“Kingdom Parables”

Proper 6B, June 14, 2015

Mark 4:26-34

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, pastor

East Rochester and West Walworth United Methodist Churches

 

Mark 4:26-34

    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.

 

Prayer.

 

We have two different, but similar, parables from Jesus this morning.

One is about one who scatters seed,

Goes to bed,

And rises to find the seed grew.

The second is about a tiny mustard seed,

When sown

It grows to become the greatest shrub.

 

Jesus often taught in parables,

- Teaching by telling stories -

As opposed to speaking plainly and forthrightly.

Behind closed doors,

and in the presence of his disciples,

Jesus was obviously more direct.

But when in public,

Jesus often chose parables as

A literary style of choice.

 

Many have hypothesized why.

1. Some suggest that Jesus taught in parables as a means of self-preservation;

If the religious authorities witnessed Jesus challenging

their corruption of God’s perfect institution,

they may have prematurely had him put to death.

So Jesus could be just obscure enough

to keep him out of trouble,

yet clear enough

to get his point across.

 

2. By their very nature, parables are simple,

memorable, using common, humble imagery,

and are easy to retell;

which has led many to suggest

that Jesus wanted his message to be retained and spread.

Think: Grow deep; grow wide.

Think: Discipleship and evangelism.

 

3. Still others have hypothesized

that Jesus used parables as a means

of provoking thought

and coaxing the listener into participating more actively in the story.

Some scholars warn of over explaining parables.

When the hearer has to do some mental work to figure them out

It makes the parable more memorable.

 

Jesus probably had these three reasons, and more for speaking in parables.

I believe it is best to keep the interpretation simple.

Don’t over analyze them.

Speak them aloud,

Reflect on them,

Maul them over in your mind.

Let the Spirit speak.

And draw your own conclusions.

 

The two parables Jesus teaches this morning are about the kingdom of God.

Kingdom is a word not often used today,

But it certainly had meaning in ancient times,

during the middle ages,

and through the renaissance.

Kingdoms had kings;

Rulers who were men,

Holding massive wealth,

Inheriting both fortunes and authority.

Some became king by birth,

others by violent means,

still others by marriage.

The king created the rules,

enforced the rules,

and passed judgment upon those accused of breaking the rules.

Every member of the kingdom worked for the benefit of the king

in exchange for safety and protection.

Benevolent kings ran good kingdoms.

But more often than not, power, riches, and authority caused many to turn bad.

 

City-sized kingdoms grew into regional kingdoms,

like Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.

Seeking ever more size, wealth, power, status, legacy

King turned upon King.

Kingdom turned upon kingdom,

Each rising and falling in cyclical fashion.

Prosperity followed by weakening, fall, regeneration, and prosperity all over again.

People tire of the cycle.

People tire of sacrificing their youth to war,

Their prosperity to taxes,

Their freedom to slavery.

 

But each new charismatic despot takes advantage of people’s short memory and the promise of personal gain or glory.

Original sin finds a way to endlessly mutate and replicate.

So holocaust repeats itself.

War and violence continues with unending ferocity.

Creative depravity knows no end.

Such was the kingdom of Rome in the time of Jesus.

 

The search for God

May be just as motivated by a desire to get out of this place

and these cruel cyclical circumstances

as much as it might be for higher or nobler reasons.

Let’s dump our king and government

And follow God instead?

Applying the human metaphor,

We make God king,

Give God all authority to create law, enforce the law, and pass judgment upon those who transgress the law.

We return gifts to God.

We learn God’s ways.

We follow God’s will.

It isn’t a perfect metaphor,

Applying the imperfect to the Divine,

But it was the best Jesus could do,

Because that is what the people knew.

So he teaches about God’s kingdom.

 

To the dull or the uninspired,

kingdom talk may have been received as a threat to those in power;

Namely Rome, and the Jewish authorities.

But to those who were tired of this earthly cycle

and were searching for something more,

thinking about the kingdom of God

was like a key that unlocked the imagination

of how life can be

living completely under the dominion

of a benevolent and loving king.

 

Dream with me, people;

of life that can be lived with God as our king!

 

So, here we have two parables about the kingdom of God.[1]

In the first, we search for the cast of characters.

If God is the sower

Like we often think of God as being a sower

We are puzzled by the fact that the sower doesn’t know how the seed grows.

That doesn’t work.

So, try this: we are the gardener and God is responsible for the growth.

Yet, the harvest belongs to the sower.

