After two weeks in Mark 1, it’s time for us to skim a little bit and fast-forward to chapter 4. Here’s your handy-dandy overview:
Mark continues to provide examples of Jesus living out the mission he described at the start of his ministry: Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (1:14a-15)
Jesus proclaims the good news in his teaching & healing. He forgives people of their sins, offering wholeness of every sort. He calls the rest of his disciples (remember, in the first chapter he had only calle four), and he continues to draw large crowds wherever he goes. Jesus has is also earning a reputation as the teacher who associates with tax collectors and sinners.
All of this is Mark’s way of reinforcing the contrast and the slowly growing conflict between the Kingdom of God and the powers at work in the world. Those powers include human power– the empire — in the form of tax collectors, as well as spiritual and physical brokenness that manifest themselves as unclean spirits, as illness and disability, as death, famine and destruction. When the Kingdom of God comes near, healing and forgiveness are intertwined. Restoration and reconciliation abound.
When asked why he would eat with “those people”, Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” In other words, “I am with the ones who need me, I am among those most in need of the Good News.”
As we turn to Chapter 4, we finally begin to hear some of the substance of Jesus’ teaching, in this case some parables and sayings. As Jesus will say a few verses in… Listen to the word of the Lord: Mark 4:1-34.
Parables are funny things. They are used in preaching and teaching, but they aren’t like fables with a particular moral that becomes obvious in the end. They draw comparisons in a way, but not quite as directly as a metaphor or a traditional allegory.
Instead of making things easy for the listener, a parable actually takes something common, something easy to observe, and invites the listener into an uncertain or mysterious reflection in hopes of sparking new insights. The Hebrew concept of the parable can be less story than a proverb or riddle. Jesus was familiar with and adept at all of the above.
We tend to approach these stories like object lessons rather than conversation starters, and we attempt to attach meaning by placing ourselves squarely in the story.
What kind of soil am I?
What kind of seed can I grow?
But there are more pressing questions, if we are seeking to understand what Jesus means when he talks of the Kingdom of God:
Where is God in the story?
What facet of God’s reign is Jesus revealing?
First, Jesus wants us to consider the sower who tosses seeds all over the land, some on the rocks, some on the path, some where the weeds choke it… but then, there are the seeds that land in the good soil. They not only survive, but they thrive, bearing tremendous fruit!
We don’t know what else he taught from his seat on the boat that day. I suspect there was more to it than this one parable. But when the big crowds had left, and Jesus was alone with the smaller band of followers, they asked about the parables.
They should have understood, right? I mean, they had heard him teach before, and they had seen him heal and do amazing things, and they had known enough about him to leave behind their day jobs to be there. Surely, if anyone could lay claim to understanding to having some insider information about him, it should be these guys.
They must have been wearing quizzical looks, though, because he unloads the meaning on them. This idea of a secret understanding is a little strange, but it reflects a recurring feature in Mark’s gospel. Mark’s Jesus remains a bit of a mystery, always asking people to keep quiet about the ways he has healed or helped them. The disciples are slow to understand precisely who Jesus is, beyond a wise rabbi.
Remember the unclean spirit in Chapter 1? There were more in chapters 2 and 3– and each one recognized Jesus as the Son of God, one with authority. Even as people respected the authority of his teaching, none of his followers thus far were able to see and proclaim his identity as Messiah.
Mark places tremendous emphasis on the end of the story, the passion and resurrection. This is the point at which God’s glory is fully on display, in Christ’s victory over death, which has been the ultimate enemy of creation. Until we see/read/hear about the end, we cannot make sense of the patterns we see, any more than the disciples could.
After all, you don’t know the patterns of your own life until you can look backward on a season and then you see all the ways God was at work, the footprints in the sand as the poem says.
Honestly, the way Jesus lives and teaches among them without their seeing the truth of who Jesus is… reminds me of watching a Hitchcock film or reading a good mystery novel. The resolution is presented at the end, and you just can’t believe you missed it. On the second viewing, the clues and foreshadowing stick out, obvious, now that you have the secret knowledge. It can make re-watchng and re-reading even more exciting.
Meanwhile, we know all about Easter. This doesn’t mean we’ll immediately understand all the parables, but we are more aware of the signs and wonders, seeing them as evidence pointing to Jesus being the Son of God. Because we already know. We’re insiders.
As God flung the Word made flesh to the earth, I suspect God knew there would be some places where people couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the news Jesus proclaimed as good.Perhaps they are the soil that does not produce.
