Seeds, Weeds and the Kingdom

We struggle with the question of how it was that what Jesus had to say was so upsetting to the leadership of the Judaism. It is hard for us to imagine the challenges these people heard in what Jesus shared.  What could it have been about these two simple parables that so ignited a conflagration of national anxiety? Our temptation is to judge those spiritual and political leaders as some how blind, cruel or insensitive.  We need first to try and understand what motivated their rejection of Jesus and his message.  And as to the parables themselves, as people of the enlightenment we have this notion that if we take them apart piece by piece and look closely at what holds them together we will understand them.  An understanding of these two parables only grows out of a conscious attempt to understand the context in which these parables of the kingdom were shared. The good news is that we are left in pretty good company.  Mark tells us that Jesus had to take the disciples aside to explain these parables to them.  What Jesus did with these parables was to challenge the official understanding of what was the Kingdom of God.  I think it’s still timely.

 


 

 

In the movie “Jumping Jack Flash” in order to help a spy to come in from the cold Whoopie Goldberg’s character must solve a riddle. She has to figure out a “code key” in the Rolling Stones song, which gives the title to the movie. She listens in vain to try to figure out the words. At one point, in exasperation, she screams, “Mick, Mick, speak English!”

 

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus shares two opaque parables of the Kingdom of God. We well may want to say to the text: “Speak plainly, Jesus”. “Tell us the meaning; give us some indication of what the ‘ kingdom of God’ is all about. But to no avail. Jesus parables continue to spark imagination and controversy alike, yet they remain parables, which means they speak around things, not directly about them. . Unlike teaching parables, which are like sermon illustrations, kingdom parables are the gospel hidden in a story. So we are left in puzzlement. Any interpretation of them that we might dare to make, when we are honest, we know will fall short of the truth.

 

We struggle with the question of how it was that what Jesus had to say was so upsetting to the leadership of the Judaism. It is hard for us to imagine the challenges these people heard in what Jesus shared.  What could it have been about these two simple parables that so ignited a conflagration of national anxiety? Our temptation is to judge those spiritual and political leaders as some how blind, cruel or insensitive.  We need first to try and understand what motivated their rejection of Jesus and his message.  And as to the parables themselves, as people of the enlightenment we have this notion that if we take them apart piece by piece and look closely at what holds them together we will understand them.  An understanding of these two parables only grows out of a conscious attempt to understand the context in which these parables of the kingdom were shared. The good news is that we are left in pretty good company.  Mark tells us that Jesus had to take the disciples aside to explain these parables to them.  What Jesus did with these parables was to challenge the official understanding of what was the Kingdom of God.  I think it’s still timely.

 

Mark 4:26-34

26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

 

Upon their return from Babylon (538 B.C.), Judah was conscious of having inherited the religion of pre-Exile Israel. It was that religion which had prompted the exiles to return to the land promised by Yahweh to their ancestors, and they were now determined to maintain it in its purity. From their experience in captivity they learned that in God’s justice, God had punished their sins by delivering them into the power of pagan nations, as the prophets repeatedly predicted; and that in his love for the people of his choice, God had brought them back, as Isaiah had particularly foretold. God had not left unpunished their repeated falls into idolatry, but had kept alive among them the revealed religion which ever represented God as the true and adequate object of their devotion, trust, gratitude, of their obedience and service.

