Pentecost 3B
Mark 4:26-34

A Liturgy is also available


At last the Lectionary designers are allowing our storyteller Mark
to do just that - tell a story or two.
The story or parable of scattered seed.
The story or parable of the mustard seed.

Or as one commentator imaginatively suggests:
Gradual growth, sleeper sower, and
Mischievous mustard.  
(Reid 1999:61)

So let me spend a little time on just one of those parables: Mischievous mustard.


If we start with all the stuff we have previously heard about this parable,
there is a good chance many of us have heard it said
this is a story about contrast: tiny mustard seed grows into
the greatest of all shrubs.

Botanically speaking
“mustard does not grow to be the greatest of all shrubs, nor is it the smallest of all seeds; hyperbole is used to drive home the contrast.” (Reid 1999:68)

On the other hand, wild mustard, a pesky weed, is almost
impossible to eradicate once it has infested a paddock or vegetable garden.
When you get it in your paddock, like ‘patterson’s curse’,
your paddock is ‘unclean’.

So what might the storyteller be suggesting?

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar suggest:
“Jesus’ audience would probably have expected God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small.”
(Funk 1993:59)

And then this interesting point:
“As the tradition was passed on, it fell under the influence… of the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor for a towering empire… In his use of this metaphor, Jesus is understanding the image for comic effect.” (Funk 1993: 484)

Either way, Funk says, the parable
“betrays an underlying sense of humo(u)r on Jesus’ part.”
(Funk 1993:485)

Other scholars take a different tack.  According to Funk they conclude Jesus
“deliberately chose the symbol of the weed and its seed to represent the poor, the toll collectors, and the sinners: they are pesky intrusions into the ordered garden of society.”
(Funk 1993:60)

But Bruce Sanguin (Sanguin 2015) takes an ‘evolutionary’ tact.
Suggesting that ‘seed’ is one of Jesus’ favourite metaphors, Sanguin suggests three interrelated dynamics:
(i) the growth of the seed describes how G-o-d’s grace works in the universe, from the inside out
and within the impulse to become;
(ii) we ourselves are divine seeds - the same natural grace that animates seeds is working within us to bear fruit;
(iii) the very image of G-o-d is within us in potential form, just as an oak is within an acorn in potential form.
          “But when humans focus on exteriors (the husk and not the kernel) we fall into idolatry, confusing the true life within with the shell."


So there we have it.  My brief reflections and good guesses based
on some scholarship, on this parable.
A parable about a pesky weed that can take over everything.

Which, when you step back and think about it a bit,
“is a strange analogy of the empire of God…  It pokes fun at our expectations that an empire must be a mighty anything.”
(Scott 2001:37, 39)

But that is what makes this story a parable.

And the analogy is nearly as strange as the two camps represented by this story.
The first camp: the Roman Empire.
The second camp: the undesirables, the nuisances and nobodies.  (Crossan 1991:276-79)

And so the story plot unfolds…

Chapter 1:
‘We are here for the duration,’ said pompous Rome.
‘Stay in your place and we will let you live.
Misbehave and you will end up like all these blokes.’

Chapter 2:
‘We aren't going away either,’ said the undesirables.
‘There is a new kingdom coming and it is
already breaking through.’

Chapter 3:
Remembering the original ‘Jesus people’ were not a gathered community,
they – the undesirables - begin to organise.

And the collection of Easter stories were their way of saying:
“This new kingdom is an anti-empire run by an un-king.  Its way is peace through justice, and justice through non-violence.  Its royal court consists of poets and crazy minstrels who think the poor should be filled with good things.  The un-king's army is a band of off-key resisters who keep getting in the way as they sing for peace.

“Don't look for this new upside-down world in heaven.  It is right here, right now, within and without us.  Anyone who is ever left out, despised, rejected, forgotten, spit on, looked over, stood up, washed up, or left behind is in the un-king's cabinet” (John Shuck. ‘Easter for the Nonreligious. Shuck & Juve blog site, 2009).

Mark the storyteller asks:
'With what can we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable will we use for it?’

Well, now we’ve heard the story, there are a few other questions we need to ask:
Where is God’s reign to be found?
With what kind of power is it established?
Who brings it?
Who stands to gain by its coming?
Whose power is threatened by it
? (Reid 1999:69)

Those questions become even more interesting for us when we throw
into the mix the recent debates (yet again) about so-called ‘illegal boat people’.

So listen to this comment from the then director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia,
Sacha Bermudez-Goldman:
“If we regard asylum seekers as illegals who burn boats to force themselves on us, then we might choose to close our doors to them.  But if we regard them as human beings in great need, deserving of being treated with dignity, compassion and respect, we will be able to tap more easily into that great spirit of generosity that moved our hearts so deeply [during the Victorian bushfires].”
(Bermudez-Goldman 2009: Eureka Street, 21.4.2009)

Then Barbara Reid, rather eloquently, brings it all back home, so to speak:
“The reign of God does not have to be imported from far-away… nor does it come with an impressive power.  Rather, it is found in every back yard, erupting out of unpretentious ventures of faith by unimportant people – but which have potentially world-transforming power”
(Reid 1999:69).

Unpretentious ventures and unimportant people…
who spend their Saturdays preparing meals for the hungry,
who repair homes for our poorest sisters and brothers,
who care for broken, hurting, and diseased bodies,
who calm troubled minds,
who risk their lives to protect the vulnerable, and
who boldly speak truth to power on behalf of healthcare and equal rights.  (Shuck & Juve blog site, 2009)


To be sure, many parables can leave us frustrated.
They are not neat parcels with answers inside.  Just like this one, which says:
Take your choice.  Reign of God equals mighty cedar or pungent weed!

Meanwhile, Lloyd Geering’s comment of a few years ago is helpfully suggestive:
“The Jesus most relevant to us is he who provided no ready-made answers but by his tantalising stories prompted people to work out their own most appropriate answers to the problems of life.  That is why the parables… will be remembered long after the historic confessions and creeds have been forgotten.”
(Geering 2002:145)

So equally important for us, is this additional persistent question:
can we have faith with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the parables?

I guess it still remains to be seen if this 21st century congregation
can live out such a 21st century gospel.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Crossan, J. D.
The Historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover.
The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. MacMillan Press, 1993.
Geering, L. G.
Christianity Without God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Reid, B.
Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Mark. Year B. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 1999.
Scott, B. B.
Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Sanguin, B. 
The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Toronto. Evans & Sanguin, 2015.