[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
What’s unseen but potentially everywhere? It’s so small that it’s hidden, but can spread rapidly and with great impact, consuming and altering communities, people, and nations that appear indestructible. You might be thinking of a virus, specifically the COVID-19 virus that has wreaked havoc on lives, economies, and the social fabric across the globe. But that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Instead, I propose that this is the way of the Kingdom of God.
Pay attention! Our imagination can train us to develop eyes that see and ears that hear Jesus helping us understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. What is this kingdom like?
As we look through a few of Jesus’ tiny parables clumped together here in Mark 4, I suggest that the Kingdom of God is ordinary, and even hidden at times.
Jesus has a way of breaking down empires, dismantling the kingdoms of this world, and dislodging our sense of control over our own lives. In these two parables in Mark, the Kingdom of God is literally down to earth, humble, and common. When talking about God, we often prefer to speak of God as Lord or King, especially when talking about a kingdom—a kingdom needs a king, right? But throughout the Gospels, in Jesus’ parables we meet a sharecropper working a field, a trash tree, a female baker, a merchant (and so on). These are all common stories of ordinary working-class people doing everyday things. Hardly exciting, and certainly not exalted. Jesus’ parables aren’t fantastic tales of talking animals, or like Greek or Roman myths of gods in disguise stalking unsuspecting humans. God’s kingdom isn’t just someplace when the roll is called up yonder; rather, it’s up close, it’s near, it’s as close as the wheat seed, growing underground secretly, subtly.
Or… the mustard seed. Jesus has a sense of humor—his listeners would probably have chuckled when hearing this little parable. Where Jesus lived, the mustard seed, was not a crop they would’ve planted. In fact, it was actually a common, robust weed. (In many parts of the world, it’s considered an invasive species!). The reign of God certainly isn’t much of a cash crop. But it’s not easily eradicated either. It’s like a yard full of dandelions or thistles—so common they’re certainly not appreciated. Hardly magnificent. The mustard seed is the mulberry tree of its day. It’s not sown or nurtured like tomato or zucchini plants. It shows up often where it’s not welcome. And then it spreads and spreads and spreads…like prickly thistles in a bed of lavender—it’s invasive, it’s unpredictable.
Doesn’t sound very appealing does it. And yet, Jesus says that this weed tree becomes a place where birds of the air come and make nests—it provides a place of shelter and nurture.
What others have determined to be junk, God identifies as redeemable, and transformative. It is so ordinary we may not even notice it—that’s why Jesus calls us to pay attention, to train our eyes and ears on this kingdom. It’s everywhere. The Kingdom of God is not merely coming. It has come; it’s already among us.
There are a couple things about the kingdom we have a tendency to misunderstand—the misperception that the kingdom of God is something that will occur only in the future, and that its presence is contingent upon us.
- To that first part, we might say that yes, the kingdom will come, but the kingdom of God has already come…in the person and spirit of Jesus.
- And to the second part, the misunderstanding that the presence of God’s kingdom is dependent upon us, we might pay attention to the words of Willie James Jennings. In his commentary on the book of Acts, Jennings explains that, just as Paul & Barnabas resisted being identified as gods by the people of Lystra in Acts 14, so the work of disciples is the work of clarification, that is, separating the messengers of God from the presence of God; we too often confuse our presence with the presence of God in a place…we are always the messengers my friends. God is here; God is at work, with or without us.
In the words of Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon, “for every second of time the world has been the world, it has also been the kingdom [of God]. The world’s progress through history isn’t a transition from nonkingdom to kingdom; rather, it is a progress from kingdom-in-a-mystery to kingdom-made-manifest,” meaning the Kingdom of God revealed. If the presence of God is in this place—and I believe it is—then this is God’s kingdom.
The parable of the mustard seed speaks not about the ordered practice of agriculture, but about the chaotic infestation of weeds. Though the mustard plant has always had its culinary uses, nobody in First Century Palestine would have planted it deliberately on any precious plot of arable soil. The mustard bush is bent on dominating the field. It will transform your vegetable garden into a bird sanctuary.
Can we speak of the Kingdom of God as an invasive species? Is it like a non-native plant that sets down its roots, grows, spreads and finally transforms its environment? The analogy is a little discomforting. I have no doubt Jesus’ comparison of God’s approaching reign with an infestation of weeds raised more than a few eyebrows as well. But maybe that is the point. Much of Protestantism, which I have been a part of, has always viewed the Kingdom of God as the endpoint of human development.
- From the darkness of barbarism, the light of Christ raises church and society up to a greater level of enlightenment.
- The realm of government, family and work are the arena for transformation of human existence along the arc of justice toward which the universe bends.
A garden is, after all, a work in process. But what if God is not interested in the progress of the garden we envision? What if God has something entirely different in mind? What if the order, structure and patterns of regularity we defend are not the foundation for a fruitful harvest, but the servants of systemic oppression? What if revolution, not evolution is God’s intent?
