Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
A Picture Tells a Thousand Stories
Are you "visually oriented?" How does this orientation effect the language you use?
How many times have you told someone, "If you could only see it, you would understand"? Pictures do simplify explanations. Word images do the same thing. They make the difficult easy to communicate.
Jesus understood this principle well when he told the people about the Kingdom of God. He publicly preached with parables.
26 Jesus told the crowd, "The Kingdom of God is like this story. One day a farmer spread seeds on the ground. 27 Over time, the farmer slept at night and got up to work during the day. But the seed he sowed sprouted and grew tall in a way he didn't understand. 28 The earth produces plants in its own way. First, there is a blade of grain, then an ear of grain appears and, finally, the crop produces a full head of grain. 29 When the grain is ripe, the farmer sends out workers to cut down the crops because the harvest is ready."
30 "What is the Kingdom of God like?" Jesus continued. "What image can help describe it? 31 Think of a wild mustard seed. When it is planted in the ground, it is one of the smallest seeds that exists on the earth. 31 Yet, the wild mustard plant grows into a bush so large that birds can build their nests on its branches.
33 He taught the people with such parables. This was the best way they could understand God's word. 34 When he was along with his followers, however, he did not use parables. Instead, he explained everything to them.
These verses from Mark can be divided into three parts: the parable of the farmer sowing seeds, the parable of the mustard seed and the public/private modes of Jesus' teaching.
26 He said, "The Kingdom of God is as (if) a man should throw seed on the earth 27 and (he) should sleep and rise up, night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow up (in a way) as he does not know. 28 On its own, the earth bears fruit, first (a blade of) grass, then an ear of grain, the full (crop) of wheat in the grain stalk. 29 When the fruit (of the grain) allows (for harvest), he sends out (those working) the sickle, because the harvest is ready."
4:27 "On its own" is literally "automatos" in Greek, the root word for "automatic."
In the first parable Jesus proposed and agricultural analogy that was familiar with his audience. At the time, farmers carefully planted grain and tended their fields to maximize yield. Yet, nature produced the plants; farmers only cooperated with creation for their plants. In the end, framers harvested the grain when the them was right. How does this analogy reveal the Kingdom? The active agent in the analogy and in the Kingdom is God. Humanity is simply a co-worker. God created the conditions for the harvest, the worker (i.e., missionary) who sowed the seeds then brought the harvest in. Notice the two parts the farmer/missionary played. He spread the seed (the word of God) and participated in the harvest at the end. Indeed, if the appearance of Christ in the Incarnation and at the crucifixion revealed the end times, the missionary/evangelist was to extend the Messianic mission of bringing all back to God for the Final Judgment. Of course, those who willingly participated in this "gathering" were saved; those who rejected the call were the "lost."
Like may other parables, this analogy spoke to the end times. The farmer/missionary spread the Word. In doing so, he or she helped helped Christ bring back all to God. So, the Christian missionary was actually the Christian eschatologist. The missionary was a minister for the Final Days. Yet, his/her job was secondary. God was in charge; he was doing the "heavy lifting" to fulfill his will.
30 He said, "How should we compare the Kingdom of God, or in what (way) should we place it (as) a parable? 31 (It is) as a mustard seed, which, whenever it should be sown on earth, is smaller (than) all of the seeds, the (ones) on the earth, 32 yet whenever it should be sown, (it) grows upward and becomes larger (than) all the vegetables and produces large branches so that, under its shadows, the birds are able to make a dwelling.
4:31 "mustard seed." Mustard grew wild in Palestine at the time of Jesus. It was an annual plant that grew as high as ten to twelve feet.
In his second parable, Jesus changed the focus from the end times to the humble beginnings of the Kingdom. The reign of God would not arrive to thunderous applause. In fact, like the small mustard seed, its coming would not be considered a major event.
The Incarnation was not announced with great fanfare. Matthew and Luke placed the coming of the Messiah in the humblest of origins. Mark simply began his gospel with the appearance of Jesus as an adult. While John had a poetic prologue to the Divine Word, he followed Mark's lead; Jesus appeared as an adult, ready to teach and heal. Despite the angelic narratives, the Christian Messiah would have roots that easily overlooked.
However, the end of of the process that began with the Incarnation would be huge. A small Jewish cult would become large enough to be considered a threat to the local order. Within three hundred years, the Roman Emperor would initiate an empire-wide persecution against the followers of the Nazarene.
33 With many such parables, HE kept speaking to the word (of God), as they were able to hear (it). 34 HE did not speak to them without a parable, but by (himself) he explained everything to his disciples.
Why did Jesus use parables in his public ministry? Jesus used parables for two reasons: to deflect criticism and to teach effectively. By speaking in analogies and stories, Jesus was able to communicate to his audience without providing a clear reason for the Roman authorities to move against him. If Jesus equated the Kingdom of God with revolution, he would have been quickly arrested, tried and executed. But, by teachings in symbols and stories, he was able deflect charges of treason. (How many Romans could really understand the Kingdom of God as a mustard seed, anyway?)
More important, stories and analogies are superior didactic tools. What do you remember best: a process, a principle or a story? Narrative forms create opportune conditions to communicate a moral. Think of an effective television commercial. Most likely, the commercial tells a story and ties the moral of the story directly to the product and/or product feature. Jesus and his followers used this form to pass along the faith.
Over time, of course, the interpretations of many parable changed to meet the needs of the audience. But, that did not diminish the power of the narrative. So, the next time you year a sermon, critique the speech. If you remember the thoughts presented, most likely they were tied to a story that caught your attention.
What is your favorite parable in the gospel? How do these parables help reflect on the Kingdom?
Jesus painted word pictures with symbols and stories. He understood the power of the narrative. A picture might tell a thousand stories, but a word picture can help express the Kingdom.
What story or symbol could you create to express your faith? Get creative.