Parables: Stories About the End of the World

Mark misunderstood gospel

The following is a sermon I preached in year B this past summer.  In my ministerial context, sermons are generally 20-30 minutes.  This one is on the 30 minute side due to the pedagogical material at the front of the sermon.  I hope this helps you wrestle with this very short Markan parable as much as it did me.

Text: Gospel of Mark 4.26-29

Of the many things that we think, and know, and believe about Jesus, one of the most certain realities of the nature of his ministry and life is that Jesus taught by means of parables.   This is a truth and illustration to which there is more testimony and evidence than many of the orthodox beliefs we have about Jesus such as: the virgin birth, the trip to Bethlehem, that Jesus had siblings, or that his father’s name is Joseph.  These are things we believe…but for some reason the authors of the NT and the early church felt that it was more important to preserve this form of teaching by Jesus than it was to verify and create a mountain of literary evidence supporting the very historical foundations of our faith.  Why is that?  Why does our faith tradition preserve the teachings and presentations of Jesus to a greater degree than the hardcore historical facts we think necessary to hold such faith?  Haven’t all people in all times been as hung up about history as we are today?  The most obvious response must be that there is something particularly special about parables…something that we better take note of if we are going to read the Gospels faithfully.  There must be something so special about parabolic expressions that the church knew it was not easily grasped, harnessed or interpreted, but it understood that if we’ll stick with it and hang on…perhaps the world at the end of the parable will be different than the one that existed prior to its utterance.

You see, Church, we often find ourselves to be like many of the people that surrounded Jesus during his ministry.  We’ve spent some time observing him, hearing him, and we think we know what he’s saying…yet Jesus keeps speaking to us in Parables.  Aren’t parables the expressions of children??  Stories of fancy meant to fill our imagination and just give us another entertaining way to learn?  Wasn’t Jesus just being a good teacher and implementing the method of teaching that best suited the learning style of those around him?

If we already know the answers than why does he keep teaching us like we’re idiots?  If we already know the parables than why does the world look like it did before Jesus told them?  Could it be that the parables we think we understand, we don’t really understand at all?  Could it be that we have taken the parabolic mystery and challenge out of the parable and reduced it to simple moralizing or spiritualization and in the process drained the parable of its power?  Do we read the parables of Jesus…see the easy answer and then think we have it?  Might I suggest, if we read the parables and the answer is easily configured and assimilated into our lives…well, we’ve probably missed the point of parable.

Alan Culpepper, my teacher at Mercer, described parables in this way:

Parables compel us as their hearers to see the world in a new way.  Whether used in debate or didactic settings, parables point to the improbable in the midst of the ordinary and force us to pause to consider it.  They shift our angle of vision…the parabler sees something no one else sees.  He or she conveys that vision metaphorically or paradoxically through the out of place in the midst of the common, inviting us to puzzle over the relationship between the two.  The parables, however, are so unstable, elusive, and revolutionary that the church has tirelessly found ways to resolve the parables tensiveness, reduce them to simple lessons, and beat the life out of them by making them familiar…Fortunately, Jesus’ parables resist this reduction and give us the ability to see the world as he sees it. (RE journal Spring 2012).

Parables are meant to use ordinary events, ordinary things, and create an unordinary reality.  They are meant to challenge our ideas of how the world works by using our very ideas of how the world works…Parables are mechanisms that are employed in very specific situations, at specific times, to challenge a specific notion or to interject an idea into a sea of ideas that are misguided and shallow.  In other words, a parable is the teaching device by which Jesus blows up our ideas, our opinions and our worlds.  The option to not have an opinion about the parable or to not come to some kind of conclusion regarding its meaning is not an option in the face of the challenge of Jesus telling the parable.

Jesus considered his ministry to be the very manifestation of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God…and this method of teaching, parables, is the method by which Jesus is confronting the world in various contexts to see what that kingdom is all about.  Parables are not simple lessons that we use in Sunday School to learn the basics of loving Jesus…parables are the very tools that Jesus uses to say this is the end of the world as you know it!  The Kingdom of God is near…its right here around the corner…listen to this parable as the world comes closer to its end!  I am teaching you this way because the future that is myself has broke into your present!

