Gospel for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (17 June 2018)
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)
We encounter the Greek word parabolē many times in Mark’s Gospel. And much has been written in modern times to address the question: “What is a parable?” One commentator writes: “It has long been recognized that this seems to have been the most characteristic form of Jesus’ teaching. Frequently however, the category of ‘parable’ is defined more narrowly than it would have been in Jesus’ own day. In the LXX the Greek ‘parable’ translates the Hebrew word mashal, a term that can include riddles and proverbs, in fact any sort of similitude or saying. Several sayings in Mark are clearly designated as parables: the sayings in 3:24-25 and 3:27 are called ‘parables’ (3:23); the sayings in 4:3-8, 21-32 are called ‘parables’ (4:2, 10, 30, 33); the saying regarding defilement (7:14-15) is a ‘parable’ (7:17); and the story of the vineyard (12:1b-9) is called a ‘parable’ (12:1a). But there are many other parabolic sayings in Mark’s Gospel: 1:17; 2:17; 6:4; 7:27; 8:15; 9:42, 43-48, 49; 10:25, 38-40; 11:23; 13:34.
“Parables are ‘lively’ forms of speech, not easily controlled. They can signify different things to different people, depending to no small degree on the social location of the hearer. There may be layers of meaning and allegorical details may introduce sub-themes. Nevertheless, one does well to listen for a single, dominant point or concern in each parable or parabolic statement. Even allegories tend to have a major, focal interest.” (Virgil Howard and David B Peabody, “Mark” in The International Bible Commentary, Editor William R Farmer, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1998, 1343.)
John Dominic Crossan sounds a warning when he sums up: “The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables. (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 82.)
Chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel begins with Mark telling us “he began to teach them many things in parables” (4:2). And at the end of today’s Gospel Mark tells us that “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”.
Chapter 4 is a chapter of parables. That Jesus taught in parables is clearly a source of some puzzlement to his disciples. When they are alone with him, they ask him the meaning of the parables and his reason for teaching in parables – see 4:10-12. In his “explanation” Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” It is difficult to see how this reference to Isaiah could have clarified things for the disciples.
Perhaps a clue is found in the previous verse – 4:9: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Understanding Jesus’ teachings through the parables is not dependent on understanding Isaiah, but understanding the prophet Isaiah is dependent on understanding Jesus. Mark’s Gospel has begun with Jesus announcing: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent (metanoeite), and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). It is as if Jesus repeats this announcement again and again in varying formats, trying to break through, urging them to listen with a new mind and a new heart.
The message is not one that submits easily to language. Even when Jesus does “explain” the meaning of the parable of the sower – see 4:13-20 – the danger is that the reader/listener will mistake the explanation for the truth of the kingdom. To adapt a saying from the Zen tradition: The parables are like a finger pointing to the moon.
One commentary says of the two parables in today’s Gospel: “The two seed parables (4:26–29 and 4:30–32) are identified explicitly as parables of the kingdom of God by their introductory formulas. They make similar points about the nature of God’s kingdom: There is a sharp contrast between small beginnings (the seeds) and great conclusions (the harvest, the great bush); something is happening in the present (the process of growth), and the process is mysterious to humans (the seed growing automatē, the small mustard seed turning into a large bush), which suggests divine guidance. These two seed parables may well once have formed a pre-Markan unit with the parable of the sower/seeds (4:3–9). Their message was one of hope for Jesus’ discouraged followers and for the persecuted Markan community. They affirmed that despite the rejection and opposition that Jesus’ ‘word’ encountered, the ‘seed’ sown in and through Jesus is growing and mysteriously moving toward the fullness of God’s kingdom.” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, (2002). The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 153-154.)
The kingdom of God is as if: It is when referring to the “kingdom” that Jesus shows himself to be the pre-eminent story-teller: “it is affirmed by virtually all NT scholars that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God in parables”. (J R Donahue and D J Harrington, op cit, 150.)
scatter seed on the ground: There is a rather shocking randomness about this. The Greek verb is ballō, meaning “throw” although it can mean “put”. It is more clearly the former meaning indicated here. Interestingly, in English we find this Greek verb at the root of our word “symbol”, suggesting a symbol is a “throwing together” of otherwise disparate parts or things. In the “throwing together” a mysterious unity is expressed that cannot be expressed in a merely prosaic explanation. Explaining a symbol never quite achieves what the symbol, left to itself, can achieve. We can say that the parable functions as a symbol.
would sleep and rise night and day: The sheer ordinariness of what is being described, is manifest in the ongoing routines of night and day, sleeping and waking. This could all pass without us consciously noticing it. It is part of our taken for granted world. Familiarity breeds contempt. Surely the kingdom of God is something more than this? We want excitement and drama, not tedium and boredom!
the seed would sprout and grow: Again, the ordinariness of it all is found in a common, everyday occurrence of sowing seeds in the ground. The seed has an inherent potential which, in the right conditions, unfolds – “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head”. The role of the farmer – like the very soil itself – is facilitative. The farmer and the soil do not give or make the growth, they assist and enable it. And there is a timing to it. And a waiting. All other things being equal, “the full grain in the head” will be given! It will happen! And we “do not know how”! Just as the simple, everyday occurrence of the seed secretly coming into the fullness of life is a mystery to us, so the kingdom of God is a mystery to us. We can understand “mystery” as inexhaustible intelligibility – we do understand something of what is going on, but not much.
