Texts: Ezekiel 17.22-24; Psalm 92.1-4,12-15; 2 Cor 5.6-10,14-17; Mark 4.26-34
The word parable can be broken into two pieces when looking for its meaning: Para and bole. Para means alongside, and bole, which comes from the Greek ballein, meaning to throw or cast. So a parable is not something that has a linear, direct explanation, but instead it is a comparison that is placed or cast alongside. Things that are placed alongside each other never meet. Parables, then, are not meant to be simple moral lessons. They are not there to provide easy or simple answers about our faith. They often challenge the status quo and are designed to make us think differently and even make us deeply uncomfortable. They are not for explanation, but for exploration. They are not there to give us answers, but engage our imagination. Their purpose is not to provide certainties about faith, but to provide discoveries about how faith works.
So how are these parables we heard today igniting our imagination, how are the challenging our way of thinking, what are they asking us to explore? These two parables are both about the kingdom of God; a big, lofty concept that can be difficult to grasp. When we see the word kingdom we may first think of a physical place, but that isn’t what the original Greek points too. Instead, being in the kingdom of God is more about a state of being or mind or existence. It is about living under God’s authority, which means to be focused on and wrapped up in what God stands for, and to make God’s priorities our priorities.
In the first parable, the seed is sown, and it grows, but the sower does not know how. The kingdom of God, it turns out, cannot be figured out! Which is fitting in the gospel of Mark, which is often reminding us there is no schematic diagram of the kingdom or the gospel. There is secret and mystery when it comes to God. And Mark teaches us that our job isn’t to figure everything out, but our job is to follow the one who holds and understands the mystery: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are to be present, we are to follow, and we are to let the kingdom do its thing!
The sower doesn’t know how the seed grows, but it definitely does. In this parable, we see that there are ways we can be involved in bringing about the kingdom of God, but we are a small part of the story. There is so much we must leave up to God. Just as a farmer or gardener today can help a crop along with fertilizer and water and protection from harmful bugs, in the end that farmer or gardener still isn’t making the seed sprout, they are simply getting the hindrances to that seed’s life out of the way.
Yes, we participate in the coming of the kingdom just as a farmer participates in the coming of the crop, but God gives the growth, we do not. Even with today’s scientific knowledge and technological developments, farmers still wait on faith. We cannot take ourselves too seriously.
This parable was told to people at a time when many were following Jesus, but many were not, and some were even violently opposed. How could this be?, people wondered. It was appearing that the growth of the following had stalled, why wasn’t everyone on board? Why wasn’t everything falling into place? This parable says that despite appearances to the contrary, just like a seed, the kingdom IS growing, and the harvest will come, but in God’s time and in God’s way.
Then comes the mustard seed. Which tells us that the kingdom of God is like a weed. A stubborn, obnoxious, relentless weed. Because that’s what mustard was in the time of Jesus in the land where he lived. And so we are invited to think about the kingdom as more than just something that can start small and grows larger. We are invited to ponder the kingdom as a weed instead of the tall noble cedars that for so long had represented power and nobility to the Hebrew people.
A cedar can be chopped down, but the mustard weed never goes away. When you try to pull up shot weed, it uses that very act of you trying to destroy it to replicate itself. A weed will find its way through and around cement sidewalks. If you take a look at the entrance to our parking lot, you will find a plant that managed to grow through about 3 feet of orange tubing. A weed is a survivor: a scrappy, stubborn, relentless survivor.
So perhaps when we look for the kingdom we are looking in the wrong places. The world sees success and nobility and strength in the largest of the trees: the cedars of Lebanon and the redwoods of California. The world sees the strength of an organization or a church in the number of people that show up on Sunday morning or the amount of money in the offering plate. Our culture measures success in statistics. So what does the mustard weed have to tell us today, in a time when those statistics, at least in this country, don’t look too great? Perhaps the mustard weed is here to remind us that the kingdom doesn’t simply replicate the kind of greatness and success that we as humanity seem to be relentlessly driving towards.
We don’t find easy answers or just simple, moral lessons in parables. What we do find are great questions, and layers of meaning to reflect on. What does it mean for us to participate in the kingdom of God, but trust God for the growth? What does it mean to look for that kingdom in the weeds?