It's like sowing seed! Sunday Readings 11th Sunday Year B (Y-not question the Sunday Readings)
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 17, 2012
Jesus said to the crowds:
"This is how it is with the kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and through it all the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come."
"To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade."
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.
Mark was finding it hard to concentrate on the papers spread across the table while a noisy group outside the door debated methods and strategies for proclaiming the kingdom. Get the message sorted out first, some were saying, to make sure everyone follows the same line. Others were talking about picking out the most likely converts. Then they started on the obstacles blocking the message, secularism, materialism, relativism in the Greco-Roman world, the hot-blooded youth who wanted a messiah to lead them against the Roman occupation back home in Palestine, and the biggest problem of all, the lack of spiritual hunger, seen in the poor attendance at synagogue, the waywardness of the young, the blindness of the pharisees. Finally, the leaders of the synagogue who didn't care for the people. Some were even saying that you've got to start with the children and fill their young minds with the Way of Jesus before anything else. Mark threw up his hands in frustration. "They just don't get it!" he muttered to himself, and put his head down to his work. He knew the key to all their searching was staring him in the face. How have they all got it so wrong? It's not like organising a social revolution, it's not like setting up a reform movement, it's not like force-feeding the young, it's not like an occupier's re-education program among a subject people, it's not indoctrination: It's like sowing seed!
Mark scanned the sheets of papyrus on the table, wondering for the umpteenth time how he would ever put order into the dozens of snippets that formed this random collection of sayings of Jesus. There were anecdotes from people who knew Jesus as a friend, stories from others who had only seen him from a distance, some moving reports of personal encounters. The collection had been circulating for some time. Being in Rome with Peter, Mark had given the collection a Latin tag, "Q" for Quidquid, which some future people might roughly translate as "Whatever!" A more serious German scholar nineteen centuries into the future might coin the label "Q" for Quelle, meaning 'source'.(1) It was when Peter had become aware of this collection being copied and passed around that he had asked Mark to put together an account of what Jesus had done with the key elements of his teaching.
The idea of a written text went against the grain for Peter. He knew from experience that he could teach everything from memory, and he had discovered that the way he said things, the words he chose, the order and the emphasis would change from one occasion to the next. It depended on the listeners. Every group was different. He lived his teaching. As he spoke he remembered those moments with Jesus, he went through his own crises over again, and every time he re-told the stories he felt he understood the mystery better, sometimes as if for the first time. That's how it was with the living word, an experience of sharing, and a sharing of experience.
So Peter was wary of a written text. A written teaching would become a fixed teaching, limited, inflexible. It would be impossible to prevent the living word being reduced to a series of concrete statements, no longer malleable, not easy to adapt to a particular group. The story risked becoming a dead record to argue over, as the scribes spent their lives arguing and debating about the meaning of words in the old Torah.
On the other hand, if this Q collection continued to be shared around it was going to cause confusion. He had no complaint with those who had put it together. They were responding to a need felt especially in churches founded by Paul. Paul's teaching was more theoretical, almost technical, compared to the story-telling of those apostles who had walked the roads with Jesus, and sometimes his converts felt they were missing out on something. Peter could understand that. It was awesome to listen to Paul's writings when they were read in the assemblies. In spite of some things hard to understand,(2) the broad sweep of ideas could take your breath away, and those colourful poetic bits could bring tears to your eyes.
Alongside Paul's elaborate explanations that convinced the mind but did not always capture the imagination or touch the human heart something else was needed. Only the stories told by the apostles brought Jesus to life. But the apostles could not be everywhere and the time would come when they would all be gone, and then a written text would be invaluable to help people touch the original experience. If only people would be careful to read it with their imagination turned on, the way they listened to his living words.
Reluctantly, Peter had asked his companion Mark to see if he could put a text together. The main thing would be to keep it short and simple, and it would need to be written in a way that allowed teachers to lead people to an experience of being with Jesus, as Peter knew he could lead any group. It should also be studded with signposts, links to a wide range of traditions and ideas from other sources.
Today Mark had reached the point where, after the first hectic weeks, the tempo had slowed, and Jesus had begun to teach them about the kingdom of God that they were going to proclaim all over the world. The trouble was he had adopted an unusual method. He began to teach in parables, puzzling little stories, starting with one about a farmer who scattered seed in all directions so that some fell on the path and some among thorns, some on shallow stony ground and some on good soil but with different yields. Afterwards he had explained that the way to teach the people was to leave them puzzling about what you had said, forcing them to work things out for themselves. Fortunately, on that occasion, he had not waited for the apostles to work it out, but had given them a crash course in the method by explaining that first parable step by step.
Mark had two more parables to be included here, both about seed, and that was all Peter wanted to put in about the kingdom of God. Mark found this extraordinary, seeing that in their opening statement at the beginning of the gospel they had Jesus saying: "The kingdom of God is at hand." Also when they had experimented with different ways of bringing the written narrative to a close they had selected one in which Jesus commanded the apostles to "go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature." Now, at the very point where the kingdom could be explained and the method of proclaiming it spelled out, Peter was adamant that nothing more should be included apart from these three little parables.
Dipping his feather pen into the inkwell again, Mark finished the story of the shrub that became big enough to be called a tree with birds sheltering in its branches. Now he would wait for Peter to check what he had written. Peter always read the text aloud to see if he could hear the voice of Jesus in it. At the same time he kept a sharp eye on the progress of the narrative, watching for anything that was out of place and making sure the balance was right. While he was waiting, Mark could do some puzzling for himself.
Three parables, all pretty much the same. Why would Peter want it this way? What is he getting at? What was Jesus getting at? Mark was very familiar with the three stories, and he knew by heart the explanation Jesus had given for the first one. But Peter always left the other two without explanation. Time and again Mark had seen a look of bewilderment come across the faces in a group as Peter told those little stories, and abruptly closed the meeting with a blessing. Occasionally he would encourage the people to talk among themselves about the puzzle in the hope of finding the key. Mark enjoyed listening to the ideas that came up. There seemed to be no end to them.
This is how it is with the kingdom of God. It is like... a man who sows seed, and the seed grows even while he ignores it... Mark's favourite "explanation" suggested that the key to Jesus' methodology is to plant an idea, and then leave it alone to grow in its own good time. Don't fiddle, don't meddle, keep your fingers out of the pie. He found himself wondering whether Paul had ever heard of this.
The other parable is about a small seed - among the smallest, Peter would always say.(3) Can you just drop a small idea into an open mind and it will germinate and grow beyond your wildest expectations? The power to grow is in that tiny seed. Mark was still not sure he had his finger on the pulse. Is there a moral to this story? He wondered if Jesus had been warning them not to kill the tiny seedling by poking around, prodding it to help it along, force-feeding it with too much horse manure, twisting and bending it when it was still too young to know itself, just to make it grow into a shape of your choosing? Leave it alone! Leave it alone!
At last Peter came into the little scriptorium to look over the text. He sat down and read the carefully written pages, slowly, a bit laboriously because he never was a great reader. As he reached the end: 'to his own disciples he explained everything in private,' Mark asked whether there was any further explanation of the kingdom that could be put in there.
'No,' Peter said. 'That is enough. You see, I don't think Jesus ever said what the kingdom is. He only explained to us what we had to do, and it was not to build an empire, not to take over society and reform it, not even to set up an organisation. Often enough we asked him whether this was the time to launch the kingdom, and he shied away from that approach. In the end this is all we are left with: The kingdom is like a seed, and our job is to plant it. I'm happy with the way you have Jesus lead into those parables:
Jesus said to the crowds: "This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if...
"To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like...
'The fact is we have no definition of the kingdom. We can't even say what it is not. All we can say is what Jesus said: It is like a seed that is planted. That's good. That's enough. Thanks again, Mark.'
(1) Modern scholars are not convinced that Papias was correct when he said that the gospel of Mark was written in Rome by John Mark, disciple of the apostle Peter. But for the sake of this little story I am making Mark a close associate of Peter in Rome, writing the gospel under Peter's supervision. "Q" is a hypothetical collection generally accepted by scholars, although some don't agree that such a collection existed. To me it seems very natural to think of Mark, in writing the gospel, making a lot of notes and using other written material that was circulated among the communities. Mark's gospel is clearly a carefully constructed and tightly organised work which could well be the product of close cooperation with Peter.
(2) cf. 2 Pet 3:16
(3) The scholars seem to have no interest in the mustard seed as such, or in the question of why Jesus might have thought it was the smallest of seeds. A quick check shows that mustard was a common plant throughout the Middle East in ancient times, and I imagine it might have been grown in gardens around the villages. The story comes alive if we can see Jesus actually pointing to a mustard bush, big enough to be called a tree, with birds in its branches. We can perhaps take his word for it that among the seeds commonly sown the mustard seed was the smallest one that would turn into a shrub of significant size. I also notice that the mustard plant is not a mighty oak or cedar on remote Mt Lebanon, but a plant found in the domestic garden. Which makes it hard to see what connection the compilers of the lectionary found between the mustard bush and the mighty cedar of Ezechiel's prophecy. Perhaps there is an occasional mis-match in the selection of readings.
"A post is a free gift, and it will go where it pleases."'
It's like sowing seed! Sunday Readings 11th Sunday Year B
What a wonderful way to share the story. You have put real "flesh" to make it more understandable. Even though it is story, it does come alive. I wish all scripture could be enlivened in similar ways.
What is important is how what Jesus preached was accepted by those that heard the message. What did it mean to them? How did it affect changes in their lives? How did they become Jesus to others by retelling their story?
We need to know the background context of how scripture was written. These were real people struggling with how to pass on the story they held in their hearts, which had great impact on their lives.
John J. Pilch, at St. Louis University Liturgy Center, writes great cultural perspectives on the Sunday readings. http://www.liturgy.slu.edu/
What would Mark think about the growth of the seed now?