A little story from the life of Nikos Kazantzakis helps to illustrate this:
“Once, I remembered, I had detached a chrysalis from the trunk of an olive tree and placed it in my palm. Inside the transparent coating I discerned a living thing. It was moving. The hidden process must have reached its terminus; the future, still enslaved butterfly was waiting with silent tremors for the sacred hour when it would emerge into the sunlight. It was not in a hurry. Having confidence in the light, the warm air, in God’s eternal law, it was waiting.
“But I was in a hurry. I wanted to see the miracle hatch before me as soon as possible, wanted to see how the body surges out of its tomb and shroud to become a soul. Bending over, I began to blow my warm breath over the chrysalis, and behold! A slit soon incised itself on the chrysalis’ back, the entire shroud gradually split from top to bottom, and the immature, bright green butterfly appeared, still tightly locked together, its wings twisted, its legs glued to its abdomen. It squirmed gently and kept coming more and more to life beneath my warm, persistent breath. One wing, as pale as a budding poplar leaf disengaged itself from the body and began to palpitate, struggling to unfold along its entire length, but in vain. It stayed half opened, shrivelled. Soon the other wing moved as well, toiled in its own right to stretch, was unable to, and remained half unfolded and trembling. I, with a human being’s effrontery, continued to lean over and blow my warm exhalation upon the maimed wings, but they had ceased to move now and had dropped down, as stiff and lifeless as stone.
“I felt sick at heart. Because of my hurry, because I had dared to transgress an eternal law, I had killed the butterfly. In my hand I held a carcass. Years and years have passed, but that butterfly’s weightless carcass has weighed heavily on my conscience ever since.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco, Faber, 1965/1989, 465-66. This story, in a slightly amended form found its way into his novel, Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis goes on to say: “The most precious orders given us by God are: Be patient, meditate, trust” (466).)
the harvest has come: Even though we do not understand much of what is happening, even though it is all utterly ordinary, we do in fact live in expectation of something good coming to be. The harvest is a symbol of satisfaction, a reason for rejoicing. It is also a symbol of the end times – an eschatological symbol – and almost certainly suggests some kind of accounting. In Joel 3:13 we find a similar use of the image: “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.”
mustard seed: The mustard seed is a very tiny seed. But it is known for its capacity to germinate just about anywhere and when it strikes root, it is a hardy plant – up to about 2 metres – and can easily spread and take over a garden. In the Hebrew Scriptures, great trees are sometimes a symbol of powerful societies – see for example Daniel 4:19-21. So there may be a certain comic irony here in referring to the coming kingdom as a mustard shrub – that one might easily find in one’s backyard.
Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. St Augustine wrote one of his most memorable works – The City of God – in the wake of that event which had a huge impact on him personally. In The City of God St Augustine observes that ‘peace ... is the tranquillity of order’. (St Augustine, The City of God, Chapter 13, in Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, translated by Mary T Clark, SPCK, 1984, 456.) Augustine goes on to make it clear that there is an order given by God. To discover and submit to that order is our privilege and responsibility.
Mahatma Gandhi points in the same direction when he speaks of satyagraha. The word was coined by Gandhi himself in 1906: “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.” (Mohandas.K. Gandhi, “Satyagraha in South Africa”, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1111, 109–10.)
Gandhi believed that, when someone – for example a colonial ruler – acts contrary to right order, then the most effective opposition is satyagraha. That is, one becomes, bodily, a manifestation of the right order that has been or is being violated.
This is in fact the way of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. When the rulers become unfaithful, the prophet becomes a living memory of what the rulers have forgotten. Gandhi, nearly sixty years later, writes: “A satyagrahi must always be ready to die with a smile on his face, without retaliation and without rancor in his heart. Some people have come to have a wrong notion that satyagraha means only jail-going, perhaps facing blows, and nothing more. Such satyagraha cannot bring independence. To win independence you have to learn the art of dying without killing.” (Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi on Non-Violence, edited by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1965, 49.)
Simone Weil writes: “The love of the order and beauty of the world is thus the complement of the love of our neighbour. .... God is present .... in our neighbour and in the beauty of the world.” (Simone Weil, Waiting on God, Fontana Books, 1950/1973, 113 & 135.)
Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ (1844-1889) writes in his poem, “God’s Grandeur”, of the potential of God’s order, waiting to be set free:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God ....
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
When Jesus points to the seed that sprouts and grows, he sees there something that reminds him of the kingdom that he is announcing. “Look! Listen to your experience!” The rhythms and order there are not of our making. Jesus’ whole mission is to see that God’s intended order – an order of truth and beauty, goodness and peace, love and compassion – is set free.