Intro: Why Parables?
Our gospel text for today consists of two parables—these strange little stories Jesus was always telling. They’re farming parables about how the kingdom of God grows. But before we get to the actual text, let’s consider for just a moment why Jesus used parables so often, because it seems like people were always getting confused or upset when Jesus told stories. So why tell them at all? Why not just say what he meant?
A good clue comes in the previous chapter of this Gospel. Mark says that Jesus spoke to his followers “in parables and riddles.” Riddles, now there’s something we know about. We don’t quite understand parables, because no one talks about them except in church. Now parables are not exactly the same as modern riddles, but it might be a good starting point to understand what parables are all about. The similarity is this: you can’t tell yourself a good riddle. Go ahead, try it. Riddles and parables are what we call collaborative discourse—they require an audience.
So don’t imagine that Jesus ever told these parables in exactly the way they are recorded for us in the text. What we have is the edited version. The made for TV version. The longest parables in the gospels, as they are recorded, would take at most three minutes to read. Give Jesus more time than that. Give him thirty minutes to fill out the details, maybe even acts parts out dramatically. And don’t imagine his audience sitting there politely, like you people. Imagine them interrupting Jesus. Asking questions. Heckling. Shouting “Amen!” Getting angry. Disagreeing with Jesus. Disagreeing with each other. And that’s exactly what parables are meat to do: they are stories specifically designed to spark debate, to annoy you, to get under your skin.
If at the end of a parable the crowd files out in a nice orderly line waiting to shake Jesus’ hand and say, “Great Parable this morning, Rabbi, I really enjoyed it!” then Jesus knows he missed the mark. He needs to get a new parable, or move on to a new audience. And this is where parables differ from riddles: the idea is not to “get it’;” the idea is that the parable is supposed to get you.
Okay, so now lets get on with it.
The First Parable: It’s Not What You Think
The first parable is about a farmer who plants some corn or some other kind of grain. He wakes up one morning and shoots have popped up out of the ground. A bit later he goes to bed again and when he gets up the ears have begun to grow. Then the corn swelling inside the ears. And the farmer doesn’t know how this is happening. Months ago he planted tiny little seeds in the ground, and now he has full grown corn.
Simple enough, right? The farmer plants the seed; the corn grows. But, of course, it’s not about the corn. It’s a parable about how the kingdom of God grows. And, like every other parable, it’s meant to be provocative, maybe even a bit annoying. So lets look at some of the cultural context that the first audience of the parable would have shared.
Start at the end. The last line in the parable: “but when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”—that’s a quote from the prophet Joel. It comes at the end of his short little book that is all about the coming Day of the Lord in which God would restore Israel’s fortunes, pronounce judgment on evil and on the violent oppressors who besieged them from surrounding nations, and would establish a kingdom of righteousness and peace. (On a side note: I’ve said it here before, but I just want to reiterate that the kingdom of God, is NOT some place we float off to when we die to get away from the world. The kingdom of God is about God’s wise and righteous governance right here on earth. That why our Lord taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Those two lines mean exactly the same thing. God’s kingdom come is God’s will being done right here on earth, just as it is done currently in heaven). And that was the great hope to which all of Israel was looking forward. But they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around how it was going to come about, like the farmer who couldn’t understand how his corn was growing.
Of course, the corn was doing the same thing the farmer was doing. He kept going to sleep and then getting up. In the same way, the corn was resting in a cool Springtime ground, and then getting up with the heat of the Summer sun. The word that Jesus used for getting up—egeirō—was a common word used for resurrection, which, by the first century, was part of this great kingdom hope. Many believed that once dead saints would be resurrected to join in the fun of God’s new kingdom. (This, by the way, is the reason that the early followers of Jesus had this strange belief that the kingdom of God was already at hand, despite all the evidence to the contrary: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was proof that the long awaited kingdom had, in fact, been inaugurated).
In this parable, Jesus is saying, “Yes! The long awaited kingdom is coming.” But here’s the kicker: “It’s not going to come how you’ve expected it to.”
