Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

by Crossings

The Growing Seed and The Mustard Seed
Mark 4: 26-34
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
analysis by Ed Schroeder

Sabbatarians,

The Gospel appointed for Sunday June 15, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, in the Revised Standard Lectionary is Mark 4: 26-34. It consists of two Kingdom of God parables: the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed. For all Kingdom parables it is important to keep in focus that God’s kingdom in the language of the Synoptic Gospels always means “The mercy-management regime that God is instituting in the ministry of Jesus.” Kingdom parables are Jesus-focused even if there is no person or thing, no element in the parable, that might “look like” Jesus.

So, e.g., the opening Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9), could be read as follows: 1. A farmer goes out sowing seed. 2. And then comes the initial folkloric triad [not quartet] of soils. (Cf. the stories we know about Goldilocks’ three porridges, chairs, beds in the home of the three bears, or the three little pigs, the three billy goats gruff). The seed in the first soil fails, also in the second, also in the third. Parable hearers, after hearing of the third failure, would understand it as the end of the story: it failed, it failed, it failed. But then surprise, surprise, there is a fourth soil–to be sure, it is part of this story, but it breaks the “law” of the parable’s folkloric triad. In this fourth soil the seed produces a bumper crop in three distinct successful yields–paralleling the three failure yields. The end of THIS story is that in the face of repeated (inevitable?) failure, the farmer and the seed succeed.

The “explanation” given in Mark 4:13-20 misses the punch that the very form of the parable offers. Scholars generally see these verses as representing the way a later generation of Christians understood the parable (four different ways that people receive the Word) after they had lost its original meaning. Just for fun, try to read the parable as an “original” (without the offered commentary) as a parable of “what God is doing in Jesus.”

Thus God’s many attempts [Noah, Abraham, David] to set up a mercy-management regime with his people (and through them with the entire human race) have been nothing but a string of failures. One could conclude that the entire operation was doomed from the start. God, like the farmer, ought to give up. But, surprise, surprise, God tries it one more time–with the same “chesed”-seed, but this time a new soil, his beloved Son–and this one brings in the harvest, a harvest that offsets all the prior failures. Is that Good News or what?!

The two parables in the text for the day are also “seed” parables, so the Sower/seed parable above needs to be kept close at hand. In the first one God’s mercy-management regime in Jesus sprouts and grows “all by itself.” Even the one scattering the seed does not “know how” this is happening. But he does not need to know, for the seed on its own does grow–all the way to ripened maturity–and the harvest comes.

The second parable signals God’s mercy-management regime in Jesus as itsy-bitsy seed (theology of the cross?) that nevertheless grows and becomes the largest of all. All what? All the operations/regimes going on in the world? Maybe the “largest of all” of God’s own operations in the world, which later will be designated the New Creation.

Verses 33 & 34 of the pericope don’t give us much to build a Crossings matrix on, but (borrowing from other parts of Mark’s theology) one might construct something like this for these texts:

DIAGNOSIS

Stage 1. Jesus’ disciples (us included) have limited understanding when God’s mercy-management regime in Jesus comes to them. Yet Jesus persists in using parables which do not make things any clearer for them.

Stage 2. See the clue in 4:12. Their eyes, ears, hearts are like the previous “soils” of Isaiah’s time (Is. 6:9f.) where God’s chesed failed in the face of blind, unhearing, hardened and “unturning” (=non-repentent) receivers of the Word.

Stage 3. Unforgiven. Not only is their salvation a failure, It looks as though God too is a failure.

NEW PROGNOSIS

Stage 4. (Good News for Stage 3) The “old” seed in the “new” soil of God’s Beloved Son. Its surprising success despite its hiddenness and its puny size and patent weakness. We need to spell out here Mark’s own theology of the cross lined out for us throughout his Gospel: Jesus as Ochlos-Messiah for the “ochlos-people.” [Term is used twice in 4:1.]

Stage 5. (Good News for Stage 2) Trusting Jesus, discipling him as those who “understand” puts former failures in on the harvest. We are that harvest.

Stage 6. (Good News for Stage 1) Getting other have-nots in on God’s mercy-management regime in Jesus. I.e., joining the Lord of the harvest as fellow-sowers and fellow-harvesters. Like Jesus doing so among the “ochlos” in our world.

Peace & Joy! Ed

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