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How does God work in the world? Is God even present, actively working and moving in the world?; in our world? Last week’s scripture from Isaiah 43:16-21 [blog post] was an affirmation that God is doing something new in the world – in the time of the Israelites exiled in Babylon, and also by extension today. An articulation of the mysterious yet poignantly powerful way in which God views the universe, interacts within it and relates to us.
Jesus tells these two parables (along with several others) following his well-known one of the sower and seed (Mark 4:1-25). These teachings about the kingdom of God at work in the world, are arranged by Mark to follow – and thus to elucidate, develop and parse the radically inclusive and world-transforming teaching of Jesus in Mark 3:31-35 in which he redefines the notion of family (oh so important in the Ancient World!) to the notion that “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
His teachings in today’s lesson don’t use the word “will of God” but rather talk about the kingdom of God. It’s a mysterious and paradoxical word. It’s impossible to put your finger on exactly what it means. In Greek, the original word is “basilea.” Read it aloud. Can you hear how it’s connected to the word basilica, which came to be used for special churches? The word can be translated as Kingdom, and also as “reign” or “dominion” or “royal power” – it carries both the connotation of a ruler’s power and kingdom, and the geographical notions and boundaries of where that power has authority.
Ezekiel 17 is another prophetic word that shows us the historical use and cultural depth of some of the images that Jesus uses in his turn. The image of a tree – for a kingdom, as powerful (There’s nothing taller or bigger than a cedar tree). It was a common metaphor for a divine kingdom. The image of the birds in the shade points to the greatness of a kingdom that covers, include and rules over other nations. But Jesus in Mark 4 makes two different points about God’s presence – or dominion – among, in and over the world, using the same parable structure.
The First Parable | Mark 4:26-29 : GROWTH
This word is more about growth – sudden, strong, complete, accomplished without any human effort and/or intervention. It harkens back to the image of the Parable of the Sower and the Seed in Mark 4:1-9. The seeds grow – not on their own – but thanks to the soil. This automatic growth of the dominion of God unfolds in discrete stages : first a shoot, then an ear, and then full gran in the ear. While automatic it’s neither instantaneous, or indecipherable. The resign of God is both mysteriously present and hidden. It eludes human understanding and control. Like the Jewish thinkers have debated since the time of Jesus – is the coming of God’s final redemption of the world dependent on God’s will alone, or is it somehow contingent on human action?
The Second Parable | Mark 4:30-36 : CONTRAST
The second parable is one of the contrast of a smallest seed (today we know the orchid seed is actually the smallest seed, but in the ancient world the mustard seed was commonly understood to be it). But here the seed doesn’t become a mighty cedar tree, but an invasive, common, unstoppable mustard plant. Known as the most invasive of weeds in the Ancient World in his Natural History, Pliny the Elder wrote in the 1st century of our era :
“Mustard…with its pungent taste and fiery effect…grows entirely wild, thought it is improved by being transplanted; but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
Jesus seems to be comparing the dominion of God in the world less with the power of a mighty cedar tree than curiously with a large unpleasant bush, something not seen as desirable. Jesus also uses a common metaphor for the Nations (the Gentiles – everyone besides the Jews) in the form of the birds nesting in the branches. See Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6 and Daniel 4:18-21. Jesus is saying that God’s power and dominion is small at its genesis yet unstoppable at its harvest. It is not just for the Jews but for all peoples. By nature is it ordinary and subversive, invasive and inclusive. It is revealed yet hidden.
How then do we look for God’s movement and dominion in our world today? Are we looking for a cedar tree or a mustard seed? For something that is conforming and obvious, or subversive and transformative? Why do we – do you – struggle to glimpse God’s dominion in our world, city and lives?
Questions for going deeper: