Jesus did much of his teaching with parables which were filled with everyday images and yet confoundingly challenging and provocative. This week we hear two parables with seeds of growth (RCL Mark 4:26-34). How do they still speak to us in our time and place?
The early chapters of the gospel of Mark, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, focus on miraculous healings and teaching by parable. This week we have the second and third of three parables about seeds and growth. Indeed in chapter four we are told that Jesus not only typically taught in parables but only taught in parables to the crowds.
It is worth reminding ourselves what parables are (and what they are not). Parabole in Greek is literally “para” – beside, and “bolle” – to cast or throw. So a parable is to throw a familiar idea or image beside an unfamiliar idea, to compare, so that a new meaning is reached by means of a story with familiar elements. Parables are stories that are made up, even though they include familiar everyday elements and their purpose is to initiate the listener into the story and therefore into new understanding.
However in Mark’s telling of the gospel those who heard the parables of Jesus by and large did not understand what they were hearing. Indeed Jesus suggests that this is intentional or inevitable. So why teach in a way that people struggle to understand? From my reading and reflection I think that there are at least three reasons the parables were hard to understand.
Firstly Mark’s gospel, or good news, is that in Jesus there comes news of the kingdom of God on earth, of regime change, of a new era. Jesus is not bringing news of a little bit of hope to soften the hardness of life, Jesus bears in his words, life and own flesh, the good news of a different world order. There is no way to make such radical news “easy” to understand or accept.
Secondly Jesus is a teacher in the wisdom tradition, which often uses story as a beguilingly simple way of speaking of profound truths. A bit like the Buddhist use of the “koan” – a brief saying or story that the student or follower tries to understand only to discover that it cannot be understood with conventional wisdom and it is only when the student gives up on understanding that another way of seeing and understanding is possible. Parables are maybe meant to confound us so that we are provoked into a new way of seeing.
And thirdly Mark often makes the disciples look particularly foolish and slow to understand and it is quite possible that by the time Mark’s gospel was written down that the new community was having a hard time being persecuted and Mark wished them to be encouraged by the sense that even the disciples that had physical access to Jesus struggled with these matters so do not be surprised or disheartened when you find it difficult!
And maybe like the Messianic secret (Jesus’ tendency to tell the people he was miraculously healing not to tell anyone!) Jesus did not want people to know the true depth of his teaching until he was ready, until his identity was fully revealed at his trial, death and resurrection, so a teaching method that allowed truth to dawn by degrees over time may have suited Jesus’ sense of timing and process. At the very least I think Jesus knew that we could not cope with the whole truth all at once and apparently innocent stories that grew (like the mustard seed itself) within us was the way to teach us then and still.
A bit like the parables in this week’s gospel reading. In these two very simple parables we are reminded that growth is a rather mysterious, surprising process. They are hopeful reassuring images of growth and continuity. None of the cautionary warnings inherent in the earlier parable of the sower that spells out the various possible outcomes: seed that falls on the path and is eaten by the birds, seed that grew in rocky ground so could not thrive, or seed that grew among weeds and so bore no grain. Although because they have been grouped together and are all about seeds some of the warnings and challenges of the first parable needs to be in the background.
In some ways this week’s simpler parables have a resurrection feel to them – seeds apparently dying in the soil, out of sight, and then miraculously growing and flourishing. It is only weeks since we heard Jesus talk about his own approaching death, in John’s gospel, in terms of a grain of wheat that must die in order that many grains might grow. And it is the time of year – only days to the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) here in the southern hemisphere – when we think of the natural cycles of dying and then rising to new growth. And in the northern hemisphere I imagine that you are surrounded by nature’s fullness of growth. In this we see parallels in many of the world’s religions and philosophies where the dying of the seed and the sprouting of new growth is a paradigm for hope.
In the gospels however, this is more than just a generalised hope in the continuity of the human family and creation for these are kingdom parables. That is, these are parables that give clues as to the nature of the kingdom of God – of the dream of God for us, the way it is meant to be, or more simply the nearness of God’s reign. Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God was within the Jewish tradition of faith and was about announcing a community of justice and peace; a radically inclusive way of life that would overthrow all powers that oppress people and would therefore be good news for the poor, the hungry, the broken and the left out.
The Hebrew Bible images of plants, trees, vineyards, harvests is often about the establishment of God’s reign on earth and about what God is going to achieve in the future. The good news was not: “Don’t worry, all will stay the same.” Rather the good news was: “Be assured, all will change and grow until every last one lives as God intended in a world of justice and peace where all know they are loved by God and their neighbour!” The plant that grew from the mustard seed was a pesky plant in that grew in the harshest of terrains and easily overtook other plants. Just maybe we are being challenged to be “pesky” to grow in whatever unlikely terrains we find ourselves planted!
So we too can take heart and consider the seeds of hope despite the poverty of our life as soil. What seeds in our own lives, at this time, carry hope (no matter how slim, how grandiose, how long held)? Reflect for one moment and entrust these seeds to God and the mysteries of the dark soil. What are the seeds of hope in this community? What traditions, people, plans carry hope for you? Reflect for one moment and entrust these seeds to God and the mysteries of resurrection and renewal. What are the seeds of hope in our world? What places of wilderness or repair of the earth, what people and events speak of hope for you? Reflect for one moment and entrust these seeds to God and the mysteries of the seasons of death and new birth.
It is a risky business to hope, as Jesus knew and his followers found out. Trees planted one year can be lost a few years later due to drought or flood or war. Sometimes a community centre built in hope can be burnt down in a season of unrest and suspicion. Sometimes missionaries have been made martyrs by the very people to whom they felt called to announce the good news to. Sometimes projects have to be started several times over. Sometimes gardens have to be replanted.
It is a risky business to hope, to plant seeds of hope. Jesus knew it back then and as his followers we know it now. To be a people of hope we must be alive to two realities. The world we live in as it is right now: full of concern for surface beauty, hypocrisy and gluttony in the presence of hunger and struggle. And the world as it might be – a place of compassion and justice, abundance and joy. And to be a people of hope we need to develop eyes open to the signs of the kingdom – the first green shoots of new growth, the moments and the people everywhere who already live lives touched by God, the tendency of the earth to replenish and recover, the stories of death and rebirth, of resurrection that everywhere reminds us of God’s profound love and presence amongst us.
After the storm comes the tidy up and the replanting. After grief comes a new if different life. After the end comes a new chapter. Hope is greater than despair. God’s love gives us reason for hope and we must also choose hope – choose to live lives of compassion and faith, choose to see what is possible, choose to see God’s hand at work in our world, choose to act as though it can be different. For the dream of God, the kingdom of God grows first in our hearts and minds and then in the world of our making and tending.
Even so, come Lord Jesus, grow your dream in me.
I am indebted to the following authors for their clear and challenging scholarship.
Borg, Marcus J “Meeting Jesus in Mark”, SPCK, New York, 2011
Levine, Amy-Jill & Brettler, Marc Zvi “The Jewish Annotated New Testament NRSV Bible Translation” Oxford University Press, New York, 2011
Williams, Rowan “Meeting God in Mark” SPCK, London, 2014