Last week, we had a literal “Devil deal” on scriptural passages: two parables about the Devil back-to-back, almost as if it was “hear one, get another free!”
Getting more than one parable is a frequent experience in the gospels. Maybe it’s the nature of Jesus the storyteller—he’s in the zone and just keeps reeling off one parable after another. The problem, however, is the slightly dizzy feeling that overcomes us as we try to figure out the meaning of just one parable.
In a parable, you can force a quick meaning on the parable (ah, that’s what it means!), yet more often than not, reading the parables of Jesus means more likely a time to reflect and ponder (and perhaps even take a Tylenol or two to help the headache as you puzzle the parables out long into the night.)
I admit feeling “parable dizzy” this past week, dealing with two “seed” parables told in Mark’s gospel. At first glance, I saw “the mustard seed” parable awaiting me in the week’s gospel reading. Okay, this is one of the more popular parables of Jesus. It has a “twofer” deal, a good ole parable you can tell the kids in Sunday school preceded by a shorter parable about something fairly straightforward: sowing seed and then going to harvest once the crop is ready. I foolishly thought this would be an “easy” Sunday sermon.
Flash forward to later in the day. I was still thinking about the “meaning” of the parables in question, and I realized that I might not have gotten my first reading of these parables right. I went looking for the Tylenol (and then I walked my elder beagle, surely the best way to ponder a parable: moving at a slow pace and sniffing around everywhere for something interesting).
The parables are more devious than they seem, asking the hearer some hard questions about God, faith and this Kingdom Jesus keeps comparing to a sower casting seeds, including some seeds that most folks think insignificant or some other seeds that you don’t think twice about worrying if they will grow.
For example, take the ending of the first parable. A sower scatters seed. It grows. Then “he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” How much simpler can you get about what happens when you sow some seed? I read the parable and did not see anything out of the ordinary with my first reading. Growing up on the farm, I read the parable with the experiences of every harvest around my family’s farm: you plant and you hope to harvest. And when it’s ready, no other priority matters—the crops must come in. Grab the sickle and head out first thing in the morning! (Otherwise it might rain and delay you, or worse, a hailstorm appears and you lose all that work!)
But then I opened the commentaries on Mark’s gospel. I found the history of scholarship awaiting me. Scholars have been debating this parable’s interpretation for centuries, declaring this parable a fools errand to consider anything but simple. (That’s when you get the elder beagle and start walking and sniffing more slowly!)
The experts on Mark’s gospel call the reader to a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of the prophet Joel. In this passage from Joel 3, we encounter a similar phrase with Mark’s parable about the farmer heading out to the field. In both passages, you are told to go out and harvest with a sickle in hand. The trouble is that the harvest in Joel, chapter 3, is a passage about divine judgment, as God goes out and wrecks holy vengeance. The call to take up your sickle for the harvest is alongside the call to beat your plowshares into swords and a call to arms for Israel to go out into the bloodied fray.
Suddenly, this parable inserting a little prophetic language makes the parable quite sinister. You go back to the parable’s beginning with the sower at her work, scattering seed, the illusions we have of a bucolic day on the farm goes out the window. Green Acres this is not! Maybe the Green Berets or the Game of Thrones, you name it…
Why would Jesus tell a story that references the prophet Joel’s call for military strike? How is the kingdom of God like this? Further, why would Jesus, more of the non-violent type, make this comparison?
Step back from the parable and look at the story leading up to this moment. Jesus is telling parables yet with a catty defensiveness. He tells parables to those who listen and those whom he has deemed not likely to get it. To his critics, they hear parables. To those who listen closely and learn, they begin to see what they hear in his parables about the kingdom of God.
Here, we see a sower who scatters seed, yet the real work of growing from seed to fully mature plant is not the sower’s responsibility. Indeed, most farmers would love to have this peace of mind. Coming from a line of Kansas farmers, I know that there is very little room for romantic notions about farming. You hope that the crop you sow actually makes it to harvest time. Hail, locusts, drought, time and people to get the crop in, collapsing market futures—the list of woes goes on. If you are lucky, you will make back your investment of time and energy. If you are really fortunate, you will make just enough to get by until the next crop needs sowing.
