Pentecost 3B – June 13, 2021 – Mark 4:26-34 – The Reverend Paul Kett
Today’s gospel reading from Mark presents us with two little parables, featuring seeds and growth, to talk about God’s kingdom, or realm, or commonwealth. Both stories are among the briefest in any of the gospels’ collection of parables, and both are about the smallest of things in nature – seeds. Mark’s gospel spends much more time and space on an earlier seed-and-sower story earlier in the chapter, with an elaborate description of how and where seed fell when it was cast by the sower, as well as a private lecture to the disciples that opened up the allegorical nature of the story. Today’s parabolic accounts are much simpler.
Brevity and simplicity, however, do not detract from the underlying truth set out in each story. As well, some interesting features present themselves.
In the first story someone, perhaps a farmer, is seen scattering seeds on the ground. Period. From that point the sower becomes a passive vehicle, with no further action required it would seem. And, while it might seem odd to the gardeners among us that there was no hoeing or weeding or watering or transplanting mentioned, that’s how the story is told. The farmer’s actions had no part in the germination and growth of the seed. The first shoots just appeared one day. And that may not be too different for many of us today. We may well have some knowledge of the science of seeds – their structure for example – and we may well have an understanding of how to care for growing plants, but there is still a degree of mystery for all of us in the actual sprouting of the seed, as well as of the rapid growth of the young shoot. Indeed, mighty oaks from little acorns grow! As the story itself describes it, “The earth produces of itself.”
Mark’s second parable has some similarities to the first, one, but numerous differences as well. In this story there are more specifics – the seeds sown are mustard seeds, there is a description of size, both of the seed and the final plant. Nesting birds are also a part of this account. Even if Jesus might be using both hyperbole and humour here, the message of both parables has the same intent: both are compared to the realm of God, in order to help his hearers come to understand what his mission and message really are. “The kingdom of God is as if . . .”. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God . . .?”
So we, like those who first heard these and other stories, are left with the task of seeing into and through the words, to discover their meaning.
Amy Jill Levine, a noted Jewish New Testament scholar and professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, in her book, “Short Stories by Jesus”, states, “The parable of the Mustard Seed has put forth so many branches of interpretation that the birds of heaven could build multiple nests and still have room for expansion”. In her typically humorous but incisive way she proceeds to list – and debunk – many of the myriad interpretations she alludes to. Let me be quick to add that her debunking is done with distinctive scholarly insight and logic.
Parables have that effect, both when initially shared with Jesus’ friends and followers, and today, as we grapple with mystery and meaning. Parables, with a literal meaning of being “thrown together” or “in parallel”, invite us to examine a story that needs not be historically or literally factual, in order to find what well might be a spiritual truth. Furthermore, Jesus may well have related these stories in different ways in varying locations, or under different circumstances. But his reason for speaking in parables was always the same – to help his hearers come to know and understand what living in God’s realm meant, and what it means.
So, from today’s parables what might we see? If God’s realm is as if someone scattered seed and then watch it grow, we might in hopefulness come to see that God’s realm has an inevitability to it. It happens as sure as the seed germinates and grows, both when conditions are favourable, and when they may be less than perfect. There is a kind of promise here. Believe in the goodness of God’s kingdom, just as we believe in the probability that seeds will germinate and grow and produce fruit. And from the mustard seed story we may discover that God’s commonwealth is both persistent and inclusive.
All of this might allow us to feel that God’s realm will continue even as we do nothing to foster it. After all, the sower seemingly did nothing but scatter the seed. Similarly, in the story of the mustard seed, even the description of the sower’s presence and activity is absent. An aspect of knowledge is wisdom, and the wisdom of commonsense figures here. We well know that, left to their own devices, seeds may germinate and grow. But our experience adds that our actions will enhance and assure that that growth is optimized. Hoeing and weeding and fertilizing and watering may all be actions we take to maximize the yield of a garden. God’s garden, or kingdom, well may arrive without any action of ours, but will also thrive with our attention and active participation in its well-being.
One commentator has said, “The reign of God will mess with established boundaries and conventional values. Like a fast-replicating plant, it will get into everything. It will bring life and color to desolate places. It will crowd out other concerns. It will resist our manipulations. Its humble appearance will expose and mock pride and pretentiousness . . .” (Matt Skinner, Working Preacher June 18, 2018).
Life during these last months may well have convinced us of both the need for, and the already-present, realm of God, in our world, and in our own lives. So much has changed – our lifestyle, our routines, our support systems, our activity, to name just a few. Yet, we still meet Sunday by Sunday, albeit in a different way, and we still worship together. Many of us take opportunity to stay in touch, whether by Zoom coffee-hours, or by email or phone call. A surprising number of activities have been able to carry on, both in our own parish, and in the wider community. God’s Kingdom is active, and perhaps even growing in all these instances. We are a part of the Realm of God, by our activity we enhance and further this realm, and with love and compassion we welcome others to share God’s realm with us.
I return to Professor Levine’s wise words as we commit to work together to further God’s kingdom: “Don’t ask when the kingdom will come, or where it is. The ‘when’ is in its own good time. The ‘where’ is that it is already present, a part of our world.”