Preaching with The Storytellers Bible: June 17, 2018

June 13th, 2018

The following is a free excerpt from The CEB Storytellers Bible, a resource which helps readers see the big themes and important truths of the Bible while also guiding them in how to tell these stories in contemporary language. Over the course of four weeks, Ministry Matters will feature excerpts from the Storytellers Bible to match the Sunday lectionary. Read the third excerpt below.

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4:26-34

Mark 4:26-29 The Seed Growing Secretly
Jesus compares the rule of God with the mystery of a growing seed.

According to Mark 1:14-15, the permeating theme of the Gospel of Mark is the apocalyptic manifestation of the “rule” (CEB: “kingdom”) of God. As the Gospel of Mark unfolds, the listeners discover that Jesus is an agent through whom God’s invasion of the old world is beginning. In the strict sense, the rule of God is not dawning, for God has been sovereign all along. But God is now taking fresh steps to fully demonstrate the divine rule. According to Mark, while the first stages of the fresh manifestation took place in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s promises awaits Jesus’s return. A cosmic cataclysm will complete the work of ending the rule of Satan and establishing the divine will in all things (Mark 13:24-27). The church lives in the interim between Jesus’s resurrection and his return in glory.

Mark 4:1-25 explains that God’s reign is showing itself afresh. This passage teaches the listeners how to interpret the parables, and to commit themselves unreservedly to the divine realm. Jesus encourages the disciples to give themselves unreservedly to the dawning of the rule of God, for “God will evaluate you with the same standard you use to evaluate others. Indeed, you will receive even more.” Meanwhile “even what they don’t have will be taken away” from those who turn away from God’s movement (4:24-25). The parable of the seed growing secretly helps the church understand how God’s rule is coming through Jesus and why they can believe it. The story creates an image intended to reinforce the confidence of the hearers in the coming of the full manifestation of the rule of God. The meaning of this parable is communicated as the listeners experience it. The coming of the rule of God is similar to the story in the parable.

A farmer broadcasts seed on the ground. Having just heard the parable of the sower, which stresses the act of sowing, the hearer is prepared to continue that emphasis. The farmer plays an essential role. But the farmer does not cause the seed to grow.

The ground produces the crop of its own energy. In only a few deft words, the parable causes us to envision the phases of growth. We see the tiny green blade poke its head through the soil. The stalk grows, and soon we see the ear. The preceding parable and its interpretation (Mark 4:1-9, 13-20) cause us to remember that organic development is not always unrelenting progress. Complications (such as thorns that choke the little plants) can retard growth, and even reverse it. Struggle is a part of growth, especially the manifestation of the rule of God.

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Mark uses the word “by itself” (Greek automate, from which we get our word “automatic”) to describe the process by which the earth brings forth its crop (4:28). This term occurs in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the First Testament) in Leviticus 25:5 to refer to the growth that takes place in the sabbatical year, and in Leviticus 25:11 to refer to growth in the Jubilee year. Those plants appear in seasons of grace: they sprout and grow without any human eff ort. In Joshua 6:5, God causes the walls of the city of Jericho to fall of themselves before the Israelites. In retelling the story of the exodus, the Wisdom of Solomon describes a terrifying light shining on the Egyptians, a “fi re that seemed to have a life of its own.” The Egyptians were soon “dying in fright” (17:6-10). In Acts 12:10, God frees the disciples from prison when the prison doors open of themselves. This term, then, prompts the hearer to realize that God’s gracious, liberating power is at work.

At last we see the mature grain in the ear. The process of growth takes place slowly but inexorably. When the grain is ripe, the farmer immediately comes with the sickle and harvests the crop. Several Jewish writers used the harvest motif to speak of the fulfillment of God’s purposes (Isa 27:12-13; 2 Esdr 4:28ff; 9:17, 31; 2 Baruch 70:2ff). Mark specifically echoes the similar usage in Joel 3:13. The larger context of Joel 3:9-17 announces divine comfort for suffering Israel (3:14-17) and violent destruction for Israel’s enemies (3:9-13). The harvest is a time of rejoicing for those who repent and welcome the incoming of the rule of God. But for those who resist, it is an occasion for judgment.

The mention of seed and growth also calls to mind Genesis 1:11-12. The process of growth is guaranteed by God, who created seeds to grow and mature. God promised Noah that seedtime and harvest would continue as long as the earth lasts (Gen 8:22). The continuation of the fruitfulness of the earth through the long years of human brokenness is a sign of divine faithfulness. Hence, people can trust the process by which the rule of God is coming. As God could be trusted in the first creation, so God will prove trustworthy for the new creation.

The situation of Mark’s community is similar to the situation in the parable. Why should Christians continue to plant the hope for a new world in the face of the ongoing pain and evil in the present age? We can continue to believe that a new creation is growing because the God who created once has promised to recreate. The community cannot know the day or the hour of the harvest (Mark 13:32-37). Indeed, in the midst of the suffering of the world, signs of struggle may be more prominent than signs of the coming of God. Like the seed germinating invisibly below the surface of the soil, the rule of God is sometimes at work below the surface of current events. We patiently continue our planting and waiting. For the growth cannot be stopped, even if it does not come quickly.

The echo from Joel reminds the listening community that the stakes are high. Those who continue steadfastly will join the full grain in the basket. Those who turn away fall under judgment.