Frankly, a crop that is planted with zero worries for the sower would be considered fiction to any farmer I know. Every generation of farmer endeavors to reduce the risk and boost the yield of the crops. You just don’t leave a crop to “chance”. Agricultural research is a competitive field with research divisions of major universities and multinational corporations angling for whatever will produce the most hardy and bountiful of crops.
And the parable, with its blood-tinged ending, tells of a sower who goes out, scatters seed and just lets the worry not define them. The plants sprout, grow and mature, and then the farmer takes the sickle and winnows the harvest.
For Jesus’ earliest followers, the parable could have been one exploring trust. On one hand, they learned that the Kingdom takes root wherever God seeds and nurtures it. The disciples are just there to be the farm hands, not the masterminds of it all. The harvest will come, and it will be God’s alone to reap, not by the terms of those who angle to be the most powerful and the most “in control”.
This reading of the parable makes sense of why it is paired with the mustard seed parable. A lowly seed, mostly considered a nuisance weed, becomes something that its critics would never believe: a mighty shrub. Further, this pesky mustard seed grows everywhere it’s not necessarily wanted yet it provides welcome and shelter. This parable is a bit more obvious, as we see a vision we expect to see: the Kingdom as a great place where all are welcome and taken care of, a little bit of heaven on earth or as heaven wishes earth to be.
I note also the parable of the mustard seed appears in similar though modified form in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, as compare the gospels side-by-side, Matthew and Luke tweak Mark’s version. They make the seed grow into a mighty tree. Mark is quite different by saying the seed becomes a shrub, maybe much bigger than you’d expect--mighty even—yet it is still a shrub.
If we take Mark’s “lesser” view of this mustard seed’s greatness, we might just see a glimpse of what this Kingdom of God is all about. The other gospels aim for an enthusiastic, spectacular image, yet Mark’s “mighty shrub” reminds us to keep our views more tethered to reality. We Christians tend to want things “bigger and better”, and sometimes, we don’t know how to comprehend God’s greatness when it comes through more humble, less flashy forms.
The Kingdom is not necessarily found when the church looks like a big “barn size” church often found on TV where the service is slick in every production value, leaving most congregations with their earnest “mom & pop” approach to wonder if they should just slink off in shame that they’ve failed. Mark’s mustard seed becomes the mighty shrub, and the shrub might be a better place for the Kingdom to be more profoundly flourishing in the small, obscure places where people in small numbers do their best to make Christianity a faith they keep and live out.
The more I thought about “the mighty shrub”, I realized over the years I have encountered far more “mighty shrubs” than “great big trees”, people who are modest yet mighty, in congregations whose numbers on a Sunday morning are not remotely nearing the triple digits.
Such vitality of “mighty shrubs” comes when a young woman is expecting her first child and finds a gathering of mothers ready to encourage her and talk shop about raising that first born in the middle of the “passing of the peace”. Or as I read online about a widow struggling with paying her rent, and a collection starts up quietly among some concerned congregants, and that check appears just in time to help keep things going. Or when a food shelf down the street or anywhere else in the world where this economic challenge looms large struggles with the overload of demand and the profound lack of food, and Christian folks across the tax brackets and political divides that might otherwise define us find themselves chipping in with a generosity of food, volunteerism and compassion that speaks well to our common faith.
Of course, the questions raised by these parables linger. What sort of “kingdom” depends on a sower who goes out and casts seed, including those type of seeds most people get annoyed to find growing in their backyard? Is this “the Kingdom of God or kudzu?” What type of “kingdom” prefers NOT to be the shining castle up on the hill and just keeps to itself, working in less visible places and less obvious ways? What happens to us when we see the crops growing and learn to trust that the harvest is coming, and that it is not our place to determine all of the variables of when and where or who or what?