Second Sunday after Pentecost

If only Jesus had provided a blueprint, a constitution or at least a tourists’ brochure,

June 14, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 4:26-34

If only Jesus had provided a blueprint, a constitution or at least a tourists’ brochure,

so  we could understand precisely what he meant by the kingdom, reign, rule, realm, or empire (basileia) of God! We know that it has to do with God’s sovereign authority, but when and where will it be found, and how can we be certain to be part of it? Instead of the straight descriptive answers we crave, we get oblique and even startling parables–what a young friend calls “sorta-like stories,” like the zebra in his new picture book that is “sorta like” the horse in its well-loved predecessor. Almost, but not quite.

Today’s Gospel reading features the final two stories pointing to the reign of God in the collection found in this chapter of Mark. One turns on the everyday mystery of growing seed (4:26-29), and the other about the mustard plant shrieks with exaggeration and incongruity (4:30-32). This chapter concludes with the statement that Jesus taught only in parables, but then “he explained everything in private to his disciples” (4:34).

Despite its simplicity and commonness, the first of these parables leaves us puzzling about the basileia. For those who would like to take things into their own hands, is the parable a reminder that the farmer is God, who both initiates the process and brings in the “harvest?” Yes, but the farmer in this parable appears clueless about how the process takes place, and that doesn’t work if God is the farmer.

Could this be a moral tale through which we disciples learn to be farmers and get about the business of sowing the seeds of God’s reign, then wait patiently for the process to unfold in God’s time and in God’s way? Yes, but tradition says that the “harvest” belongs to the risen Christ, not to us.

Maybe the farmer is Jesus, who set everything in motion and will return at the end to bring in the harvest. Okay, but where is Jesus the farmer now, between the sowing and the harvest, when our days are marked by struggle and suffering, and we long for evidence of his presence?

There may have been some in Mark’s community who wanted to hurry the coming of the kingdom along by taking up arms against the Romans. But they are reminded that the coming of God’s rule is “automatic” (“the earth produces of itself,” v. 28; automatē) and not of our doing. Or maybe they (and we!) are admonished to see the present against the affirmation of God’s future time of fulfillment whose calculation is not in our grasp (e.g., Mark 13:30-32). What is the lesson of this deceptively simple parable?

The fact is that this parable engages us in all of these ways. It does not explain the basileia of God. Rather, like a work of art, it confronts us with its power and implications and demands a response. The reign of God is not “like” the farmer, the seed, the process of growth, or the harvest, but it is “sorta like” each of them and all of them taken together. As Mark 4:9 puts it, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Any farmer in Jesus’ audience who puzzled at the deceptive simplicity of the first parable would be left shaking her head at the second (4:30-32). The basileia of God and mustard weeds simply don’t belong in the same sentence! Mustard is indeed an herb with medicinal properties and one that is useful for flavoring and preserving food. The mustard bush, though, is a garden pest. No one would sow it on purpose. It grows all too readily on its own, and once it appears, it takes over the field. The small size of the mustard seed may be proverbial (Matt. 17:20; Luke 17:6), but it is not the smallest seed, nor is the mustard bush the largest of all shrubs. Exaggeration follows absurdity. What is “sorta like” God’s reign in this story, and how could it be good news for Mark’s church and for us?

Both common sense and Israel’s Scriptures can provide starting points. Even though the superlatives are inaccurate, the contrast between a small seed and a large plant fits well as an image for the reign of God. It would have been good news to people aware of the small beginnings of Jesus’ ministry or of their own struggling community. The almost predatory ability of the mustard plant could crowd out the planned crops of the Romans, even sheltering birds that could be trusted to gobble up more of the carefully planted seeds, no doubt gave a chuckle to people delighted by subverting the economic enterprises supporting Rome’s imperial agenda. Good news: God’s empire has many ways to carry the day over powers bent on their own profit and power!

The image of the shrub that is so large birds can find shelter under its branches lifts this parable from garden satire to a vision of the end-time. In Ezekiel 17:22-24, God plants a tiny cedar twig on a high mountain of Israel and that twig becomes a large and fruitful tree under whose branches every kind of bird will find shelter.1  The birds there symbolize the nations that flock to Israel’s God on the glorious day of the Lord. This word-picture in both Ezekiel and Mark envisions the day when God’s sovereign and life-giving power will embrace the whole world–good news indeed!

There is no easy take-home message for us in these parables. They ask that we engage our imaginations to follow the possibilities and incongruities that we distinguish between a world where everything is planned, linear, and logical, to one filled with mysteries and surprises into which a sovereign God invites us. Like a child daring to learn about an unfamiliar world by testing out “sorta like” stories, we can enter this world and delight in the good news that business as usual can’t last forever.

1Mark’s parable differs from Matthew 13:31-32, where the shrub becomes a tree in whose branches birds can build nests. Matthew’s version leads us not to Ezekiel, but to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 4.