26Jesus also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
30He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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."
The Good News According to Mark
As the church's year of grace moves into the green and growing Season of the Spirit or "Ordinary Time," we continue in the gospel according to St. Mark, the main gospel for Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Mark's year.
This gospel probably is not by Peter's ministry companion John Mark, but from an unknown author. Current consensus says Mark probably was compiled between 60 and 70, close to the destruction of the second Jerusalem temple. As the shortest gospel, Mark is the one for texting and tweeting.
Prior to Mark, good news or gospel was the returning Roman general's announcement of annihilating the other army's troops. This gospel according to Mark subverts that into the Good News of God's victory over the powers of sin and death, the triumph of the reign of life. The gospel of Jesus Christ is economic, political, religious, social, and cultural. The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims life and brings new life – resurrection out of death – everywhere.
Mark has no birth narrative; no resurrection account. Mark particularly asks and answers where do we find God? We find God not in established religious, economic, political institutions, but outside the city limits, in the wilderness. We discover God in the stranger and outcast. On the margins rather than at the center. In, with, and under all creation. We supremely find God in the openness, exposure, and vulnerability of a condemned human dying on the cross.
A parable is a comparison, analogy, illustration: the kingdom of heaven is like; the reign of God is like. Parable means to put something alongside something else, to make a parallel. Sometimes it feels as if Jesus had a particular meaning in mind; other parables lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Teaching and explaining with comparisons was common in Jesus' rabbinic tradition and in the Hellenistic world. Please note… a parable is not an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; if anything, a parable is a heavenly story with an earthly meaning.
As necessary as it is to plan, plant, and tend crops to feed and nurture people and animals, this Sunday's pair of parables of the Kingdom of God demonstrate the role of God's grace rather than human endeavors in the growth of the reign of heaven among us (and in the growth of some fruit of the earth).
This simple story about scattered seed in Mark 14:26-29 is unique to Mark's gospel. Jesus says someone scatters seed (they don't carefully plant it) and while the farmer sleeps "…the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself…"
14:28 "the earth produces of itself" literally is automatically; "spontaneously" also works. I found a couple of internet meme-worthy phrases: "While you sleep, the gospel will grow." "We sow – God grows."
It's important to stick to what the parable actually says and not expand it to what it doesn't say. Of course farmers need to take care of the earth; planters need to pay attention to seasons and agricultural cycles; most crops need to be watered; different types of crops do best in certain kinds of soil; some need particular fertilizers, but that's a concern for another time.
Both this scattered seeds account and the mustard seed story mainly describe God's inbreaking realm with images Jesus' agriculture-savvy audience easily could compare with their direct experiences or observations of farming. For sure we can equate the scattered (not carefully planted) seed with telling people about the good news of Jesus, with small gestures of love, caring, compassion, and service. All of these tend to multiply in close to imperceptible ways. People often resolve to pay forward a kindness or goodness, and they usually do, and that typically leads to further expansion of the Good Stuff.
Last week we mentioned Jesus calls us to be apostles, as people Jesus sends out (an apostle literally is a sent person) to continue his ministry of loving and reconciling the world. The Greek for "goes in with his sickle" in 14:29 derives from apostle.
Besides Mark 14:30-32, synoptic gospels Luke 13:18-19 and Matthew 13:31-32 include the renowned Mustard Seed parable. You've likely heard the mustard seed is far from the smallest seed and doesn't grow into "the greatest of all shrubs," but it does get big enough to provide shelter for birds and small animals. Remembering this is a parable about God's kingdom or reign rather than a farming handbook, just as mustard seeds expand from something small and hard to notice into a big bush that's impossible to miss, the tiny seeds of love, hope, and care we (mostly randomly) plant ultimately grow into something big enough to fill the world. Like the sower in the first parable and the mustard planter in the second, we don't need to do anything more than take that loving action. We don't need to engineer, plan, or add on additional value. God's grace takes care of the outcome, which frequently is far disproportionate to the original input.
Maybe Jesus was being ironic with this story, because few people would intentionally plant mustard seeds. Mustard already was "there," and prolific most places, though just as now, mustard had medicinal value and culinary uses for seasoning and salads. Small mustard seeds grow into a shrub (technically mustard is a vegetable-not-a-shrub, "plant" will work) big enough to shelter birds and small animals and it can't easily be eliminated. I'm not sure invasive is the proper term, but from this non-gardener's perspective it appears invasive as it doesn't honor pre-determined boundaries or limits. This is a parable of the Kingdom of God, of the gospel that ultimately spreads everywhere, ignores established limits and conventions, and becomes part of every facet of existence.
Related to God's constant reminder for us to remember (I led you through the desert, I quenched your thirst with water from the rock, I fed you with manna, I zapped your enemies, I made you my chosen), I recently heard, "Remember! God runs in my direction when the whole world walks away." Like mustard plants that spread everywhere and can't easily be rooted up and done away with, God's boundless mercy and love is here to stay. Like mustard plants that spread everywhere, we can show God's mercy and love everywhere we go.
This is a parable of the gospeled reign of God in Christ Jesus. In the Old Testament, trees and sheltering branches are metaphors or images for political rule and sovereignty, and not always of the desirable divine kind. Jesus' audience would have recognized the symbolism and considered this parable a hope-filled promise of God's reign: a heavenly story with an earthbound outcome.
This Week's Questions
• What tiny seeds or other inputs can you think of that often result in a big outcome? I read the size of a COVID-19 vaccine dose is about the size of a teardrop. As more and more people get vaccinated, protection against getting infected will spread further and further, so herd immunity may become possible, after all.
• Birds can nest in the mustard tree's shade. What biblical images of shade do you remember? Especially consider the psalms. What are some contemporary twenty-first meanings of shade?
• Question to gardeners and famers: is there actually such a thing as a weed, or does calling a plant "weed" depend entirely on context?
• What part of nature would you compare or parallel to God's Kingdom or reign? An animal? Tree? Plant? Biome such as mountain, prairie, or desert?
• Around here mustard plants interspersed with California golden poppies create such visual beauty! Most California mustard is Brassica tournefortii (known as Asian, African, or Saharan Mustard), so a different variety than Jesus' who probably talked about Brassica nigra or black mustard. The mostly Southern cuisine I grew up with often served mustard, dandelion, collard, or other greens. My research into the mustard seed parable reminded me mustard is a cruciferous veggie and part of the cabbage family.