* * *

4:30-32 (Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19) — The Mustard Seed
The rule of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a giant bush.

Many of the comments from our previous encounter with the parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29) can be adapted to the parable of the mustard seed. This story, too, is a comparison with the rule of God. The parable of the mustard seed also draws upon agricultural imagery familiar to first-century listeners. It invokes the motif of growth.

As listeners, our first impression is of the mustard seed, which the story calls “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.” While this identification is not strictly true (the orchid seed is smaller), the narrator is directly preparing us for the contrast between the tiny seed and the large bush. The mustard plant reaches a minimum of four feet in height, and can grow to eight or twelve feet. In antiquity, much as today, mustard was used as a condiment. It could transform a bland food into a spicy delicacy. It was also used as a medicine for problems ranging from snake bites to stomach troubles and sneezing. The hearer thus thinks of the rule of God as a healing realm. The mustard plant spread so rapidly that it was seldom planted in a garden. The energetic growth of the mustard plant leads the listener to imagine similar energy in the dominion of God.

The experience of contrast is central to the meaning of the story. We see the tiny seed, and then we are surprised by the giant bush that results. The beginning of the cosmic manifestation of God’s rule is like the mustard seed: so tiny as to be overlooked. What could be less auspicious than a crucified carpenter who traveled around Palestine preaching, teaching, and working an occasional miracle? What could be less impressive than the ragged church Jesus left behind to claim that he was raised from the dead and that he would return again in heavenly power and glory?

In the Markan version of the parable, the fully grown mustard plant is described only as a “plant” (NRSV). Both Matthew and Luke speak of it as a tree. Scholars debate whether an essential difference results from the divergence between plant and tree.

According to one interpretation, the shrub of Mark is a direct contrast to certain trees in the Hebrew Bible. In Ezekiel 31:1-18 and in Daniel 4:10-12, 20-27, large trees represent powerful, idolatrous empires that are destroyed. Some scholars contend that Mark deliberately avoids calling the mustard plant a “tree” in order to indicate that the rule of God appears to be less than it actually is. Egypt, Babylon, and other haughty empires, full of pride, called themselves trees, but they were cut down. Under divine impulse, the humble mustard plant will become greater than the cedars of Lebanon. Mark’s use of the term shrub is thus seen as a critique of all earthly pretensions to power.

While this interpretation is attractive, I think it unlikely. Why would Matthew and Luke replace such an association with “tree”? A plant twelve feet high can qualify, at least figuratively, as a tree. Furthermore, trees can function positively in Hebrew tradition. In Ezekiel 17:22-24, God describes the restoration of fallen Israel as taking “a tender shoot from its crown” and planting it to “grow into a mighty cedar.” Large, well-watered trees can represent God’s providential care (Ps 104:12, 16-17). The motif of contrast again comes into play: the future, cosmic tree is continuous with the tiny mustard seed.

The picture of the birds nesting on the large branches creates an image of trust and security in the hearer. When we identify with God’s coming rule, we feel similarly.

Further, in Ezekiel 17:23; 31:5-6; and Daniel 4:12, birds nesting in branches bespeak the diverse inhabitants of the dominions represented by the trees. In 1 Enoch 90:2-3, 30-37 and in Joseph and Aseneth 15:7, birds specifically portray Gentiles. The rule of God is cosmic in scope and international in population.

Today’s preacher or teacher occasionally claims that the presence of Gentiles in the cosmic dominion of God offends Jewish exclusivism. Quite the contrary. At its best, Judaism understands its witness to be for the sake of the whole human family and the larger natural world (as in Gen 12:1-3; whole human family (Isa 2:2-4; 25:6-8; 44:5; 60:4-7; Jer 16:19-20; Mic 4:1-3; Zech 8:20-23; 1 Enoch 90:13, 37-38; 91:14; Sibylline Oracles 3:767-795; Tob 13:6). Early Christians believed that the knowledge of God that had been enjoyed by Israel since Abraham and Sarah was extended to Gentiles through Jesus Christ. The presence of the birds in the tree in the parables indicates that the rule of God includes the great Gentile ingathering. The purpose of the Markan church is to witness among Gentiles (Mark 13:10). Since the birds in Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4 are subjects of pagan empires, their appearance in Mark’s tree suggests that in the rule of God, even idolaters can be transformed.

Matthew’s version of the parable of the mustard seed (13:31-32) is not substantially different from Mark’s. Matthew places the parable in a collection of parables where its function is similar to its role in Mark 4: it provides information about the rule of God.

Luke 13:18-19 abbreviates the story. Luke also changes the place of planting from the “ground” to a garden. As he does elsewhere, Luke probably changes this detail in order to make the story more understandable to people who live in cities and who might have an herb garden. Luke also puts the parable in a new context. In 12:49-59, Jesus announces that the time of judgment is coming. In 13:1-9, Jesus stresses that all who do not repent will perish under judgment. In 13:10-17, Jesus embodies the rule of God by healing a bent-over woman in a synagogue on the sabbath. The leader of the synagogue upbraids Jesus for healing on the sabbath. As a commentary on the incident, Jesus then tells the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven. The parables remind the listeners that while their witness to the divine rule may bring them into conflict with authorities, the reign of God is inevitably coming. When the rule of God is fully manifest, those who do not repent will perish. Those who welcome the coming of God in events such as the healing of the woman will nest in the tree of God’s rule. 

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