2 nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6), June 18, 2006
Mark 4:26 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." 30 He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (NRSV)
Speaking in Parables
In the movie “Jumping Jack Flash” Whoopie Goldberg’s character must solve a riddle to help a spy to come in. In order to communicate with the spy, she has to figure out a “code key” in the Rolling Stones song, which gives the title to the movie. The problem is that she doesn’t have an internet search engine to direct her to the lyrics of the song. She listens in vain to try to figure out the words. At one point, exasperated, she cries, “Mick, Mick, speak English!” But to no avail. Mick Jagger’s words elude her, though the solution, she discovers lies elsewhere.
I almost want to cry something similar to Jesus after today’s lesson. “Speak plainly, Jesus. Tell us the meaning, not just your disciples. Give us some indication of what the ‘ kingdom of God’ is about. Don’t keep speaking in circles.” But to no avail. Jesus parables continue to spark imagination and controversy alike. They are parables, which means they speak around things, not directly about them. So we are left to puzzle, and the daring among us attempt an interpretation of them that, when we are honest, we know falls short of the truth. Well short. So I feel that I must echo the thoughts of N.T. Wright, who, at the start of his book, The New Testament and the People of God wrote that he knew that much of what he was about to say in his book was either wrong or flawed in some way that he did not recognize. The problem was that he didn’t know which parts those were or he would correct them. So he was counting on the readers to set him straight. I’m confident that you will also set me straight, for I trust the same is true of me, or anyone who pretends to know what these parables of Jesus are really about.
We begin the “ordinary time” of the Pentecost Season somewhat in the middle of things. We are in the middle of a chapter of Mark’s Gospel that speaks in parables, particularly two parables of sowers and seed, our story for today and its more famous cousin, the story of the sower and the seeds that fall on different soil. At least THAT parable comes with its own explanation, not that it clears too much up. This story, and the parable of the mustard seed that comes with it, are enigmatic, to say the least. We usually end up in more doubt about what is going on when we started, especially when we participate in that unwholesome sport of trying to assign exact meaning to each of the elements of the story.
What is what?
Figuring out what each element represents is problematic for several reasons. First, it assumes that we can get in the mind of Jesus, which is always more difficult than it seems. Usually it ends up that what Jesus is thinking is exactly what I would be thinking if I were Jesus, and rather then conforming my will to God’s I accomplish the opposite. Second, it assumes that there were meanings to these things in the first place. Jesus could be painting broad brush strokes rather than offering point by point analogies. Third, we are bothered and conditioned by years and years of people who are so certain that they know what is going on and their answers stick with us and prevent us from seeing beyond them.
Certainly some of the things that I would like to question are those very assumptions of the past. Generally, they equate the sower with God, and the seed with the word, and finally, we become the harvest or the branches of the mustard tree. I think these assumptions must be challenged, especially since those readings have been rendered unlikely by the work of scholars like Malina and Rohrbaugh (authors of A Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels). They suggest that there are better ways to read these texts and their argument is compelling enough to give it a shot.
The problem that Jesus has is getting our minds around what God is up to when our minds are in such a completely different place. A first century Jew might have thought that the “ kingdom of God” had to do with the re-establishment of God’s Messiah on the throne of Israel. But the way that would have been understood came with certain expectations and longing that would have dictated how it would happen. The Messiah comes, gathers an army, defeats Israel’s enemies and rules the Kingdom of David, from David’s city and throne, once again. Today we are less likely to see that outcome, and more likely to look at the coming “ kingdom of God” in an individualistic way, perhaps even for after we die. God is working, but hidden beneath it all, to prepare us who believe for heaven after we die, might go the interpretation.
Either of these understandings is too small for me. God is, in my view, certainly interested in more of the creation than just Israel, or just believers. God is interested in more than my going to heaven. In fact, I think that most Christians ought to see what they do as participating in something much greater than just getting themselves into heaven when they die, not only because that’s God’s business, not ours, but also because God’s vision for the cosmos is so much larger than what we can see.
A larger vision
One of the things that Jesus parables point to is a need for a larger vision. They talk around the concept of God’s coming kingdom rather than defining it precisely so that we are forced to expand what we think. Our God is infinite and creative, always doing the unanticipated thing in unexpected ways. Rather than locking us into one way of thinking, Jesus is trying to open our eyes, hearts and minds to new possibilities and grander plans.
Certainly our two parables for today help us to understand just that. No one can anticipate what the harvest might be at the time seeds are sewn and scattered on the ground. Even the sower does not know how it happens (so much for the sower being God in this parable). But when the grain is ready, it is harvested. We see that things happen, but we don’t know how, we simply trust that they do. The mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, does not reveal, when first seen, the size and scope of the plant that will grow. Yet it becomes a great bush, sheltering other of God’s creatures in its branches.
Both of these stories reveal that the kingdom of God comes, without our working on it, and quite outside of our anticipated outcomes, and yet it comes anyway. God is at work, even when we don’t see where or how or why. And the outcome is much grander than we could have imagined. Of course, this is God’s very being that is being described. God is gracious, giving the gift of harvest and kingdom alike, and extravagant, as both come in abundance. God looks beyond the self, providing produce for the farmer, and shade for the nesting birds. God is connected to the creation renewed and restored. God is active and involved in the unfolding of this kingdom even when we don’t see it or get it.
Participation beyond understanding
Certainly the disciples didn’t see it or get it in Mark’s Gospel. They remained blissfully clueless to the end, even after Jesus was raised from the dead. They did not understand and were afraid for most of the time (one only need to read forward one week to see that). In then end faithful Israel is reduced to one, Jesus himself. And yet from that one, a movement began that has swept the world and changed it with God’s love. There may be more to these parables, than meets the eye indeed. The disciples had Jesus with them, explaining everything to them, and still they did not get it. How in the world can we hope to be better?
And yet, we don’t have to be, at least not according to these parables. God is bringing his kingdom, his harvest, his mustard seed to full growth and fruit, despite our lack of participation or understanding, despite the fact that we often don’t get it, or when we do, we get it wrong. Jesus speaks in parables as a mercy to us, really, when it comes down to it. He tells us enough to get us on board, to hold out a vision for a different world in which God’s kingdom or rule will indeed become the reality for all creation, even though we don’t see it at any given moment. And we participate in that vision as we grow in God’s love and live God’s forgiveness for the Sinful self and the Sinful world (perhaps even in spite of them). For now we live it, the fullness of understanding will come later.
This is all very difficult for me, and perhaps for you too. I want to understand, I want to know, I want to see. And yet my brain is just too small to take it all in. So for now, I will have to simply trust that, without my knowing or understanding, God’s kingdom is taking shape, God’s name is being hallowed, God’s will is being done, even as I pray every day. For now I will simply have to trust that what looks small and ineffective to me at the moment will become something greater than I could ever imagine. And in trusting I begin to participate in the very kingdom that is coming, and growing and becoming God’s love in the world.
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman