Summary: Parables of sower and mustard seeds
Mark 4:1-34 “Word Problems”
What is the difference between a fable and a parable? A fable is primarily didactic, a clever story meant to offer some insight into and instruction about life – think Aesop’s Fables for a moment. A parable, on the other hand, is intended to be disruptive, to interrupt what you thought you knew and not just teach you something but actually to confront you with a surprising and often unwanted truth.
Jesus describes the coming Kingdom of God in parables because he knows the reality it introduces is unexpected and that his hearers can’t really take it in all at once. Parables, as Eugene Peterson has said, are in this sense like narrative time bombs. You hear them – tick – wonder about them – tick – think maybe you’ve got it – tick – and then as you walk away – tick – or over the course of the next day or so – tick – and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home – boom! – almost overwhelming you with its implications.
We have heard many sermons on this parable, but only a few of them have been correct interpretations. The parable is not about the soil. Often we have been exhorted to get the rocks and weeds out of our lives and become good soil. Soil can’t do that. How I wish my lawn would rid itself of dandelions, but that never happens. Sure we should be concerned with the weeds that choke our spiritual lives or the rocks that keep the kingdom from taking root in our lives, but that isn’t the main point of the parable. Besides, that’s the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. In this parable it is the seed that is the focus; the seed is the kingdom of God.
The seed is sown abundantly. It lands everywhere. When the seed takes root it produces a great harvest. We, as disciples of Jesus may sow the seed, but we do not control where it germinates and grows. This parable reveals our complete inability to control the coming kingdom, to dictate whether we (and others) believe (or not). This possibility is uncomfortable because it leaves us vulnerable. God’s kingdom comes apart from our efforts, cannot be controlled or influenced, and can only be received as a gift. In this sense, faith is apparently a lot more like falling in love than making a decision. Because kingdom-faith, like love, is something that comes from the outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it to or not.
This is good news beyond our imagination. The kingdom sprouts and grows in our lives in ways that we cannot predict or comprehend. The kingdom will grow, though, and we will be changed. Our ability to live in the reality of the kingdom will increase. As the kingdom grows in us, we live our lives and drop kingdom seeds wherever we go. These kingdom seeds affect the lives of those around us in ways over which we have no control.
Have you ever tried to contain light? Perhaps you loved to read and would take a flashlight and hide under the covers of your bed reading a book when you should have been sleeping. You thought you’d kept the light under covers, but it slipped out and glowed underneath the door. Your parents saw the light, and reminded you that you should be sleeping rather than reading. You may have also caught fireflies on a summer evening. You’d catch one in your hand. Even though your hands surrounded the firefly its light would slip through the cracks between your fingers.
The light of the kingdom cannot be contained. The light will shine in our lives. It will seep into the dark corners of our lives. It will cause us to change. We will know and understand more of what it means to live in the reality of the kingdom of God. As we go about our daily lives the light of the kingdom will shine through our words and our actions. The darkness of the world and of people’s lives will be pierced. The darkness will be overcome.
Though we should be intentional in shining brightly as people who live in the kingdom of God, we should also realize that we have no control over that light. We may attempt to hide it under a bushel, but it will seep out. We may put it on a lampstand and it will shine brightly. The kingdom will shine.
THE MUSTARD SEED
The THIRD parable tells an even more difficult truth. Perhaps it is about how God can grow small things into grand ones, although that feels a bit like a fable. Or maybe, just maybe it’s really about the kingdom’s penchant for penetrating and taking over our lives, sometimes against our better judgment. Mustard, after all, was a lot less like a flowering shrub that we might plant around the edges of our property as an accent than it was an invasive weed, something you want to keep out of your garden and lawn at all costs because it runs amok easily, gets out of hand, and nearly takes over whatever ground it infests.