Subversive Seeds – Mark 4:26-34
He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Not too long before I moved away from Paducah, Kentucky I performed in our community theatre’s production of the musical Godspell. In Godspell, Jesus and his friends take turns singing and acting out random parables taken from the Gospel of Matthew. The production concludes with a portrayal of Jesus’ death on the cross.
After each curtain call, our ensemble gathered at the foot of the stage to speak with the audience as they departed. I was surprised to see that so many people were moved to tears by the production. My fear was that the theater-goers with wads of wet tissues in hand were crying because my singing and dancing was so bad! However, they always said they were crying because of the powerful crucifixion scene.
What I wondered was whether anyone ever put it all together; that is, whether they realized that the sequence of parables, although seemingly-random, should have been just as powerful as the crucifixion scene because the parables were elements of Jesus’ life and teaching that set him on the path of death on the cross.
I don’t think they picked up of this because our director wanted to emphasize the unjust and absurd anger demonstrated by Jesus’ enemies. The powerful image in her mind was that of a completely innocent, loving, and even comical Jesus being killed for no reason. No wonder it brought up such an abrupt and jarring sense of loss, mourning, and pain in the audience.
Consequently, the audience witnessed a collection of little parables followed by an abrupt and unjustified murder.
The problem, though, is that Jesus’ murder wasn’t unjustified.
Jesus’ murder was completely justified; if your understanding of justice is that the people who have the most wealth and power and privilege get to make and enforce all the rules.
Jesus’ murder was the culmination of years of ministry and teaching that subverted power in favor of weakness, material abundance in favor of spiritual abundance, exclusion in favor of inclusion, and law in favor of grace.
Take today’s parable about the mustard seed.
Imagine a friend or even some random person came up to you and said, “You know, our faith is like a mustard seed; even the smallest amount can grow into something amazing and fruitful.” Well, that’s a nice and heart-warming sentiment, right? That’s a parable you could share with someone who needs some encouragement. You could even share that with someone who is doubting their faith.
But look at this parable from the perspective of the oppressive rulers in Jesus’ time. Imagine that you have all the power in the world, and all the region under your thumb. You hear of a charismatic individual who is amassing huge crowds wherever he goes. And the message he’s bringing to the hoards of people is that people who have faith in God may feel small and insignificant, like a mustard seed; but that their God will nurture that seed and raise them into “the greatest of all shrubs…[with] large branches.” For people of power, that’s anything but good news; that is a whisper of rebellion and revolution.
One parable paints the picture of salvation for some, and doom for others…all depending on how much power each one tries to wield in the face of the real power of God’s kingdom.
And that’s not the only way this parable is subversive!
Let’s think about this mustard plant that Jesus mentions. I found an article that says mustard “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.”*
Jesus says the kingdom of God is a lot like an invasive weed. That’s good, I guess, because that means it’s something that grows and spreads naturally. Our faith cannot be confined to one area of our lives, or one hour a week. We can’t do much to encourage its growth (nor remove it completely). In fact, most weeds grow best the worse the soil is.
But there’s a dark side to having a weedy faith…because that means our faith cannot be confined to one area of our lives or one hour a week. This weedy, invasive faith will change us. Our faith will propel us into adventures and relationships we’d never expect (and probably never seek out), challenge our assumptions about right and wrong, impact people around us, and open our eyes to a new and greater reality.
And those aren’t the only ways this parable is subversive! Here’s one more…
Do you remember what was to benefit from the shade of the mustard plant? (Birds of the air).
But listen to this. Prior to this parable about the mustard seed, Jesus tells another parable about a sower sowing seeds. Some are sown on good soil and grow to abundance, others were sown among thorns, where they were choked out; others fell on rocky soil, where the sun withered them because they had shallow roots; others fell on the path, where birds came and snatched up the seeds.
These seed-snatching birds could very well be the same birds that find shelter in the shade of the mustard plant.
So, what if Jesus meant to say that the very people who you feel are the biggest threat to your faith are actually the people whom you faith should benefit the most? One of my seminary professors writes, “These birds might be the undesirables, the folks decent people avoid, the ones we prefer to keep on the other side of our street and, preferably, outside our homes. Yet across Mark’s Gospel it just these people who flock to the kingdom Jesus proclaims.”*
My hope is that you see how parables such as this seemingly-innocent one about a mustard seed subverts power in favor of weakness, material abundance in favor of spiritual abundance, exclusion in favor of inclusion, and law in favor of grace. These seemingly-innocent parables are what got Jesus killed. These seemingly-innocent parables are keys to recognizing God’s remarkable and disruptive kingdom that is the true source of power and life in our world.
The same parable can inspire you one day, and terrify you the next. That’s how you know God is speaking to you and that God has something to say.
* David Lose, "Pentecost 3B: Preach the Truth Slant" (http://www.davidlose.net/2015/06/pentecost-3-b-preach-the-truth-slant/)