Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday after Trinity (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost), 2018.
We hear today the second and third of the three Seed Parables. These are relayed to us by Saint Mark all in chapter four of his Gospel, almost in a direct sequence. The Parable of the Sower of course comes first, with its presentation of a kind of bleak-sounding predestination—the growth of the seed entirely depends upon the soil: good soil means growth, poor soil means the seed does not grow. The second seed parable presents the completely opposite scenario whereby the quality of the soil is irrelevant because the seed grows by itself, automatically. And the third Seed Parable, of the mustard seed, tells us that what grows of the seed is ordinary, for the shrubs described would be no more than eight feet tall.
Between the first and the second Seed Parables are two episodes—the fact of which is hopefully the reason why our Gospel passage does not include the first Seed Parable, as it would make it too long—the first episode of which explains the allegory behind the Parable of the Sower to the closest disciples, and the second of which is a parable of the Lamp: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.” This Lamp parable reminds us that there are no secrets in the Christian Faith, nothing that is only available to the elite or intellectually gifted—rather, all is presented and available, although the reception of the various aspects of the Christian faith do take time to process and even find. We can know a passage of Scripture our whole lives and only at the end does its true significance reveal itself.
All told, these remarkable thirty-four verses that open the fourth chapter demand a proper understanding about what parables even are. Parables are a Jewish tradition that are constructed to allow constant encounters and reencountering, their open-ended and imaginative quality that always alludes to scripture, even comments upon and reinterprets scripture in the Old Testament. This in many ways matches the nature of Jesus Christ, Himself. Jesus is a living parable, Who, in His person, His life, His words and deeds, constantly invites a reencountering that takes us deeper and deeper into the mystery of existence and makes available the heavenly places as only revealed by and through Jesus.
Let us also properly understand the image of “seed.” The seed of course is a metaphor for God’s word, sewn by the Sower. That parable takes us to the first chapter of Genesis. The Hebrew term for God’s word means both “to act” and “to say.” God’s word’s is creative and effects ongoing motion: God’s speech—“Let there be light,” and the rest—fills the heavens, earth, and seas with plants and trees and creatures. God’s word—His seed—creates a universe that is itself continually creative
Let me also say that these three Seed Parables should be regarded firstly as a whole unit, rather than in isolation and apart from each other. As he does throughout his gospel, Saint Mark uses a pattern of three, what one scholar calls a “Markan sandwich.” The first and third in the sandwich are the bread, and the second is the meat. And it is the meat that names the sandwich—a roast beef sandwich, a club sandwich, a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich, rather than the bread the names the sandwich. The second, in other words, is the interpretive guide for the whole passage, the whole pattern of three, the whole triad.
And so what of the second Seed Parable? Certainly we are involved, for we are to scatter widely God’s seed. Yet does this Parable not teach us of God’s unfathomable creative power? He works while we sleep! The seed will sprout and grow, we know not how, Jesus tells us. Here he is referencing the eleventh chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which says:
“As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”
This is the fundamental meaning of the whole of this Seed Sandwich: God’s goodness will inevitably come to harvest. We participate, He works through us, we cannot be passive—in that sense, He needs us to be actively on mission, scattering His peace upon the ground of Tazewell County. But God gives all growth. The increase comes entirely from Him.
What, then, of the third Parable, that of the Mustard Seed? Jesus chooses that image as a direct comment upon the image provided by the prophet Ezekiel. Rather than God’s word, His seed, growing into tall trees such as in Ezekiel, towering high atop the clouds yet filled with pride that leads to ruin, Jesus teaches that God’s abundant and creative word is properly seen as growing into mustard bushes, shrubs that are no more that eight feet tall.
And so in something of a delicious paradox, the unfathomably creative word of God is for us ordinary and accessible. The common and everyday is joined to the divine grandeur of heaven. This is reflected most beautifully in the Eucharist, for what is more ordinary than bread and wine as the species under which Christ splits open the heavens above to below. God comes to us not through the majestic but out of reach, but in the domestic and everyday. It is here, in the domestic, neighborly, and homely, that the birds of the sky dwell—that is, the angels, the messengers of God’s will, are not in the heights but in the common places, everywhere around us. So God speaks through His ordinary, common creatures. The symphony of heaven is heard through a sparrow.
Icon of the hand of Monica Thornton.