There was lots of disagreement in the first century over how the kingdom would come about. One group, called the Zealots, thought that they should build an army and stage a coo against the Roman occupation so they could cleanse the Temple of that gentile filth. Then and only then God would establish his kingdom. The Essenes thought: “No, we don’t have to cleanse the Temple—it’s too far gone. We just have to separate ourselves from this wicked society, live in caves and set up our own little righteous sect, and then God’s kingdom will come. The Pharisees said, “You’re both wrong. It’s about being faithful to the Torah. If we can just get everyone to obey the law, right down to the letter, then God’s kingdom will come.”
But no matter what the disagreement, there’s an underlying theme here. Did you catch it? If we cleanse the Temple, then the kingdom will come. If we retreat… If we obey… If we…if we…if we…. They thought it was about them! If we build it, God will come.
But in this parable Jesus is saying: “You’re the farmer! Like it or not, you’ve fallen asleep, and the kingdom of God is growing right under your noses.” We may till the soil; we may plant the seeds; we may water the shoots. But when it comes right down to it, this corn is growing while we’re sound asleep. And that’s as mysterious and as annoying to us today as it was to that farmer, and to those first century Jews. Because somehow we’ve gotten the idea that the world can’t turn without us. That’s why we find it so hard to take a day off, or to get a full night’s sleep. That’s why the decree to Sabbath rest seemed so radical. How will things possibly get done without us? Well, the great and terrifying news of Jesus’ parable here is that in the kingdom of God we’re not the ones who get stuff done. The corn grows without the farmer. And the kingdom of God is God’s business. It’s not about you! It’s a frightening parable, because it makes us powerless…welcome to Christianity!
So I want to address for just a second, if I may, the Bishop’s letter, which Pastor read to us two weeks ago. The Bishop sites some pretty startling statistics:
- A 20% decline of mainline congregations in America over the last 40 years, when our population more than doubled over that same period.
- Our own synod has seen nearly a 40% decline over the last 25 years.
But what I don’t want—and this is not what the Bishop was saying, either. So I’m not disagreeing with him here, just clarifying something—What I don’t want is for us to get the idea that this relative dip in church attendance in recent years is something we can “fix” if only we’d work a little harder. As if we could just hone our gardening skills a bit and voilà, we’d see a full crop of new members growing up around us. As if this kingdom-of-God-thing were about us.
And while these statistics are startling, and they do matter, the really startling fact is not who’s not here, but that you and I are here.
Think about this. Two millennia ago and half way around the world, Jesus was setting around a campfire with his followers and he when he asks them this question: “Who do you say that I am?” And one of them, Simon, jumps right up and say, “Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Well, Jesus must have liked this answer, because he says, “Simon, you didn’t come up with this on you own. God revealed this to you.” In fact it’s such big news, that as a result Jesus changes Simon’s name. He says “Simon, from now on you will be called Petros.”—in English, Peter. It means pebble, little stone you can hold in your hand. So Jesus says, “From now on, Simon, you will be called Petros, little stone. And on this petra”—on this massive boulder. So Jesus is talking here about the statement that Simon had made: that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Simon is the petros, the small stone. The statement is the petra, the big boulder.—“From now on, Simon, you will be called Petros, and on this Petra I will build my Church.” And here we are in Beckley, West Virginia in 2012. Two thousand years later, and some five thousand miles away, we gather to proclaim along with the Apostle Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Now that’s startling.
I will build my Church.
That’s good news! The kingdom of God is something far larger than we. We’re invited to be a part of it, but we don’t have to keep it going.
Martin Luther came to understand this when he was locked up in the basement of Warburg castle trying to avoid being imprisoned or killed after he had been formally deposed by the Catholic Church. He thought the Reformation would smolder out while he was in there, but instead it caught on like a wildfire. Reflecting on the experience later, Luther said, famously, “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I drank Wittenberg beer with my friends…the Word [did the work of the Reformation]. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
Let me says this. I believe in evangelism. Lets tell the good new of Jesus to everyone we meet. But if you’re afraid that the Church in America is in decline because we’ve somehow let the Church down, I’ve got good news for you friend: we were never holding it up. This is God’s kingdom, and God will build it.
The Second Parable: So How Does God’s Kingdom Grow?
