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Mark 4:26-34

The Parable of the Growing Seed
26He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed
30Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
33With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Personally, I think one of the most interesting things about the teachings of Jesus is how much use his made of parables. The scholars say that about a third of all the material we have from the lips of Jesus is in the form of parables. We’ll get around to the two little parables in this reading, but before we do, I’d like to suggest a few general thoughts about the parables of Jesus.

First of all, parables make us think. The make us turn the stories over in our minds to figure out what Jesus means to say. Jesus could have just spouted lists of ‘do’s and don’t’s,’ rules and commandments for living the Christian life, and had people memorize them. That probably would have been a lot simpler for Jesus – and for us, for that matter. Simpler, but not better, in my opinion. Because by putting his followers (including us) in the position of having to turn his teachings over in our minds and think about their meaning, Jesus engages us in a way that just memorizing rules would not.

The Hebrew tradition said that we are to love God with heart, soul and strength – but Jesus added ‘mind’ to that list. And parables engage our minds in a way that rules and doctrines can’t.

Second, parables are easy to pass along. Jesus was establishing a movement – a group of followers who would go out into the world to tell people what he had done and taught. For those he was sending out into the world – and the word ‘apostles’ actually means “those who are sent out” – the parables would be very effective tools for passing along his teachings. They stick in the mind much better than lists of doctrinal points. So untrained followers would be able to cover important teachings without forgetting important aspects of those teachings.

It strikes me as significant that Jesus gave more complete explanations of the parables to his disciples than he did to the general public – and I suspect there’s a connection there to the use of the parables as teaching tools. My suspicion is that the fuller explanations Jesus gave were meant to prepare the disciples for their work in going out into the world teaching others and making disciples.

Also, it seems to me that one of the real advantages of teaching by parables is that they can communicate different meanings to different people in different life circumstances. Think about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance – I’m pretty sure Jesus meant it to have one lesson for people who had wandered away from God and made a mess of their lives, but a different message altogether for religious people who felt like they were doing everything God asked of them. For one group, it was a message of forgiveness and acceptance. For the other group, it was a warning against self-righteousness and a sense of entitlement in relationships with God.

It might actually be true that the parables are meant to mean different things to people at different stages of their lives of faith. Take the Parable of the Sower, for instance – some scholars think that might have been the best-known of all the parables during Jesus’ earthly lifetime. When you’re just beginning to follow Jesus, that parable tells you to ‘be good soil,’ taking in the Word and bearing fruit for God. But later, when you’ve grown up into a committed disciple and maybe even a leader of the church, that parable tells you not to be thrown off or discouraged when others fail to commit their lives to Jesus.

Finally, it seems to me that Jesus’ extensive use of parables suggests to me that other parts of the Bible might also be meant as parables. I’m thinking of the Book of Job and the Book of Jonah, for instance. And the first eleven chapters of Genesis. People who have worshiped or studied with me very long know that when it comes to the Bible, I make a distinction between fact and truth. Parables can communicate profound truth, even when they are not meant to be taken as fact.

We understand Jesus to have been God in human form. If Jesus chose to do much of his teaching in the form of parables, why would we think that some of the Old Testament should not also be taken as parables?

So, having passed along those general thoughts about parables, what about the parables about the kingdom of God in today’s reading?

In one parable, Jesus likens the kingdom to seed that is sown in a field, then takes root and continues to grow even when the farmer is sleeping. It seems to me that Jesus is telling his disciples that as they go through the world teaching and ministering, they can be confident that even as they move on from place to place, the Holy Spirit will keep the faith growing behind them. We can trust that God will grow up followers of Jesus without us having to be hovering over those we share the gospel with. (In today’s parlance, we don’t have to be “helicopter apostles.”)

In the other parable, Jesus uses the metaphor of a mustard seed to communicate the idea that the kingdom can grow into the world in quiet ways and grow steadily into a mighty tree giving shelter and shade. Jesus started with a handful of peasant followers, and now there are something like two billion of us. This parable seems like a great preview of the future church.

Or at least, those are meanings that leap out at me at first glance at these two little parables. Maybe some other meaning suggests itself to you. But it seems hard to deny that Jesus’ parables are an ingenious way to communicate the principles of the faith. Two thousand years later, most of them work just as effectively today as they did in first-century Palestine.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the parables of Jesus – for the way they have guided the growth of our lives of faith, and for the way they still have the ability to show different facets of your way, shining new light into our minds. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 36 and 147; Isaiah 45:5-17; and Ephesians 5:15-33.)