From Pastor Kenny's Desk
June 17, 2018
Jesus said further, “The reign of God is like this: a sower scatters seed on the ground, then goes to bed at night and gets up day after day. Through it all the seed sprouts and grows without the sower knowing how it happens. The soil produces a crop by itself – first the blade, then the ear, and finally the ripe wheat in the ear. When the crop is ready, the sower wields the sickle, for the time is ripe for harvest.”
Jesus went on to say, “What comparison can we use for the reign of God? What image will help to present it? It is like a mustard seed which people plant in the soil: it is the smallest of all the earth’s seeds, yet once it is sown, it springs up to become the largest of shrubs, with branches big enough for the birds of the sky to build nests in its shade.”
Using many parables like these, Jesus spoke the message to them, as much as they could understand. Everything was spoken in parables, but Jesus explained everything to the disciples later when they were alone. ~ Mark 4:26-34
What’s the difference between a fable and a parable?
I think answering this question is crucial to understanding this passage. A fable is primarily moralistic, a clever story meant to offer some insight into and instruction about life … think of Aesop’s Fables. A parable, on the other hand, is intended to interrupt what you thought you knew and not just teach you something but actually to confront you with a surprising and often unwanted truth.
Fables are handy when you want to give children some good advice, teach them some moral or practical lesson. Who doesn’t remember the lesson of The Tortoise and the Hare … slow and steady effort pays off … or The Boy Who Cried Wolf … honesty is the best policy?
Parables, on the other hand, are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult … whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe. I don’t know if Emily Dickinson had
parables in mind when she wrote her poem on telling the truth slant but she just might have:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Jesus describes the coming Kin-dom of God in parables because he knows the reality it introduces is unexpected and that his hearers can’t really take it in all at once. Theologian Eugene Peterson has said, parables are in this sense like narrative time bombs. You hear them … tick … wonder about them … tick … think maybe you’ve got it … tick … and then as you walk away … tick … or over the course of the next day or so … tick … and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home … boom! … almost overwhelming you with its implications or, per Dickinson, blinding you with its vision.
Jesus conveys two such truths in this passage from Mark’s story. The first parable might be about the wonder of faith or the need to be ready to bring in the harvest. Or it might be about our complete inability to control the coming kin-dom, to dictate whether we … and others … believe … or not. This second possibility is uncomfortable because it leaves us vulnerable. God’s kin-dom comes apart from our efforts, cannot be controlled or influenced, and can only be received as a gift. Faith, is apparently a lot more like falling in love than making a decision. Because kin-dom-faith, like love, is something that comes from the outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it to or not.
If this is true, then how are we to regard those who do not seem interested in matters of faith or even the Kin-dom of God? The members and friends who have fallen away, the family members who opt to golf on Sundays, the friends or co-workers who think involvement in church is nice but seem to have no interest in why we go? Are these folks objects to be targeted, persuaded, and cajoled into faith? Or are they mysteries to be understood and loved, part of the fertile soil that God may be working apart from our efforts. And perhaps the faith we hold, the bits of the kin-dom we have perceived, can only be offered with delight, no strings attached, with the same enthusiasm and generosity of a child sharing a dandelion ripe for blowing.
The second parable tells an even more difficult truth. Perhaps it is about how God can grow small things into grand ones, although that feels a bit like a fable. Or maybe, just maybe it’s really about the kin-dom’s fondness for penetrating and taking over our lives, sometimes against our better judgment. Mustard, after all, was a lot less like a flowering shrub that we might plant around the edges of our property as an accent than it was an invasive weed, something you want to keep out of your garden and lawn at all costs because it runs amok easily, gets out of hand, and nearly takes over whatever ground it infests.
So also with God’s kin-dom. If it were sold in a box, it would likely have a warning … use only in moderation or perhaps even maybe hazardous to your health. But that’s just it, the kin-dom isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold, used diligently but carefully. It’s a new reality that invades, overturns, and eventually overcomes the old one. It’s a word of promise that creates hope and expectation, leads people to change their jobs to share it, and to leave behind their old ways to live into it. The kin-dom is dangerous because you just don’t know where it will take you or what you will do when it seizes hold of you.
And those birds that are attracted to its shade? I used to assume this was simply a cute picture, a bush large enough to shelter woodland creatures. But given that in the parable Jesus told just before these two … the birds are the ones who snatch away the seed the farmer sows … I’m not so sure. These birds might be the undesirables, the folks decent people avoid, the ones we prefer to keep on the other side of our street and, preferably, outside our homes. Yet across Mark’s story its just these people who flock to the kin-dom Jesus proclaims.
We who have achieved a relative amount of education, position, income and status don’t like much to think about this, but the original followers of Jesus were, in the eyes of the culture, all pretty much losers … lowly fishermen, despised tax collectors, prostitutes and criminals, lowlifes loathed by the religious establishment. Maybe that’s the way the followers of Jesus have always looked to the rest of the world … those people desperate enough, lowly enough, to find hope in Jesus’ message of the kin-dom.
So here’s the thing: I don’t know how these parables will sound to the people of MCC Richmond. But I have a hunch how it will sound to everyone … longtime member or first time visitor … who is struggling, who does not feel accepted, who wonders about the future, or who has experienced significant loss or rejection. Because in these parables Jesus reminds us that the Kin-dom of God comes of its own … and comes for us. The Kin-dom Jesus proclaims has room for everyone. It overturns the things the world has taught us are insurmountable and creates a new and open … future. This is, a threatening reality for any and all who believe they are self-made men or women, but simultaneously good news … perhaps the best news … for anyone who can admit his or her need.
Whatever your need or reality, I hope to shake things up a bit, unleash a parable or two, and consider the truth slant … that all may know of God’s surprising grace and disruptive love … for YOU and ALL people!