First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 3

William Loader

Pentecost 3: 14 June Mark 4:26-34

Sometimes we become bogged down with failure, or at least with business. It becomes hard to see the way ahead. We can be tempted to give up. The signs are not good. The two parables defy failure. They assert an optimism, not even tempered by the differentiated failure and success built into the parable of the sower with which the chapter begins.

The first is bafflingly simple. It is an example of shifting focus from ourselves to the world of nature around us. It is not really an argument. Where it states that the man has no idea how the seed grows, we could begin to offer intelligent explanations. That would somewhat miss the point. The parable serves to assert hope despite what seems, at first sight, a rather meaningless exercise: burying  the seed! You put dead things into the ground. Of course, we know all about seeds and germination. The parable invites us to believe that God's reign - the good that God will bring and does bring - will happen.

The image of sowing and harvest has its roots in biblical tradition as a way of speaking of God's future action. It also inspires the parable of the mustard seed. We can correct the claims about the mustard seed being the smallest. This is clearly not the case. It also hardly qualifies to win the prize of being the biggest shrub, let alone, becoming a tree, as in the Q version, reflected in Matthew and Luke who could merge both versions. None of that is relevant to the point it is making, which is one contrast: between what we see now and what we will see.

People have often wondered whether Jesus invented these parables to defend his ministry against the charge that it had achieved little success. His cross hangs a much larger question mark over his life. The parable of the sower doubtless served well to help the first Christians come to terms with uneven success. The parables also came to be associated with another form of rationalisation of failure: it was meant to be. Only the chosen respond to us! Perhaps Mark ameliorates the stark claim expressed in the contrast between smallness and largeness or apparent failure and success by inserting the notion of growth. At least with growth you can see some achievement. You can acknowledge process.

There is a sense in which these parables belong to notions of resurrection. They also have parallels in many of the world's religions and philosophies which hail the dying and rising of winter and spring or the dying seed and the sprouting green as a paradigm for hope in life. This should not surprise us. It is the common ground we share with all who see life as something positive and live it with hope.

There is distinctive shape to this hope. It is more than unreflected optimism. Part of its substance appears already in the parable of the mustard seed, where the coming of the birds may serve as imagery for the gathering of the nations. Jesus' preaching about the kingdom belonged within Jewish faith about change and hope which, at its best, was radically inclusive. Jesus showed that in his life. The coming of God's reign was a way of talking about an overcoming of powers that oppressed people, whether as individuals or as communities. It would be good news for the poor and hungry. Its goal was not a state of individual bliss, but a community of justice and peace.

The parables take on new dimensions when we see that they are both biographical and paradigmatic. It wasn't just that Jesus had a positive attitude. He laid his life on the line in compassion for others and in a profound sense, gave and gained life, as he gave it. It was paradigmatic because it confronted other models of meaningfulness and spirituality by asserting that nothing less than the life lived in compassion is the way we find ourselves, find God, and find others - we find all three in the same place!

Our passage ends with Mark's explanation - or perhaps an explanation handed on to him. It could sound very self-congratulatory. Of course, we - the disciples - know; outsiders don't. Mark quickly subverts any notions of self-congratulation as he soon begins his portrait of the disciples as far from understanding and hooked on a diametrically opposed value system. These closing words also contain clues about the parables and how they worked. Effective parables are like effective metaphors or images. They invite our imagination to jump forward to new understanding, simply by putting before us a contrast or a paradox. The "penny drops" or it doesn't. It is a much less controlled and controlling way of communicating than explanation and solid argument. Parables are not really meant to obscure meaning; they are meant to open it up, but for those wanting explanations they can master - they are frustrating.

Asserting hope can be rather meaningless unless we have some experience of fulfilment in the here and now. Without it, it is probably not even possible to hope. Certainly Jesus' word about future hope - which some today wish he had never uttered or deny that he ever uttered - never came true for the most of the poor and hungry. Yet in another sense they became real in the lives of many of his contemporaries and are still real today. We live in the tension between hope-informed life and love in the here and now, and increasing exposure to the hopelessness which many people face. There are no short-cuts; and quick-fix divine interventions are no longer on the agenda for most people. There is a big picture which can only ever come partially into view. Parables such as those of our passage do not serve us well if their message is reduced to naive optimism. Set within the pain of their context, they are much more realistic. They encourage us to defy hopelessness and to believe that nothing will serve the interests of those surround us, our planet and ourselves, better than to allow ourselves to be part of God's reign, or in less "realmy" terms, God's life and love in the world.

Epistle: Pentecost 3: 14 June  2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13) 14-17