By Ched Myers, for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Mark 4:26-34)
Note: This is an ongoing series of re-posts of Ched’s brief comments from 2015 on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B.
This week the lectionary gives us the last third of Jesus’ parables sermon (hopping over the famous parable of the Sower and its allegorical interpretation, Mk 4:2-23). This section begins with a sober warning:
And he said to them, “Take heed what you hear: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’.” (Mk 4:24-25)
Mark’s Jesus cautions his audience to “beware” of the anti-Jubilary ideologies they hear from elites, which counsel resignation in the face of injustice (4:23). The assertion that the gulf between haves and have-nots will inevitably grow was the “realism” advanced by wealthy landowners to justify their privilege (4:24). These two verses are omitted by the lectionary portion, but in fact are the point to which the next two parables serve as radical counterpoint, as Jesus repudiates such rationalizations of economic stratification (in the spirit of another parable-spinner, Ezekiel, see Ez 18:1-9).
Against this cynical economic “determinism” Jesus pits the patient hope of the farmer in two concluding seed parables:
And he said: “The sovereignty of God is as if someone should scatter seed upon the ground…” (4:26)
And he said: “With what can we compare the sovereignty of God? …It is like a grain of mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground…” (4:30)
The sower does not control the growth that occurs (4:27): “the earth bears fruit of itself” (4:28, a reference back to the miraculous yield of 4:20). This agricultural cosmology reasserts the divine economy of grace in the face of elite selfishness (we find this same argument in the more famous parable of the rich land owner who built bigger barns in Lk 12:15-22). Sabbath wisdom recognizes that humans must live within the limits of the land instead of seeking to control or commodify it. This wisdom is given urgency in Mark 4:29, an allusion to Joel’s prophetic oracle of divine judgment: “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe” (Jl 3:13). God will vindicate those who sow justice faithfully, despite the appearances of history (Mark will have more to say about “revolutionary patience” in the apocalyptic parables of Jesus’ second sermon in 13:28f).
Jesus’ first sermon concludes with an insistence that despite the long odds, the smallest seed can indeed take root in a hostile world and flourish (4:30-32). The focus is again on a miraculous harvest, symbolized now in terms of a mustard seed turning into “the greatest of all shrubs in which all the birds of the air can make nests” (4:32). This image of shelter-offering branches, found in tree parables throughout the Hebrew Bible, is a metaphor for political sovereignty. The earliest example is found in Judges, where Jotham criticizes Abimelech’s murderous grab for power in the Israelite confederacy (Jd 9:1-21). In this parable the olive, fig and vine all refuse to abandon their productive tasks to become “king.” The thorn bush, however, says: “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade…” (Jd 9:15).
Ezekiel’s tree-parables pick up this theme in protest against royal domination. In Ezekiel 17 the prophet attempts to persuade Israel’s rulers to remain faithful to God even though they dwell in the shadow of the “tall cedars” of the surrounding empires, and to resist the temptation to forge security through military alliances (Ez 17:11-21). God promises to raise up Israel “that it may produce branches and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar… in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind” (17:23).
A second parable in Ezekiel 31 satirizes imperial Egypt. The prophet asks Pharaoh: “Who are you like in your greatness?” (31:2, see Mk 4:30). He then reminds Pharaoh of Assyria, which also “towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long… All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs” (31:5f). But Assyria’s empire crumbled: “On its fallen truck settle all the birds of the air,” the prophet parodies (31:13). Here we find an echo of the ancient story of the Tower of Babel: “All this in order that no trees by the waters may grow to lofty height or set their tops among the clouds” (31:14; see Gen 11:4).
In a still later iteration of this prophetic tradition, Daniel 4 interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of “a tree at the center of the earth,” whose “top reached to heaven… and the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed” (Dan 4:11f). The prophet warns that the hubris of empire will be judged, and exhorts the king to “atone for your sins with justice and for your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed” (4:27).
Jesus’ allusion to this tree-parable tradition, then, places his entire discourse firmly in an anti-imperial context. In Mark’s time, Judea was once again a tiny client-state being “fed by the streams flowing from” the imperial center of Rome (see Ez 31:4). And within Palestine, Mark’s community was a small, persecuted minority. What chance did followers of Jesus have against the power of the Judean Temple State, much less Rome? Yet the parable of the mustard seed proposes exactly such a mismatch, remembering that “All the trees of the field shall know that I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree” (Ez 17:24).
It is with such parables that Jesus “spoke the Word to them,” carefully interpreting their political allusions to his disciples (Mk 4:33f). He is not a guru dispensing arcane secrets, pedantic theology or pious platitudes, but a popular educator using language that peasants can understand, images they can relate to from their experience, and traditional stories which portray them as subjects of the sovereignty of God. In so doing he sows hope among them, insisting that the tallest trees can be brought down, and that the smallest of seeds will bear Jubilary fruit.
As we wonder how to survive and confront the principalities and powers of today, this is a welcome reminder.