So if the kingdom is not going to grow in the way that anyone had expected, how does it grow?
The second parable is about a mustard seed, which, though it is the smallest of seeds, grows up to be a large shrub.
Now we’ve all heard sermons about how the mustard seed starts from humble beginnings but grows into something much larger. But there’s more going on here. Jews valued order, and they had lots of rules about how to keep a tidy garden. One of the tips was to keep out mustard plants. In fact, there are laws in the Talmud which prohibit growing mustard in your garden. Because mustard is like a weed that spreads and takes over neatly trimmed vegetables. When people heard this parable probably chuckled, or told Jesus to hush before he got himself into trouble speaking so flippantly about the kingdom of God
Many people would have cheered a more traditional image of the kingdom as the great and tall cedars of Lebanon, as we sang in the Paslter this morning. But Jesus’ parable mocks this triumphal image. After all, even fully grown mustard plants stand only a few feet high—it’s a modest shrub. Apparently Jesus wasn’t imagining that his kingdom would grow by upstaging the world, with better music, more charismatic leaders and more advanced PowerPoint presentations.
Rather, the Jesus revolution was to be a subtle contagion that grows slowly, but with annoying persistence…like a weed taking over a garden, or like leaven working its way through a loaf of bread…One person at a time.
One cup of coffee with a friend, during which you share how you’ve seen Christ at work in the world…
One neighbor helping out another…
One child guided lovingly and patiently…
One cool cloth on the head of someone who’s sick…
One coat offered with someone who doesn’t have one…
One meal shared with the hungry…
…Until the love of Christ takes over the world.
Once again, as he so often does in his parables, this is Jesus turning the power structure of the world on its head. So don’t worry, either, if it seems that the Church in America is in the situation that it’s in right now because for the first time in a while Christianity is no longer the assumed narrative of broader culture. If it looks for the first time in a while like we’re no longer a great and mighty cedar, but merely a weed, a plague and an annoyance on the culture. And don’t play into the hand of the American religious sentimentality that says “woe is us—we’re being persecuted. Or, we’re losing our power of persuasion or our cultural relevance and we need to fight to get it back.” For this culture shift that we’re experiencing may just be the best thing that’s ever happened to the Church in America.
Mustard’s incredible medicinal properties and its tangy bite as a spice only become effective when it’s crushed…ground…persecuted, you might say.
And isn’t this the great and wonderful mystery that we proclaim? Jesus told Pilate, “If my kingdom were like the kingdoms of this world, my followers would be in here fighting to get me out.” But they didn’t. Rather, Jesus submitted himself to the world’s persecution. No one had to take Jesus’ life; he laid it down. Rome thought they had finally rooted out this annoying weed, but Paul say that “we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The secret that the rules of the age didn’t understand was that—just like the mustard seed, which becomes potent only when crushed—crucifying the Lord of Glory only unleashed his power. From the death of Christ the power of life springs forth. For “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed.”
And this is the great mystery we celebrate also at the table this morning. As we partake of the bread, broken for us, and of the wine, poured out for the forgiveness of sins, it nourishes us body and soul, and send us forth to be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.
One last thing about the mustard seed parable. Jesus says that when the mustard plant has grown up “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” His audience would have been familiar with this from the cedars of Lebanon images, but the word Jesus used was not the word for the great eagles who would normally perch in the cedars. It was the word for scavengers who feast on the carcasses—the kind of birds farmers tried to keep out of their gardens. It was meant to convey a vision of Israel as a safe and hospitable home for Gentiles and outsiders—a vision which many in Jesus’ day had lost.
It seems that if the Church is going to grow it will do so by being a sanctuary—in the nest sense of that word—for outsiders and social cast offs…
…for people who don’t look like us.
…for people who don’t smell like us.
…for people whose sexual orientation might make us uncomfortable.
…for rambunctious children.
…for the poor.
…for the lazy.
God will grow his Church, in the mysterious, persistent, annoying way that he does, by making a creating a home for sinners like you and me who come to hear those wonderful words “I absolve you of your sins.” And then sending us forth to preach that frightening and beautiful good news to the world.