Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6B (RCL)
1 Samuel 15:34 — 16:13
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
The fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel has always bothered me. The sower who goes out to sow at the beginning seems to me to be a particularly sloppy farmer — some of the seed falls along the foot path, some in stony ground, some in the thorns and only some in good soil. Was he not watching what he was doing? Did he not prepare the soil beforehand (remove rocks, dig up thorns)? Then, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples and explains the purpose of the parables: “so that they (those outside his inner circle) may look and see, but not know; hear and listen but not understand; in order that they may not be converted and forgiven.” (quoting Isaiah 6:9). A mission whose purpose is failure.
Then we have this parable. The sower sows, and then does nothing, goes to sleep, wakes up, and the grain grows. Most farmers I know irrigate, cultivate — there is plenty to do while the grain is growing. And then the idiot sows mustard seed on the ground. No one is his right mind sows mustard seed. It’s an aggressive weed. But here at last is the hint. The mustard becomes the largest of the garden herbs, with strong branches (says the gospel writer, but I’ve not seen mustard like that) so that the birds of the heavens may make their nests in its shade. That’s a quote of Psalm 104:12, and an allusion to Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6 and Daniel 4:9, 18. In those passages, the cedar or the cypress in which the birds of the air make their nests stands for the kingdom of Egypt, of Nebuchadnezzar, and for the kingdom which God will establish on the return of the Exiles from Babylon. The trees of Egypt and Nebuchadnezzar, whose tops reach above the clouds will be cut down, but the sapling that God brings back from Babylon will grow strong.
So, the mustard bush, a scrappy aggressive weed, which no one wants, has supplanted the cedar. God’s kingdom is no longer imagined as a majestic tree, but a scrappy weed, living at the edges of the field, in the ditches and along the roadways. The kingdom flies below radar. No wonder the farmer doesn’t cultivate. We’re not aiming here at the standard definitions. This thing is going to have to catch on by itself. All we can do is live in it, and hope people get it.
God does sorta the same thing with David. The people had wanted a king, just like the other nations around them. God reluctantly gave them Saul, and set him up to be a bad king, so they would figure out what they had asked for. Then, when the time came to replace Saul, he opts for David, the youngest, out if the fields with the sheep. Or Paul, who boasts to the Corinthians of his weakness.
The kingdom of God is not judged according to the world’s standards. When we, as the church, look to succeed, whatever that may mean, we’ve departed the path. The farmer in Mark 4 displays an absolute lack of interest in results. Those are in God’s hands. Some seed produces 30-fold, some 60-fold and some 100-fold, but we’re never told how the farmer reacted. A frightening thing in this economic downturn, when it is really easy to be anxious about budgets — will we have enough; while the farmer is busy throwing seed here, there and everywhere, and then not worrying about it.
What are we to do? Especially when we think we can begin to feel the bottom of the seed bag?