Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
In 1895, Rudyard Kipling offered some paternal advice in the form of a poem entitled “If.” The poem covers a whole range of topics: “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…If you can dream—and not make dreams your master…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster…If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue.” This long series of increasingly challenging antecedents ends with Kipling saying, “then you will be a man.” Though this poem has become standard fodder for graduation cards, it has a wistful quality. These four stanzas articulate a nearly impossible standard; it is as though Kipling is saying, “I wish I had been able to do all this; perhaps you can.” This attitude tends to prevail whenever we ask “what if” questions. Invariably, we are asking them because we wish things had turned out differently, because we wonder where we went wrong, or because we know that nothing about our lives can really change.
This morning, we hear Jesus asking some “what if” questions while using one of his most well-worn teaching techniques. While parables were not an uncommon way to get one’s point across in the ancient world, Jesus raises them to an entirely new level in the gospels. Indeed, in the passage we read this morning, Mark tells us that Jesus speaks to certain audiences only in parables, that all of his teaching is packaged in these cryptic stories. The ubiquity of these parables has some interesting consequences for the way we interpret them. For the most part, we tend to read the parables of Jesus as allegories: we try to figure out who each character in the story is supposed to be. Origen, the great third century theologian, takes this way of reading parables to its logical extreme. In his allegorical interpretation the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, Origen suggests that the man who was going down the road is Adam, Jerusalem is paradise, Jericho is the world, the robbers are the hostile powers, the priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, the Samaritan is Christ, the wounds are disobedience, the pack animal is the Lord’s body, the inn is the Church, you get the idea. While this wooden way of interpreting parables can be interesting, even fun, I think that it misses the point of what the parables of Jesus are supposed to accomplish. The word parable comes from the Greek words for “toss alongside.” A parable is something we hold up next to a situation in order to see what unexpected truths might be revealed. The parables of Jesus, in other words, are not allegorical stories that describe the world as it is; they are lenses through which we can see the world in an entirely new way.
This is particularly true in the seed parables from the fourth chapter of Mark. Jesus himself indicates that these images are meant to be held up alongside the subject we are considering. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” he asks. “What parable will we use for it?” Jesus’ tone is intriguing. Rather than articulating definitively what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus offers propositions, asking his audience,“What if the kingdom of God is like this?” Now the kingdom of God is one of those biblical images that has become somewhat muddled since the time of Jesus. Most of us assume that it is simply shorthand for “heaven,” which of course, has become shorthand for “the place you go when you die.” The kingdom of God, in other words, is not something that we think about with any regularity. For Jesus and his hearers, however, the kingdom of God was an ever present reality, the hope of every faithful Israelite. It was the promise that God would break the yoke of oppression and rule with justice and equity. More than a few zealots attempted to bring the kingdom of God into being on their own, only to be violently thwarted by the Roman occupiers. “Kingdom of God,” in other words, was a loaded term that connoted rebellion and sweeping social change. So in many ways, the prosaic images Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God are unexpected, even shocking. First, he wonders aloud if the way that seeds germinate and grow overnight can help us think about God’s reign. With this parable, Jesus invites us to consider whether the arrival of God’s kingdom is something that happens without our knowledge or influence, much to the surprise of Israel’s violent rebels. Jesus further ponders whether the kingdom of God can be compared with a mustard seed, which though very small, produces a significant shrub. Most gardeners consider mustard to be a weed; once mustard takes root, it is incredibly difficult to remove. By using this image, Jesus asks us to consider both the tenacity and the ordinariness of God’s kingdom. What’s interesting is that Jesus uses these examples not to make concrete statements about the nature of God’s reign, but to fire our imaginations, to help us envision how God is working in the world.
If this is what these parables are meant to do, we cannot stop there. If Jesus is asking “What if the kingdom of God is like this?” the implicit next question is “what difference would that make?” In other words, if these parables are meant to give us a new way of looking at the world, we have to ask ourselves what it means for us to see the world in this new way. What if the kingdom of God is like the sprouting of a seed? What if the kingdom of God is like an invasive plant species? How would that change the way we think about God? How would that change the way we live our lives? Would we be more attentive to the thousands of tiny ways that God’s glory is revealed to us? Would we look for signs of the kingdom in places we would not normally expect? Would we trust that God is working God’s purpose out? Would we be more confident that the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea?
Human beings tend to be creatures of habit. We like to find a routine and stick with it. We move through this life assuming that everything will essentially stay the same, that there is nothing new under the sun, that nothing about our lives can really change. For us, asking “what if” questions is generally an exercise in nostalgia. With these parables, however, Jesus challenges us think about how our “what ifs” can become reality. Jesus invites us to dream of a world that radiates the glory of God. He encourages us to wonder whether the most uninteresting moments of our lives can somehow be signposts for God’s kingdom. Jesus asks us to ponder how the world can change if we just look at it differently, if we see it not as a hopeless place of despair and suffering, but as a beautiful place that is charged with God’s grandeur. Jesus invites us to look for beauty in unlovely places, to claim joy in desperate moments, and to celebrate life even the face of death. Jesus invites all of us to wonder: what if the kingdom of God was like you and me challenging expectations and revealing God’s glory to the world?