I am writing this to you from a distance of about two thousand years and many thousands of kilometres. Back when you recorded your story of Jesus, you can have had no idea just how many people would hear or read those words, in more places and in more languages than you and your contemporaries could ever have even imagined.
The trouble is, the noisy ones arguing outside your door have won (or so it seems). Throughout the ages, so many of those who claimed to be followers of Jesus - both the powerful ones and those who were ruled by them - have constantly argued about the right interpretations, the right strategies, the right way to behave, the right way to worship God, and so on and so forth. People have disagreed about a lot but they usually have two things in common: they claim that Jesus is on their side, and they insist they have the right to force everyone to conform to what THEY believe!
But don't despair, Mark, your careful work has not been wasted. From your day till mine, the seed has always fallen into some hearts that provide fertile soil for the growth of the kingdom. The kingdom is slowly and quietly growing up among us, as we find whenever we encounter the love, the generosity, the hope-filled lives of those who live according to Jesus' Way without making a big fuss about the "right" way to do it!
It's hard to resist the idea that we should "do something" to "make" the seed grow more quickly. It's hard also not to feel critical of, maybe even resentful toward, those who are creating the noisy distractions. But maybe - as long as they don't take themselves too seriously and try to force their beliefs onto everyone else - maybe all that just doesn't matter. Experience over the ages has shown that, ultimately, they do not stop the seed from growing.
So, in a sense, Peter didn't need to worry about a written text becoming too fixed or inflexible. Of course many people, including (especially) those who claim to wear Peter's own mantle, have tried to turn it into fixed, moribund set of doctrines, binding on everyone for all time. But the narrative you have given us, Mark, and others similar to it, are always there, something living that can burst forth anew like ... well, like a plant from the soil!
Thank you for leaving us such a legacy.
I splash in my poetry puddle
and try to keep God amused. - James Broughton
But what is the 'kingdom of God'?
Tony, I enjoyed you weaving of the story, interpreting the mustard seed as the Word being sown in the hearts of those who heard it, then passing it on to others, so that the early Christian community began to grow and spread in a natural way. The small seed grew into the mighty tree that was the Christian community, and as the Christian community grew, so did the kingdom of God. And Cathy, you have continued Tony's theme, bringing it into the present day. Thanks to both of you opening up the readings in this way.
As you say Tony, there is really no explanation given of what the kingdom of God really is. I think there has always been some confusing of the kingdom of God with heaven, something to be experienced after death. God reigns in heaven, therefore heaven must be God's kingdom. But that assumes 'heaven' is also something not experienced until after death - despite the assurance of some popular songs.
Or if it is not to do with that, is it something to be realized at some future moment in this world, when all are 'converted' to the following of Christ?
But I'm not sure that 'Christian community' and 'kingdom of God' are the same thing. I know that scholars argue about what is meant by this term and I'm sure we all have a certain intuition about what it means.
The kingdom of God seems to me to be the territory where one encounters the mysterious reality that is at the centre of life. A centre to be found in the deepest recesses of the heart. A centre that has been compared with a small flame that burns constantly, just as in those kitsch pictures of the Sacred Heart. (I have seen one of these pictures included in a household shrine in a Hindu school, for the small flame of God-consciousness burning in the heart is a popular spiritual motif in Hinduism)
During our life we all have small moments when something touches us. The luminous perfection of a sleeping baby....a piece of music, a line of a song....the vastness of the night sky....an intimate moment with a loved one...a moment of insight. Now, I would like to suggest that in these moments of grace we are actually catching a glimpse of the kingdom of God. As Jesus has said, the kingdom is close at hand.
But I would like to hear what others think about this.
What is the Kingdom of God?
But what is the 'kingdom of God'?
But didn't He also say that the Kingdom is here - all we have to do is look carefully?
But what is the 'kingdom of God'?
But I'm not sure that 'Christian community' and 'kingdom of God' are the same thing.
Sue, I agree. I am amazed at how "we" pick and choose the bits of the gospels that suit, and brush aside the ones that don't suit our preconceived ideas, or the status quo. Jesus said somewhere, about the kingdom: You will hear people saying, Look it is here! or It is there! Do not be misled. The kingdom of god is within you.
If you have a vested interest in the 'church', this is not the sort of thing you want to hear, so you let it slide past without comment and the people are left wondering what it could mean. BUT what if Jesus meant it exactly as it sounds: Don't be caught by people who say THIS is the kingdom of god!!! The kingdom of god is WITHIN.
At bottom I'm not arguing that there can be no organisation at all, but like you I feel the life of the spirit in the individual is where the kingdom is realised. And if that life is mal-nourished in the community because it is force-fed on chaff, then it's going to be hard to find the kingdom of god on earth!
I love what you said about the lamp burning, and how the Hindu people could appreciate the image of the lamp burning in the heart of Jesus - while I have always found it yuk! Lo the dawn breaks slowly...
"A post is a free gift, and it will go where it pleases."'