And yet, the sower is extravagant in his inefficiency! Throwing seeds at all the soil, trusting in the power of creation, trusting in the power of the creator that some would take root– growing, maturing, producing fruit that drops seeds for another generation of grain.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t stop with this explanation. he goes on, and in a set of short sayings, proverbs, perhaps, Jesus seems to tell us that eventually all will understand, they will see the light, so to speak. When Jesus’ purpose is made known, when his identity and mission are no longer hidden, the revelation of God’s purposes will be glorious, from his scandalous death to his miraculous resurrection. Perhaps the slow and steady revealing of Jesus through the parables echoes the steady movement of his ministry from the countryside in Galilee toward Jerusalem, toward the cross.
Listen, Jesus says.
Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen!
Let anyone with ears to hear…
Surely Jesus does not mean let only those with perfect hearing listen or even those with at least good hearing… Especially given that the sighted people around him seem blind to the full truth of the source of his authority, power and identity.
Whether we have ears to hear, or eyes to see is determined by the condition of our hearts, our spiritual readiness to hear or see. It has to do with the orientation of our hearts, whether we are focused on ourselves, our desires, our opinions, our preferences… or on the message of the one speaking.
I try to imagine Jesus coming into this world, today trying to be heard above the noise.
Not just the noise of so many more people moving from around in airplanes, cars, motorcycles, but the engines of our work: tractors, printers, mixers, lawnmowers shredders, jackhammers. And sounds of our entertainment: music, games, electronic devices of all sorts.
We live with an unprecedented level of noise!
But beyond the decibel levels of the machines with which we are surrounded, we absorb a lot of informational noise. I honestly have no idea how many channels our current cable subscription offers, and that doesn’t count things like Netflix. I have access to “news” on my tv, on my phone, on my desk. We have access to other people so quickly – almost instantly- regardless of distance.
This access can be great when the news is good, and it can be helpful when the news is important. But being surrounded by, immersed in, all of this information can also be detrimental.
We have witnessed the rise of anger as the preferred form of discourse, as if persuasion relied solely on volume as the indicator of passion. The truth is that hearing and seeing speakers with voices and faces that reflect or even mimic anger reduces our ability to think and analyze what the person is actually saying.
We feel threatened by them – or by what they point to – which wakes up and ratchets up our internal voices, the ones that alternate between screaming “Run Away” and “Let’s fight!”
And all too often we do. Not using our fists, but using our words in haste and anger, in sarcasm and bitterness, in threats and demands… which only adds to the cacophony of fear and frustration.
Just Imagine Jesus walking into our world of sensory overload
I’m pretty sure the message would be the same…
Come, let all who have ears to hear, listen!
Orient your hearts
Listen for the Word, the true word
The word of the Lord that comes not in the fire, not in the wind, but in the still small voice.
In the silence
Pay attention, he says.
Pay attention to what you hear, and your efforts to listen deeply and understand will be met with blessings of wisdom in equal measure.
It’s hard work, this focused listening.
I find it interesting that this passage comes as the season of epiphany – the season marking the revelation of Christ, starting with the recognition of the three wise men and continuing as his teaching and healing reveal his authority – this season is drawing to a close. The season of Lent – the season of discernment and discipline – is about to begin. Even more interesting is that this coincides with a period of listening and paying attention to what God has for our congregation and our future together.
Listen, Jesus says.
Allow the word to take root
Act on the knowledge you are given.
Pay attention, Jesus says.
Listen without distractions
Listen without arguing or denying
Listen with an open heart, with an open mind
Listen as if the Kingdom of God depends on you
While fruitfulness is not ours to create, our actions, our steps of faith are key to making ourselves ready to be a fruitful part of God’s work on Earth. Seeds fall and God makes them grow: grains, flowers, grass, faith. Mustard seeds, acorns, tiny seeds: God is faithful to grow them into great trees.
The powers of this world would have us believe that all is right and good as it stands. The siren song of complacency and comfort would draw us away from the voice we must hear, the voice of our Shepherd, our Lord. That would mean missing out on God’s blessing, missing out of God’s message, missing out on fruitfulness.
When we moved to Florida, I learned a lot about trying to plant a garden. The sun scorched all the flowers I was used to putting out on the front porch. When it came to rain, it seems to always be too much or too little, never just right. I had no luck with anything that required more care than aloe vera or jasmine.
But if you want proof that God’s life-giving force is embedded in creation, just look down. In the cracks of my sidewalks, in between the stones we used to replace wood mulch, in places no seed would have been purposely scattered. That is where a a plant will invariably be growing.
The Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Life
The Kingdom of transformation
The Kingdom of tenacity and potential
The Kingdom of rebirth
And the Kingdom of God has drawn near
Come with ears to hear.