The context of the ministry of Jesus is apocalyptic expectation.  The time of Jesus is ripe with expectation and a multitude of religious groups and people that are anticipating some form of God breaking into their present…but what the Gospel of Mark tell us…is that this breaking, this tearing of reality occurs before Jesus even utters one word of a parable and in a way that is not expected or heard by anyone…other than as the sound of thunder.  Mark is so convinced of the utter ripping of reality, the tear of God into history, that he places this event of divine coming at the very early stages of his Gospel.

In Mark 1.9-13…we get the brief mention of the baptism of Jesus.  What is unique about this story is the word that Mark uses to describe the event of God’s spirit descending upon Jesus.  Mark 1.9-13 reads as follows:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening and the spirit like a dove descending upon him and a voice came out of the heavens: You are my beloved son, in You I am well pleased.  Immediately he was compelled to go into the wilderness by the Spirit”

The story tells us, very calm and collectively, that God “opened” the heavens and the spirit descended…but the Greek word does not connote a nice opening scene that fills some piece of Romantic literature as the dove of God wisps away onto the shoulder of Jesus.  What the Greek says is that God “RIPPED” “TORE” open the heavens…and that tearing of the heavens leaves a scar on creation that cannot be put back together.  The world will never be the same again!  And this apocalyptic event that takes place at the baptism of Jesus happens before Jesus does anything in ministry…and Mark wants to tell us as readers that from here on out…the world is different.  The end has come into the present…and Jesus will then teach in a way that is reflective of the end of the world and remind us of the pending Kingdom of God that is already at work.  Parables are a means of teaching in this new apocalypse…or this new revealing of who and what God is.  Parables have to do with taking the ordinary and placing them within the context of a heavens that have been torn apart by God and will never be fitted back together!

Understanding this, we come to our text, and we discover that this parable is something we already know.  Perhaps we give it a very shallow read or glance at it quickly…but since we are such stellar students of Jesus and already earned an “A” in his class…we think we don’t need this lesson…but lets her Mark anyhow.  Turn to our text…Mark 4.26-29.

At first glance, this scripture seems pretty easy to grasp.  We can read this parable and it seems pretty obvious what Jesus is saying right?  The kingdom of God is basically the small seed that is planted by the farmhand.  The seed is sown, as we saw very meticulously by Jesus in the lengthy parable of the Sower in first part of chapter 4, and it will produce a harvest that will be ripe.  In this parable, Jesus is clearly telling us that the Word is the seed, as he does in v13 on the first parable, and that the Word will produce a harvest.  We don’t know how, but it will be evident when we awaken after our slumber.  At first glance church, this parable is obviously part of what we remember Paul telling us is the milk of babes in Christ…where’s the meat of the Gospel?  We’ve already got this figured out…Next please.

But let’s pause here just a bit longer.  This first half of the parable is taking the ordinary practice of agriculture and noting its regular results.  This makes sense to any farmer or hired hand that plants seed.  They can relate.  But let’s ask a few questions.  What is the Kingdom of God here?  Jesus says the KOG is like a “man” who casts seed upon the soil.  Who or what is the soil here?  And how is the harvest produced?  The parable does not tell us of any extant causes of the harvest.  It does not mention managing the soil, or sunlight, or even water.  The parable doesn’t give any details as to how the spreading of seed in the soil produces a harvest, yet it does.  For many of us, we would walk through this field and we would be thinking of all the biological things occurring at a micro-biological level and we know WHY a harvest is produced by planting seed.  We can scientifically explain it.  But for someone hearing this parable for the first time, they walk through the same field and they have no idea how that happens.  They count the giving of the earth as a miracle, not a biological fact to be manipulated by farming techniques.

Many times this part of the parable is interpreted to easily.  But I can already here the objections, “Pastor Nathan, the Gospel is easy to understand…we shouldn’t have to think about them this hard to understand them.”  If we think that parables are supposed to be easy to understand, what do we make of Jesus when he says earlier in our chapter, “To you has been given the KOG, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.”  Seems like in Mark Jesus speaks in parables precisely because he doesn’t want people to understand…  Moving back to interpretation, the man in the parable is often interpreted the one who preaches the Gospel.  The preacher’s throw the seed onto soil.  The soil is understood to be us or those people that hear the seed of the word and respond.  Our response is the harvest and then the one who proclaimed the Gospel initially can come along and reap the harvest of our response and those around us.  In other words, this is interpreted as a passage that reinforces our boring imagination as we think it’s about saving souls, even though Jesus has said nothing like this in this passage or to this point in the Gospel of Mark. In other words, we take this to mean, “Let’s spread the word to get people saved so that they can be the harvest.”  Anyone who has read the Left Behind books knows this to be true.

