Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
He 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. (Mark 4:26-34 – NRSV)
“The parables are perhaps the most characteristic element in the teaching of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels. They have upon them, taken as a whole, the stamp of a highly individual mind, in spite of the re-handling they have inevitably suffered in the course of transmission. Their appeal to the imagination fixed them in the memory, and gave them a secure place in the tradition. Certainly there is no part of the Gospel record which has for the reader a clearer ring of authenticity” (C H Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, 1).
Notwithstanding 4:2 – “He began to teach them many things in parables” – and 4:34 – “he did not speak to them except in parables” – these two parables in today’s Gospel are the only explicit parables of the kingdom in Mark’s Gospel.
The second parable – the parable of the mustard seed – is also found in both Matthew 13.31–32 and Luke 13.18–19. Matthew and Luke frequently draw on Mark which is the earliest Gospel. Matthew and Luke also each have two other sources. They share the so-called “Q”. (“Q” is the first letter of the German word “Quelle” meaning “source”.) Matthew and Luke each have at least one other independent source.
The kingdom of God is as if: The interpretation is not obvious. Is the kingdom of God like the seed? The sower? The process of growth? Parables do not give straightforward interpretations as allegories tend to do. Parables invite the listener into a process. Submitting to that process without pre-empting the outcome is essential to the interpretation.
One scholar writes: “A more banal comparison could not be imagined. The kingdom of God should be likened to something grand and glorious: to shimmering mountain peaks, crimson sunsets, the opulence of potentates, the lusty glory of a gladiator. But Jesus likens it to seeds. The paradox of the gospel—indeed, the scandal of the Incarnation—is disguised in such commonplaces. The God whom Jesus introduces will not be kept at celestial arm’s length. Jesus does not tell us how high and lofty God is but how very near and present he is, and how the routines of planting and harvesting are mundane clues to the nature and plan of God” (J R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, W B Eerdmans, 2002, 142).
sleep and rise night and day etc: This phrase implies rhythm and routine. It also suggests submission to a larger order of things. And so “the seed would sprout and grow”. It is incomprehensible – “he does not know how”.
The earth produces of itself etc: There is an inherent rhythm and order in the seeds. It is manifest in the growing and the fruitfulness. It is gift. The person ho sows the seed is participant, not master. He waits upon the earth, he does not lord it over the earth. And so, “when the grain is ripe” – not before – “he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He receives the harvest, he does not make it.
the mustard seed: This seed was proverbial for its smallness. The mustard plant grows along the Sea of Galilee to a height of two to six feet. It is a hardy plant and tends to take over gardens where it is planted. To say that it grows to be “greater than all the shrubs” is somewhat of an exaggeration.
“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.” So begins today’s Gospel – see Mark 4:26-34. What a peculiar way to speak of “the Kingdom of God”! But parables are like that. They present the imagination with a series of triggers that can awaken us to new and deeper truths. Consider the last phrase as such a trigger – “he does not know how”. It challenges our taken for granted understanding of what it means to know. It invites us to open ourselves to a much deeper knowing – one that might, in fact, look more like “unknowing”.
The renowned novelist and essayist, Saul Bellow, speaks of the main character in one of his novels who has a PhD in history: “I meant the novel (Herzog) to show how little strength ‘higher education’ had to offer a troubled man. In the end he is aware that he has had no education in the conduct of life …. Herzog’s confusion is barbarous. …. In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as education. But the channel is always there, and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves – to that part of us which is conscious of a higher consciousness, by means of which we make final judgments and put everything together. The independence of this consciousness, which has the strength to be immune to the noise of history and the distractions of our immediate surroundings, is what the life struggle is all about. The soul has to find and hold its ground against hostile forces, sometimes embodied in ideas which frequently deny its very existence, and which indeed often seem to be trying to annul it altogether” (Saul Bellow, “Foreword” to Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1987, 16f).
The man in the parable is the very opposite of most adults who have been through our schooling systems of recent generations – perhaps most especially those with higher degrees. We know lots about how seeds sprout and grow and other such things. But what do we know of the soul’s longings? What do we know of what really matters in the end? The response of the man in the parable suggests he knows what matters in the end.
Human experience is a great teacher. It will teach us that the more we know the more we know we do not know. It will teach us that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. It will also teach us about the Kingdom of God. If we know how to listen.