Listen!Ezekiel 17:22-24 | Mark 4:26-34
Right back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel the author gives us a one sentence summary of Jesus’ preaching: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”. When you read through Mark’s gospel there’s a sense in which the whole thing is just an exposition of those words: the time is now; the Kingdom is near; repent and believe.
And it’s not just Mark, either – the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew, in deference to the sensibilities of his Jewish audience, records it) is at the heart of Jesus’ message, as told by all three of the synoptic gospels.
We’re familiar enough with the words that they have surely lost something. In particular, that they have lost their political, or perhaps prophetic, edge. For in the time of Jesus, in the land of Israel, “Kingdom” meant one of two things. It either referred to the past glories of the nation – the Kingdom of David, and of Solomon – and to the hopes and dreams of the people that they would one day see the like again; or it referred to the Kingdom that was the Roman empire.
To speak of any Kingdom other than Rome was to commit an act of treason; to give fealty to the Kingdom of God was to rebel against Rome; the name Jesus as King was to declare that Caesar was not.
And yet at the same time, in all of Jesus’ preaching, it was clear that the Kingdom that he spoke of was in some way qualitatively different from Rome; opposed to it, certainly, when it was a matter of loyalties, but not a replacement for it. That the Kingdom of God was not just another empire.
It is a kingdom without a language, without an army, with no government, borders, or passports. A kingdom unlike any that the world had known. And so in our gospel reading today, Jesus starts to tell people what the kingdom was really to be like.
And in the style of the day, he doesn’t teach by telling people in plain language what he wants them to hear, much as we might wish he did. Instead, he uses parables, picture stories, into which truths about the kingdom are woven.
Telling stories as a way of expressing profound truths is, of course, a tradition that crosses cultures and ages; great teachers of all times and places have known that a narrative, a story, can communicate much more deeply than simple assertions. As a scientist by training, I grew up placing high value on precision of language, on avoiding ambiguity in expression. In that way of thinking a parable is a terribly inefficient, error-prone way of communicating. I can remember to this day the moment in which I realised why parables were so much more than they appeared, so much more effective than simple statements of truth, when someone said to me “if you want to learn about people, about human nature, read a good novel. You’ll learn more about humanity from Jane Austen than any psychology textbook.”
And its true; stories convey more truth about important, complex, human matters than any number of assertions, doctrines, or statements of fact.
So Jesus taught them in parables. And in today’s reading we had two parables about the kingdom, both parables of growth, parables with an organic theme.
So what is it about the kingdom? Why does Jesus use these images of plants, of wheat and mustard seeds, of sun and rain, seed and soil, growth and harvest?
What you hear in these parables might be different from me – that’s part of the beauty of parables. This is what I hear…
The seed is scattered on the ground, and it grows. Of course, elsewhere Jesus will tell another parable about the sower scattering seeds, and how the seeds on different soils have very different outcomes. But here that’s not the emphasis. Instead, here the emphasis seems to be on the ignorance of the sower as to the mechanism by which his sowing operates. He can’t see, doesn’t understand, germination, or photosynthesis, or all the other incredible, miraculous processes that go into the growth of a mature plant from a tiny seed. He scatters the seed, and it grows, and he doesn’t even know how it happens; it just does.
So often, when you really listen to Jesus’ teaching, you find it runs deeply counter to the assumptions of common life, to the wisdom of the world, even to common sense. Turn the other cheek, do not resist violence, pray for those who persecute you, give to those who ask from you. Love extravagantly, even those who are hard to like. Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile.
And it’s often tempting to write Jesus’ teachings off as naïve and unrealistic, because you can’t see how they might possibly work in the real world. Won’t people just take advantage of you? Won’t you be turned into a doormat?
But the same logic might say to the sower – why throw the seed away onto the ground? Won’t the birds eat it? Won’t it rot? Sowing seed, in truth, is an act of faith – throwing grain away, in the hope that the promise of harvest will come true. Sometime in the future, perhaps after a long wait.
Is that a picture of the Kingdom of God? That we are called to the foolishness of love and forgiveness, of generosity and self giving, not because it makes sense, not because we can justify it, but despite our inability to do so. Because we believe that somewhere down the track there will be a harvest, even if we have no idea how it will work.
And then Jesus moves to another parable – the mustard seed. And, well, this is a bit strange. Why a mustard seed? Whatever the parable might say, it isn’t the smallest of seeds – though it is small – and it definitely doesn’t grow into the biggest tree. Not a tree at all, really, more of a shrub.
But worse than that – in first century Palestine, no-one in their right mind would plant a mustard seed in their field. The mustard shrub was a weed, something a farmer would rip up given the chance, but which spread into a chaotic mess and resisted efforts to remove it. It’s not something you planted; but it was something that grew, unruly, unpredictably, and stayed around however hard you tried to get rid of it.
Which is, when you think about it, an interesting image for Jesus’ kingdom: not a tall, straight oak tree. Instead, the invasive, messy, scraggly weed…
That image really brings us back to where I began, and brings our two parables together – that the Kingdom of God is not the Kingdom of Rome. Rome was the mighty tree – powerful, orderly, monolithic, hierarchical, planned, structured. The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, is the weed that just keeps on appearing, no-one quite knows how, however hard the powers of Rome – the powers of the world – try to keep it down. Suppressed, oppressed, or ignored, it still appears in the cracks, forcing its way into the light.
Of course, for a great deal of history – perhaps from Constantine until, well, right up to the living memory of some of us here – the Church has been more like the tree than the weed. It’s been at the centre of life, the heart of the community, standing strong in times of hardship.
But of course, the Kingdom of God, and the Church, are not the same thing. The Church is often a vehicle of the Kingdom, but it is not the Kingdom; sometimes, indeed, the institution of the Church has been a barrier to the work of the Kingdom of God, as it is grown, tree-like, more and more difficult to distinguish from the culture around it, a culture that it has deeply influenced for the good, and yet and the same time, been influenced by.
Which is why, as we live through a time when the size and influence and prominence of the Church seems to be ever falling away, we need to hear again the words of the parables of the Kingdom of God. Of the seed that grows when it is cast aside in the act of faith – the faith that says “I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how the world gets changed, whether the Church will grow or shrink, whether my acts of love will be accepted or rejected. All I know is the promise of God – the seeds God sows, the seeds that I sow in my acts of kindness, generosity, forgiveness, love, justice – those seeds are the work of the kingdom, and like a weed, inexplicably and unpredictably, they will grow, and the birds of the air, the nations of the world, will come and take shelter in what we sow.”