In asking these questions, a few things need to said:
First, the reign of God is not to be identified with the church.
It is the church’s mission to proclaim the reign of God, to bear witness in word and deed to that reign and to embody that reign in its communal life. But the church is part of the current global environment and as much in need of transformation as the rest of it. If we forget that, we run the risk of equating church growth, program success and societal influence with the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t about us and what we are doing. It is about what God in Christ is doing. As theologian and preacher Karl Barth put it, the church is the crater left by Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we are not pointing to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, we are just an empty hole in the ground.
Second, just as we dare not equate the church and its programs with God’s reign, so too we cannot confuse our own views of what constitutes progress in the direction of God’s reign with what God actually wills. We have seen for the last few decades the corrupting effect of alliances between religion and political agendas. We know all too well the tragic consequences of the church and its people seizing the levers of power to make history come out right and so hasten the coming of God’s reign. Jesus rejected the use of imperial force to bring about God’s reign and so should his disciples. This is because, as Jesus points out, we know neither day nor the hour of the kingdom’s revealing. Nor can we begin to guess the means God is using to bring it about.
I don’t suggest for one moment that the church, or disciples of Jesus individually, are to be politically neutral (as though such a thing were even possible!). In politics, as in everything else, disciples of Jesus are called upon to love their neighbors, especially those deemed “least” in the human family. I think I have some understanding of what that should look like and the actions I need to take in order to bring it about.
But I don’t have the advantage of seeing the universe from God’s long range perspective with which my own well meaning efforts might not be in concert and might even be opposed. Thus, I can never assume that “I am on the Lord’s side.” I can only pray that the Lord is on mine and that through my faithful work, God is working a change in my cultural environment.
So what kind of environmental changes would I hope to see the nearness of God’s reign bring about?
- I would like to see an environment where racial/homophobic/ethnophobic slurs-no longer find a place in public discourse.
- I would like to see an environment where all lives really do matter so that people of color no longer have to work so hard convincing the rest of us that theirs do.
- I would like to see an environment where gay couples can have a recognized committed relationship and benefits like a heterosexual couple and not have to be questioned for their motives being anything other than love.
- I would like to see an environment where political candidates who make their case with reasoned arguments and without resorting to falsehoods, insults and wise cracks are rewarded with electoral victories.
This is hardly utopian and far short of the glory of God’s kingdom to which the scriptures testify. But it would be a better environment than we now have. It would be a better environment in which to live, work and raise our families.
And if enough of us feel the impact of God’s approaching reign, if enough of us can be convinced that the way things are is not the way they have to be, if enough of us start believing that there is a better way to be human, who knows? We might wake up one day to find our current landscape changed.
Jesus used parables frequently in his teaching; in fact, there are some 35 parables recorded in Matthew, Mark, & Luke. One signal that a parable will be used is when we hear the words: “The kingdom of heaven is like…”
Okay, that’s nice to know, but why does it matter to us today? What do we need to learn from the parables of Jesus?
First of all, Jesus used parables to amplify his teaching, to help seekers grasp a deeper or more difficult truth. Those who weren’t all that interested wouldn’t likely take the time or effort to unpack and ponder the parable. Jesus also taught his disciples plainly in private to make sure they weren’t missing anything. Why? Again, because understanding parables takes some extra work and effort, and Jesus’ disciples weren’t always so focused on that task.
We can hardly blame them. After all, today most of us like teaching that doesn’t require us to put in a lot of extra effort. Just give us the information in clear, concise sound bytes that don’t require us to think and that allow us to easily place ourselves in dualistic positions rather than play around in muddy waters of unknowing and complexity. Unfortunately, one finds this a lot in the modern church. “Just give us the answers already so we can know what we’re supposed to think.”
Parables won’t allow for that. They force us to engage a lesson, to ponder a text, to look at all sides of a story or teaching. They refuse to allow easy, pat answers, but they also illuminate the richness of Jesus’ teaching and the depth of God’s kingdom now. We all too often want someone to just tell us the answers so that we don’t have to form our faith or wrestle with it.
Parables won’t allow us to check our brain at the door. We must engage fully and faithfully to understand the richness and complexity of what God is up to in a particular story.
This week, for example, we have seed parables to describe the Kingdom of God: scattering seed on the ground and it growing and the mustard seed parable. It’s pretty tough to unpack the richness and depth of these two short teachings about God’s kingdom here and now in a 10-15 minute homily/sermon, but it’s even more difficult in most cases to get folks to commit to Bible study outside of worship. Please don’t give up. Once someone encounters the richness of Jesus’ teaching through parables, it’s like an entire new world opens up—a world beyond dualism and using scripture as a crutch to back up our beliefs instead of challenging them. We when begin to see parables this way we will begin to truly see what the Kingdom of God is like now…not some time in the future.