There are problems with this simple interpretation.  First, it’s not reading this parable as a parable.  It’s reading it as an analogy in which we correlate elements of the ordinary to elements of our preconceived ideas of salvation, which is a problem if a key to understanding parables is our initial worldview.  In other words, we are doing what Dr. Culpepper described as “tirelessly finding ways to resolve the tense nature of the parable.”  If the parable, no matter how many verses long, doesn’t shake us to the core, than we’ve already missed it.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.  Go back and try again please.

Second, every analogy fails.  Rather than trying to see the “spiritual” meaning in this parable, let’s just let it be.  Maybe this parable is simply saying that the KOG is about the mystery of the gift of the earth.  The KOG is not manipulated by human effort.  It is not the product of any specific ministerial paradigm or purpose driven model.  The KOG is not simply the man that preaches.  The KOG is not simply the place to which the seed is thrown.  And the soil cannot be the church or anyone who listens.  Soil is not active…it is acted upon.  The soil is a passive recipient of the seed…it doesn’t choose whether the seed will fall on it or not. The Kingdom of God is reflective of the process of our non-involvementIn other words, the Kingdom of God is thoroughly the work of God.  It is God’s gift to us.  And it is God’s gift to us through the smallest and most humbling beginnings…God walking amidst creation dropping seeds of revelation on the crust of the earth.  Does the KOG need someone to proclaim the Gospel?  Absolutely.  But is this parable telling us of the importance of the preacher or is it telling us of the mystery of the smallness of what is sown…and that such small revelations are not brought to harvest through the work of our hands…but through the mystery of the spirit of God working in the present to bring an end to the world in the form of Jesus? 

Within the context of Jesus’ pending expectation that the Kingdom of God was being manifested and displayed in his ministry, this parable is consistent with the covenant God made with the people as far back as Abraham.  The people did nothing to be chosen.  The people did nothing to make themselves grow.  The people did nothing to which they could take credit for being wrapped into the narrative of God that would give them hope of resurrection, yet, here is the shadow of the Temple, here is the shadow of the Commandments, here is the shadow of the Prophets, and here is Jesus calling us to the end result of the work that God began to do in the very beginning of creation.  The Kingdom of God is predicated on the Spirit of God that has entered the world and is tossing its seed of repentance into all of creation…and the harvest will come because of God…and God will harvest it.

The Kingdom of God is not the easily manipulated technique of planting whereby we get the crop to grow through preaching a few bible verses.  What this parable is trying to tell us is that the KOG is the mysterious Work of God that has very humble beginnings.  It is begun with simple planting, or a tearing into the soil by the seed…the tearing of God’s Spirit into the life of Jesus after his baptism, and the harvest is the mysterious production of a world that looks like God in Jesus Christ.

This is an important parable and message to note because by the time the Gospel is being composed surely not all people believe who Jesus is…Jesus has always had his share of critics.  The parables are often not merely mechanisms of teaching, but they are also challenges to critics in story form via familiar conceptions.  Can’t you see the world into which Jesus’ ministry happened?  After Easter, Jerusalem is still standing.  Romans are still in power.  Creation looks the same.  The “new creation” is not so new…to the average viewer of reality.  Thus, the Gospel writer feels the need to express and rehearse parables of Jesus that offer a response to the criticism of the lack of greatness that must have obviously been Jesus’ “kingdom.”  This parable is one such response.  The Gospel has small beginnings…and its maturation is mysterious…but one need not worry because God is taking care of what’s happening beneath the soil, which is the world, and God will ensure the harvest when we awaken the next morning.  The end of the seed is also the beginning of the harvest.  Death of the kernel must happen before life can occur…and how this happens, for people in Jesus’ context, is not known.  It isn’t us…it is the gift of God.

