and in God's way, not by human effort or in accordance with human logic. (p. 215)
This is an important message for us pastors when positive changes in congregations or members' lives can seem to come so slowly.
I think that we often miss the most significant element of this story. Rather than concentrating on "small". The important image is "mustard plant."
Why a mustard plant? If all Jesus was saying in this parable is that the basileia of God starts small and grows large, any seed would do. All seeds start small and are miraculously transformed into something much larger. "The basileia of God is like a seed. You plant it in the ground and it grows into a large plant, where birds find shade." That would make the point.
The mustard seed was a traditional symbol of something small. (It is used in Matthew 17:20 & Luke 17:6 to illustrate small faith.) Scientifically, it is not the smallest seed even in the Middle East. The orchid seed, for one, in smaller.
Why a mustard plant? Mark is more correct than Matthew and Luke, when he calls it a large shrub, rather than a tree. According to the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible ("flora"), the mustard is a common weed at present in Palestine. If it was considered a "weed" in Jesus' day, we have quite a contrast with Ezekiel 17:22-23 (part of the thematic First Lesson for the day). NOTE ALSO the image of birds living in its shade.
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
The cedar grows to be about 100 feet tall. The mustard about 10 feet. The cedar flourishes in the mountains of Lebanon, but it doesn't grow in Israel. The mustard is a common weed in Israel. One interpretation is that this parable lampoons the old pictures of the cedars of Lebanon. Today we might make a contrast between the mighty Redwoods of that exotic land, California, and the crab grass or dandelions growing in our own yards. Which is more illustrative of the kingdom of God? the power of God?
The giant Redwood tree, which grow in northern California, like the cedar, would be a fitting symbol for the might and power and grandeur of God's rule coming to earth. They are trees that seem to live forever. Their tops seem to reach right up to heaven. The trunks can grow so large that a tunnel can be cut out large enough to drive a car through. They are a magnificent, mysterious, part of God's creation.
In contrast to the cedar trees or the giant redwoods, Jesus says that the basileia of God is like mustard plant. There is nothing grand and glorious about a mustard plant. It is a common, ordinary bush that grows everywhere around Palestine. Perhaps like crab grass or dandelions in most of our neighborhoods -- or sagebrush in the deserts of Wyoming.
Jesus proclaimed that the basileia of God was at hand. As far as I know, there are still no cedars growing in Israel; but there are a lot of mustard plants.
Is God ruling now or not? Perhaps we are looking in the wrong places -- staring up in the sky for tall trees, instead of looking on the ground for common weeds -- and maybe we do the same thing with people. I've heard it suggested that a weed is just a flower that's a victim of prejudice.
This interpretation of the parable -- God's rule is like a weed -- is one that certainly would challenge and threaten the hearer's world of assumptions of the coming, powerful kingdom of God. Yet, when the seed of a weed is covered by cement, they seem to find a way to grow through the tiniest of cracks.
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901