This Sunday our Gospel plunges us into Jesus’s teaching, with the parables of the seed that grows “he knows not how” and the mustard seed.
The first thing to notice—in continuity with last week’s struggles about the “house” and the “kingdom,” is that Jesus’s teaching focuses on “the kingdom of God.” “Thy will be done” can sometimes, by itself, give us an individualistic idea of our relationship with God, but “thy kingdom come” situates us within a people and a greater project of renewal. Christian salvation is social.
Our reading concludes, “Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.” This passage summarizes a half chapter which this year’s Lectionary skipped—though we read about the parable, and I commented on it, last year (Fifteenth Sunday), in Matthew.
That story is about the seed that falls on different kinds of ground, and in both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Jesus ties that parable to the claim, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” Sometimes people say Jesus’s uses quaint parables to make himself accessible to quaint country people. But Jesus says just the opposite: he uses parables in part to hide his teaching.
Or rather, Jesus is the key to the teaching. The teachings are all from Jesus and about Jesus, he is the way, the truth, and the life. If we stay close to him, the teachings are luminous; without him, we can do, and understand, nothing.
Also in the half-chapter we’re skipping, Mark spins two other sayings in this direction. Matthew says we are the light of the world, and a lamp is not supposed to be put under a bushel basket. But here in Mark, it’s Jesus’s teaching, and his kingdom, which are meant to be revealed and revealing.
So too with the line, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” For Matthew and Luke, this is about treating others right. But for Mark, here in chapter four, it is about understanding the words of Jesus: live by the sword, die by the sword; live by the word of Jesus, and his word will reveal everything to you, but live by another word, and all is darkness.
As I’ve said before, Mark is Peter’s Gospel, and Peter wants us to keep our eye fixed on Jesus.
The first parable we read is the seed growing. The parable of the sower, which we skipped, emphasizes the difference of the ground: is our heart ready to receive his word? But this parable emphasizes the mysterious power of the seed itself. The farmer just “scatters” the seed, then goes to bed. “The seed sprouts and grows, he knows not how.”
The kingdom of God depends not on our strength, not on our plans, but on the power of Jesus, and of his seed, the Word. We cover it with the bushel basket of our human calculations, measure it by human prudence—but he can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.
Jesus adds the picturesque detail that first the blade comes, then the ear, then the full grain. Sometimes all we see is a tiny little plant sticking up, and we don’t even know if it’s the Kingdom or not, or if it can possibly survive. But he is working, and we must pray, “Thy Kingdom come!” and give ourselves over to that divine work.
Other times we see the Kingdom at work, but it doesn’t yet bear fruit that we can receive. No matter, Thy Kingdom come!
Our second parable is the mustard seed. The simple point is, we think Jesus can’t possibly win. But he can. He’s more powerful than you think. Jesus, I trust in you.
My Bible dictionary says the thing about Middle Eastern “Sinapis” is that it grows fast.
Our first reading, from Ezekiel, reminds us that this parable has a background—Jesus is often quoting the Old Testament (maybe we should read it). Ezekiel even has the detail of the birds dwelling in the shade of its boughs. Ezekiel, too, underlines the power of God: it is not we who make the kingdom strong, it is the Lord.
The reading from Second Corinthians is dizzying. We are at home in the body, we would rather leave the body, we are judged by what we do in the body. We are at home (literally, among our people), away from home, we want to go home, we should please the Lord at home or away from home, we’re going home. There’s a lot to pray about here.
But one point for us: we will appear at the foot of Christ. (Our translation says “judgment seat,” but that adds a detail that only distracts.) We must live all our life in the light of this final encounter: love what he loves, share in his work, live by his word, and let him be our all in all.
That’s the meaning of the Kingdom: not that Jesus has some project he wants done, but that he wants our whole life to be united to him, for our every moment to be hallowing his name, calling out for his kingdom and his will, living by his bread, dwelling in the mercy of his forgiveness, letting him be our leader and deliverer.
What does Jesus’s kingdom mean in your daily life?