But let’s now allow this parable to simply stop there.  Remember, the Gospels are written after the affirmation and witness that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.  We have just celebrated a season in the church year in which we rehearsed and remembered the birth of Jesus, his ministry, his suffering, his death, his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church.  We ALL KNOW the story.  We, as a church in the 21st century, are the epitome of Monday Morning quarterback and we have an unfair vantage point because we KNOW where the narrator of Mark is taking us with all these stories.  We know how it ends…and how things are really going to turn out for Jesus.  And we believe our knowledge of the story to be the case…but the readers and hearers of MARK didn’t know the end.  When the reader or hearer gets to Mark chapter 4 they don’t know of Peters confession that Jesus is Lord or that Jesus’ tomb will be found empty.  And surely some of those encountering Marks Gospel have heard stories of what supposedly happened to Jesus, they don’t believe it, so they want to see what this Gospel has to say for itself.  Thus, into a context of very premature knowledge of Jesus, and probably a context of also heightened criticism about what really happened to Jesus, this parable not only offers a different look as to how the KOG is brought forth, and not only that the KOG has humble beginnings that are cultivated by God in mysterious ways beneath the earth…but this KOG is ultimately initiated, and cultivated by God in the very tomb of Christ…producing the harvest of his resurrection!

Using allegory as many of the early church fathers, it is easy to see that this parable might also be Mark’s way of saying that not only is a seed the humble beginnings of a harvest that sprang from the ground we know not how, but also the one whom you say is not the Christ…the one whom you say the disciples took away by night…the one whom you saw crucified by Romans…the one that has failed to make purported post-resurrection appearances to only those who believe in him…the one from the Podunk town of Galilee with an earthly family…this guy that went from town to town having to get food from others and live off the kindness of others…the ancient hippie of sorts that went around teaching in parables precisely because you didn’t understand…This one IS the HARVEST of the last days!

Jesus’ ministry is the seed.  His life and works are the seeds scattered in creation amongst us, yet this seed when it hit the soil of creation eventually died. The Christ was buried…but for three days God was doing something in the tomb.  God was busy preparing a gift for us.  We don’t know how it happened and we didn’t know how long it would take, but God was busy tending to the seed beneath the soil, sealed away in the tomb.  Then one morning, we were awakened only to find what the Apostle Paul describes as the first fruits of the new creation!  Hear 1 Corinthians 15.20-21, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.  For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.”  If there is anything that the Gospel of Mark proclaims, it is a proclamation that the life and presence of Jesus is the beginning of the end of the world and the beginning of the KOGThis kingdom doesn’t happen like we think it will and it doesn’t look like we want it to, but it will produce a harvest that is totally dependent on God’s cultivation and the very first fruit of the seeds of God’s spirit in the world will be the seed of the Christ that is made to grow from out of the earth so that a sickle may be taken to the rest of creation in anticipation of for the harvest that must happen in light of the resurrection of Jesus.

You see church, the fruit that is the KOG is not up to us to make grow.  And the fruit that is the Kingdom of God isn’t all our feeble attempts to preach to souls that are the harvest of our labor.  In this very short parable, a parable that only occurs here in Mark…we see that Jesus is radically challenging our notion of how the harvest works, what the harvest is and what our role in that process is not.  I’m sorry church, but this parable is not about us.  It’s not about me and it’s not about you…We are not the target here…and we’ve missed it because we want to offer simple interpretations that make us feel like we understand and that we feel are directed at our spiritual needs.  But this parable won’t allow it.  This parable, within an Easter context…as all the Gospels are, tells us that Christ is the harvest.  He is the first fruits of the work of God…the manifestation and fore-bearer of what the Kingdom looks like.  The small man from Galilee, who is a meager nuisance on the religious and political scene of ancient Judea…is the smallness from which God will save the world and harvest all of creation.  And because he is the first fruit of the harvest, we have a hope that there are other fruits that will spring up from the ground with him as the world continues to stubbornly continue into history.  But this is what the kingdom of God is…it is the remainder of creation after the first fruit of Christ…it is something we can’t expect, something we don’t understand, but something that will spring up among us in a very unexpected way from a very unexpected origin.

And Jesus said “With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it (as far as they were ABLE TO HEAR IT*) and he did not speak to them without a parable, but he was explaining everything privately to his own disciples.” (Mark 4.33-34)

What is Jesus privately explaining to you?

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