Mark 4: 26-34
Jesus loved teaching in parables. What is a parable? The Greek word is parabole which corresponds to the Hebrew word mashal as “an allusive narrative which is told for an ulterior purpose.” Or, the best of all, to adopt the words of modern poet, parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Jesus’ parables are among the best known and most influential stories in the world. Parables were the means Jesus used most frequently to explain the kingdom of God and to show the character of God and the expectations that God has for humans. In the 21st century the parables of Jesus deserve a fresh hearing from people who are ready to learn and follow his instructions.
Jesus people lived in an agrarian society. They depended on land, rain and sun. The farmers in the crowd heard Jesus saying:
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 (Mark 4: 26).
These Palestinian farmers knew how difficult it was to grow any good crop, let alone to have seeds growing by themselves. Lack of rain, land infested with swarms of insects, rocks and stones presented major challenges to grow crops. An old Arabic tale illustrates the point:
When Allah was creating the world, he entrusted all the stones to two angels, giving each a bagful. As the angels were flying over Palestine, one of the bags broke open, and half the stones intended for the whole world spilled onto the small area.
The purpose of these parables was not to offer tips for improved agribusiness. Jesus is relating the truth about the Kingdom of God to his disciples. These are his followers who will have a challenging job to grow the seeds of the good news of the gospel. The story is warning against looking down on the small beginnings of the great work God was to do in Jesus’ Galilean ministry.
A few years ago I read an interview of the Bishop of Peshawar-Pakistan in the Church Times London. Bishop Rumalshah said:
“We are 100,000 CHRISTIANS living in the most dangerous part of the world in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. In this volatile setting, Christians — 85 per cent of whom work in menial jobs --- provide care for all in need. We are trying to recreate God’s love as we have experienced it in Jesus Christ, and those people of God are the Taliban and al-Qaeda and Chris-tians, whoever they are. This is our heritage through mission, and it is our privilege. Our three or four health centers are services in diakonia.
He spoke of the work of six Lutheran women in a hall that they share with an al-Qaeda camp. They are working in an area where even the bravest of the brave would shudder to go. We clean the wounds of the children, and that gives us the right to be of service there.
Yet the Church faces great prob¬lems: Legal discrimination against me on the basis of my religion — that I cannot tolerate. . . That is a crime against humanity, and that is what is being done to us. We are in the im¬possible situation of a slow death, a slow suffocation by prejudice, despite all our service. It is the challenge of our times. How do we co-exist in a situation of majority Islam? Our destiny is to exist as a Church and a people of God to encourage reconciled relationships. My chal¬lenge is that our destiny is to embrace the enemy — to smell the sweat of the enemy — and that is why God has supported us and places us there. We have not gone underground, and I am proud of that.”
Jesus said the kingdom of God... kingdom of God 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”((Mark 4: 30, 33).
Mustard seeds grow into something like a shrub. But then this story gets even more absurd, because this shrub-weed takes off, and grows, and grows and, like in the Jack and the Beanstalk story, becomes a tree – which Jesus describes as the greatest of all plants, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
There was the zinger that Jesus slid in – the low growing shrub that became a high-growing tree with such large branches that even the birds can nest in it – this is no random description. This is Ezekiel’s tree – the tree pictured by the prophet as a symbol of the nation of Israel, planted and tended by God: (Ezekiel 17: 22-24).
Here is the point: Jesus has been out with Galilean peasantry; people of low social status. But looks can be deceiving. Behind these rag-tag faces, God is at work. The mustard plant may look like a shrub-weed in the beginning, but it’s not over ’till it’s over. This little low-lying bush has been purposefully planted – it’s not a volunteer – there has been a gardener at work here. It is going to become a huge tree, big enough for the birds to make their homes.
Now get this: Jesus is not saying only that this small group of marginalized people will win the “Israel’s Got Talent” show, although that would be amazing, Jesus is saying something even greater. This group is not just going to be any big tree – this is THE tree! This parable is meant to instill courage and hope in the small and fragile discipleship community for its struggle against the entrenched powers.
Jesus is saying to his church this morning: Remember who your God is and what he has promised. Realize that this small beginning is the start of God’s intended kingdom revolutionized by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. The kingdom that will eventually offer shade to the whole world through your lives and ministry preparing sandwiches on Tuesday mornings at the Salvation Army for the poor children of La Crosse, ministry of healing by Sisters of Charity in the gutters of Calcutta or in the most dangerous areas of the world in the Northwest Frontiers of Pakistan to offer medicine and cup of cold waters to a injured militant of Al-Qaeda. This is all about God empowering ordinary men and women every day to be the instruments of peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy in Jesus name. Amen.
(I have borrowed thoughts from several books and other preachers)
Tom Wright, Mark for Every one
Lamar Williamson, Jr., Interpretation, Mark
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man
Synthesis June 15, 1997
Llyod J. Ogilvie, The Communicator’s Comentary, Mark
R. Kent Hughes, Mark Volume One