But this doesn’t work because we know the harvest belongs to the risen Christ, not to us.

Hum.

 

Time to step back and take a look at the big picture.

The early Christian community expected Christ to return at any moment.

All would be judged.

The kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.

This was the expectation of Mark’s community of faithful.

Consider the possibility that

this parable is a confrontation with the audience

that demands a response.

The reign of God is not “like”

The farmer

The seed

The process of growth

Or, the harvest.

Rather,

The kingdom of God is “sorta like”

each of them

and all of them taken together.

 

In God’s kingdom

The seeds are sown

Germinate

And grow.

God’s kingdom grows.

In God’s kingdom,

Judgment

- the harvest –

is unavoidable.

The harvest comes to every member of God’s kingdom

Like it

Or not.

That is a parable that demands a response.

Prepare for judgment, people!

Get ready for the harvest.

 

The second parable

Was also one that was simple and

Easy for our Lord’s agrarian audience to grasp.

One would think.

The problem is

In the same breath

Jesus compares the kingdom of God with a weed!

They just seem like un-natural dance partners.

The farmers in the crowd would scratch their heads

Because not one of them would intentionally plant mustard

Any more than one of us would plant dandelions in our yard.

They had spent their days toiling to rid themselves of mustard.

They wouldn’t plant it.

They would have also noticed

Mustard seeds aren’t the smallest

And mustard bushes aren’t the biggest.

Exaggeration follows absurdity.

What gives, Jesus?

 

Again, let’s take a look at the big picture.

Jesus creates contrast between the small seed and the large plant.

This works well as an image for the reign of God.

This is good news to people aware of Jesus’ humble beginnings.

This is good news to people struggling to start a new community of faith.

The predatory ability of an aggressive weed like mustard

Would crowd out EVEN the planned crops of the Romans.

Even birds taking shelter in their branches

Would peck away at the carefully planted crops.

Understanding would have produced a cacophony of chuckles in the crowd.

The idea that God empire would subvert the enterprises of Rome,

Now that’s Good News!

The days are coming

When the powers and principalities of this world

Will fall

And be replaced by God’s emerging kingdom.

 

Even deeper still,

The faithful in the crowd would have been drawn to the similar imagery from

Ezekiel 17:22-24:

 

“Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”

 

Ezekiel is a book that paints a picture of end-times.

This sacred Hebrew text is referred to as apocalyptic.

 

God plants a tiny cedar twig on a high mountain.

The twig becomes a large and fruitful tree

Under whose branches every kind of bird finds shelter.

The birds are symbolized as the nations of the world.

All who flock to Israel’s God,

Who find shelter in the Lord’s branches,

Will be saved on the glorious day when the Lord returns with judgment.

This picture in both Ezekiel and referenced by Jesus in today’s Gospel

Envisions a day when God’s sovereignty and life giving power

Will embrace, shelter, and save those under God’s protection.

Now that’s Good News!

 

So, what’s the take home?

The answer isn’t easy,

But try this.

We live in an ordered, planned, linear, logical world

Filled with cyclical violence and sin,

Consumed with greed and oppression,

And determined to drag all of us straight to hell.

 

Contrast this with what Christ is offering.

God is ushering in a different world,

One filled with mysteries and surprises,

Into which, we are invited to work on His behalf.

God’s world clashes with this world.

The powerful kings of this world

Are threatened by God and every one of us

Who seek to follow God’s ways.

As disciples of Jesus

We work to break the cycle of oppression and sin.

We labor to oust the false rulers and principalities of this world

And to replace them with our God as the only king.

We seek to turn the world upside down,

Breaking open vaults and treasuries,

Re-forging swords and hammering them into plowshares.

 

God’s people are called to crowd out the high and mighty

And raise up those left behind in the shadows of dark valleys.

The rough places are made plain

When the last, the least, the lost, the left behind, the widows, children, and the aged

Are lifted up and brought forward,

Out of the darkness and into the light,

To join in the King’s banquet.

 

We test the “sorta like” stories.

We dip our toe into God’s kingdom

And what we find

Is delight,

Is refreshing change,

A new wind that’s blowing;

Good News

That the business-as-usual of this world

Isn’t going to last forever.

Not if we can help it.

Not with God as our King.

Amen.

 

[1]          Explanations for these two parables and conclusion can be attributed to the exceptional work of  Sharon H. Ringe, Professor of New Testament, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC; as found at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/14/2009&tab=4