June 13, 2021
Sunday between June 12 and June 18 inclusive, if following Trinity Sunday
Proper 6, Ordinary Time 11
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Mark 4:26-34, The Message or Mark 4:26-34, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
Having read most of Chapter 1 way back in Epiphany, we skip Chapters 2 and 3. Malina & Rohrbaugh title the section, Mark 3:7 to 8:26: Back and Forth at Sea with Jesus and His Disciples.
Chapter 4 is a miniature, "Sermon by the Sea:"
- Verses 1-9, The Parable of the Sower and the Soils.
- Verses 10-12, An explanation of why Jesus teaches using parables.
- Verses 13-20, Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower to his inner circle.
- Verses 21-23, The Parable of Light Brought into a House.
- Verses 24-25, A Caution about Measure / Judgement: What you give (to others) will be given to you (by God).
- Verses 26-29, A Kingdom Parable: Like a Seed That Grows All By Itself.
- Verses 30-32, A Kingdom Parable: Like the Smallest Seed That Grows Beyond All Expectations.
- Verses 33-34, A concluding comment about using, and explaining, parables.
This week's lesson with 2 parables and a concluding comment about having the ears to hear their inner meaning is going to make for tough sermon choices!
I don't know Greek well enough - actually, I no longer know Greek at all - but I am intrigued by the nuances in the English translation used by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):
- NIV (and others): This is what the Kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed ...
- NRSV: The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed ...
The indefiniteness of the NRSV translation - to my ear at least - provokes a question, an invitation, a possibility for participation. If the Kingdom is as if someone would ... Who might that someone be? When might that someone scatter seed? Could that someone be me / us?
I love that in this parable the action shifts away from the sower - who has no idea how things happen with the seed - they just go about their day. And shifts away from the seed as well - it is the SOIL that produces of itself.
As someone who has spent their life in an action-oriented denomination, I find comfort and discomfort in this parable.
The comfort is to consider the possibility that the most helpful thing I could do to advance the Kingdom of God is to take a nap.
The discomfort is to consider the certainty that the point of the parable is neither the sower, nor the seed, nor the soil, nor the sprout, nor the stalk, but the fruit. I wonder what would happen if every single Christian and congregation pondered the question of fruitfulness - not as the outcome of OUR actions but as a grace received - we don't know how?
Verse 30 is often formatted in most translations as the opening sentence in the paragraph which goes on with the parable of the mustard seed. Since the original Greek text had neither paragraphs nor verse numbers, it is possible to just let the verse stand on its own as an invitation by Jesus for us to respond to:
With what can we compare the Kingdom of God? What parable will we use for it?
Go ahead. Take your time. With what would you compare the Kingdom of God? What parable would you use for it?
Jesus himself resorts to comedic exaggeration. A mustard seed??!!! The Kingdom of God is like ... a mustard seed? C'mon, surely the Kingdom of God is like something majestic, something powerful, something really big. Like a mountain, or a cedar, or an eagle.
A mustard seed? This is like comparing the Kingdom of God to a dandelion. It sows itself. It shows up in our ordered lives without our planning or expectation. It is tough to get rid of, in fact impossible to get rid of. But we do try to get rid of it so that the order we have planned can continue unblemished. It is impossible to tame; to get it to grow only where we want.
Personally, I take comfort in the concluding comments:
he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it (i.e., understand it)
he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Jesus understands our limitations and speaks to us in ways we can understand; and even then goes the extra step of explaining everything to his followers (who must be even dumber since they need a further explanation even after Jesus has spoken in ways we can understand).
As the parables themselves have already explained, the Kingdom of God is not dependant on our getting it right - or even getting it at all! If even the original 12 need extra help because they don't understand, this is a group that I can aspire to imitate!
Surely this is Good News.
Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, see link below, page 163.
Mark 4:26-34 (NRSV)
26 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
30 He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet 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."
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Mark 4:26-34 (The Message)
26 Then Jesus said, "God's kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man 27 who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. 28 The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. 29 When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—harvest time!
30 "How can we picture God's kingdom? What kind of story can we use? 31 It's like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, 32 yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it."
33 With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. 34 He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots.
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.
Permission is granted for non-profit use of these materials. Acknowledgement of source is not required in oral presentations. Otherwise please note as, "David Ewart, www.holytextures.com."