Scripture Reading • Mark 4.26-34 (NIV)
[Jesus] also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
Last year, an artist who was part of the Plein Air Arts Celebration, was recovering from surgery and needed someone to help drive her around and carry her art supplies … this year no one seemed to need an art caddy, and I really missed being around that group of people.
My favorite part of plein air last year was a special dinner at the Platte Ranch. The artists had been painting there all day, and in the evening they displayed their paintings in one of the ranch’s outbuildings … Some of the ranch-hands came to look at the paintings … it was so cool to hear them ohh and ahh over the paintings … they kept talking about how they saw that stuff everyday, buildings, scenery, animals, tractors, fences, piles of junk – but the artists made it all look so much more interesting … so much more alive … so much more beautiful. It was like the artist’s were able to give those ranch-hands new eyes to see the beauty and wonder in the world around them … it had always been there, but now there was no way they could walk past it without noticing it.
I think Jesus does something like that with his parables.
His stories invite us to see the world in a different way.
Some of Jesus’ most significant lessons and insights come to us as stories. (As a more right-brained person, I really like that because stories tend to stick in my memory more than anything else.) They are not necessarily easy lessons, though. Earlier in Mark’s gospel we hear that people loved Jesus’ teaching. Crowds gathered around to hear him – “because he taught them as one who had authority” … there was something about Jesus’ teaching that attracted them … something that resonated with them… but at the same time, Jesus told them these stories that could be really hard to make sense of. Mark mentions times Jesus told parables the disciples couldn’t understand and needed to ask him for more explanations.
Matt Skinner, a Bible scholar I find really interesting and helpful, writes that:
Parables are comparisons, meant to cast two things alongside one another to provide analogy, contrast, or reflection — usually a reflection similar to the distortions that appear in a funhouse mirror. Jesus’ parables, whether they are brief [sayings] or short narratives, have a way of reordering conventional assumptions and values. They don’t explain how one is supposed to recognize the reign of God, but they make it clear that we will need to adopt or receive new ways of perceiving. (Working Preacher)
Usually Jesus’ parables catch us off guard … they draw us into something familiar … hiring workers … baking bread … lighting a lamp … throwing a party … dealing with debt … gardening … losing something – and then warp it, like a “funhouse mirror” to catch us off guard and surprise us. Maybe they feel like a punch to the gut … we can’t imagine how someone who had been given so much could be so hardhearted and mean … or how in the world could a father could show so much grace to a kid who was such a punk … or why would someone be so intense about making sure there were people at his party … what kind of judge would deny justice to a widow in need … who in their right mind would wake up their neighbor to ask for three loaves of bread in the middle of the night? Parables can shake and rattle us … they can trouble us … make our gut ache … they can nudge us to see something we come across everyday with new eyes.
For me, one of the challenges of understanding parables is wading all the things pastors and teachers throughout Christian history have done to them as they try to make sense out of them. Sometimes they have been turned unto complicated allegories (this = this, that = that … the problem with this is that the parables would have had to have some sort of meaning to the people who first heard them); sometimes we assume things the ancient first listeners wouldn’t have dreamed of, sometimes we make too much of cultural customs that might not even be all that accurate; sometimes we use the most surface-ey interpretations, and while they can be accurate, we miss out on something deeper and more life shaping.
In her book, “Short Stories by Jesus” Amy-Jill Levine, points out that mustard seeds and the bushes they produce have been accused of being everything from invasive weeds (leading to interpretations about how the gospel is subversive to empires – once the kingdom of God gets a handhold, all the Caesars of the world better watch out), to impure and unclean (challenging ancient Jewish ritual traditions and pointing toward the inclusion of sinners and outsiders in God’s people), to a plain old example of something that is small growing into something big (leading to encouraging interpretations that stuff that starts out small can turn into something big and worthwhile).
And you know what, those interpretations have been helpful and have made sense at one time or another.
That’s what gets me about parables – yes, I see that there could be a lot of ways to man-handle and warp them to arrive at some unfaithful conclusions, but there sure seem to be a lot of faithful directions we can go with them. And that makes my head hurt … especially when it comes to sermons … sometimes I wish interpreting parables could be a little more like math, 1 + 1 = 2, thats just how it is, don’t argue with it. But that’s not how parables work … they open us up … they grab us by the shoulders and shake us … they paint a picture of what life can look like in God’s kingdom and spark our imaginations to work out what it looks like to live as a disciple, to seek God’s will, loving God and our neighbors, in our own lives and communities.
Something Amy-Jill Levine wrote about the parable of the mustard seed especially caught my attention and my imagination – she says,
“No one in the cultures of the time, whether Jewish or pagan, regarded mustard as a bad thing. [It] had great utilitarian value; [it] was commonly available; [it] brought good things to those who served it … [the seed parable is an image of domestic concerns] “set in a garden or a local field … the kingdom of heaven is found in what today we might call ‘our own backyard’ in the generosity of nature and in the daily working of men and women … the challenge of the parable can be much homier: don’t ask ‘when’ the kingdom comes or ‘where’ it is. The when is in its own good time – as long as it takes for seed to sprout … the where is that it is already present, [growing to maturity], in the world … the kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put on this earth to do–to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well” (Levine, 181 & 182).
Man, what a picture … the kingdom is not far away … God is growing it right now out there in our backyard … the kingdom is in here … we see glimmers and glimpses of it as we follow Jesus, loving God and loving the people around us.
Jesus’ parables have the power to surprise us and open us to see the world with new eyes … to see God’s will being done all around us … especially where we might have least expected to find anything that had to do with God … in those students at school who say something about their faith that totally catches you off guard … in those two people who don’t seem to have anything in common but their relationship with Jesus enjoying each other’s company and learning something new … in someone who offers to help just when you are overwhelmed … in reaching out to include someone who might be needing a friend … it is there in those inconveniences, in those interruptions, when there isn’t any time for something that isn’t on that to-do-list, but something makes us stop and take a moment to go out on a limb in Christ-like love, to care for the hungry … reach out to the hurting … to offer dignity and kindness … to welcome the lonely …
The kingdom of God isn’t far away … God is growing it here … God is growing it in your backyard … Jesus’ parables invite us to see God’s kingdom growing all around us.