 

One powerful example of God’s justice and grace is found in Ezekiel 17 which carries the story of Israel being taken captive by Babylon and agreeing to a covenant in the name of God that the nation of Israel would continue, though in a weakened state, under Babylonian control in exchange for Jewish compliance.  But the king of Israel had other ideas and sought an alliance with Egypt, Babylon’s principle enemy.  God won’t stand for Israel to break a covenant made in his name.  Israel is humbled yet again.  And everyone knew that “I the Lord have spoken and have done it.”    That story is particularly important for us today because of the imagery used by the prophet. A great eagle, meaning Babylon, took the top of a great cedar whose boughs reached to the heavens, representative of how Israel saw itself, cropping off  the topmost of the young twigs and its young leader.  The Eagle set the tree top in a land of traffic, in a city of merchants (that being Babylon). And there, not as a tree but as a vine, it flourished.  But there was another Eagle in the story (meaning Egypt) and the vine (now representing Israel) reached out to this other Eagle for emancipation from God’s punishment.  The Lord, through the prophet asks “Shall it prosper?”  No! Matter of fact it withered under the wind  from the east.  Pharaoh didn’t come to Israel’s aid.  And “As I live”, God said, “my oath has been despised and by covenant has been broken.”   The story doesn’t end without promise. The story ends with God taking a tender young twig from the lofty top of the cedar and planting in on a high mountain with the intention that it will bring forth boughs and bear fruit and be a goodly cedar and, this quotation is important, “all fowl will find shelter in its branches” and that was Israel in the future

  

When Jesus came, Judaism appeared to be thoroughly prepared for the advent of the Kingdom of God. Its great center was Jerusalem, the “Holy City”, to where hundreds of thousands of Jews came from every part of the world  to celebrate the yearly festivals in the “City of the Great King”. The Temple was, in their eyes, the worthy House of the Lord, both by the magnificence of its structure and by the wonderful appointment of its service. The Jewish priesthood was not only numerous, but also most exact in the offering of the daily, weekly, monthly, and other, sacrifices, which it was its privilege to perform. The high-priest, a person most sacred, stood at the head of the hierarchy, and acted as final arbiter of all religious controversies. The Sanhedrin of Jerusalem watched zealously over the strict fulfillment of the Law and issued decrees readily obeyed by the Jews dispersed throughout the world. Local Sanhedrins and synagogues supplied the ordinary religious and educational needs of the people, and wielded the power of excommunication against breakers of the Law, oral and written. The Scribes not only read and interpreted the text of the Law in the synagogue meetings, but untiringly proclaimed the “Traditions of the Elders”, the collection of rules which formed a “fence to the Law”, because whoever observed them was sure not to trespass in any way against the Law itself. Legal righteousness was the watchword of Judaism, and its attainment by separation from Gentiles and sinners, by purifications, fasts, almsgiving, etc., in a word by the fulfillment of traditional enactments which applied the Law to each and every walk of life and to all imaginable circumstances, was the one concern of pious Jews wherever found. Given their history, it was for them a matter of national security. Especially in Palestine, the people blindly followed their leaders, confident that the present rule of pagan Rome would speedily come to an end when the mighty deliverer of the faithful “children of the kingdom’ would make his appearance. Meantime, it behooved the sons of Abraham to copy the “righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees” whereby they would secure admittance into the Messianic world-wide empire, of which Jerusalem would be the capital, and of which every Jewish member would be superior in things temporal as well as spiritual to the rest of the world who would then be rallied to the worship of the one true God. It is this vision of its future that Israel held at the time of Jesus’ life and ministry; that it would become again a great cedar, a place of safety for all human kind.  Only too cognizant of what happened to their ancestors due to their disobedience and idolatry they legislated and enforced faithfulness to the Law, and with Jerusalem as the center they worshipped God and broke every alliance with all surrounding nations and formed a community wholly sacred to the Lord. They decided that whatever the cost they must prove faithful to Yahweh.

 

External compliance with the prescribed ritual superseded the higher claims of conscience, the prophet was replace by scribe, the rigor with which the letter of the Law was enforced gave rise to a narrow legalism and Israel, in its sacred isolation looked down on the rest of humankind. According to Jewish sources, the greater the Roman oppression the more eager the Jewish people, particularly the pious ones, were for “the kingdom of Heaven” to come speedily. This was the focus and object of the prayers in their liturgy. 

 

The innermost teaching of the Old Testament is summed up, in the expression, ‘the Kingdom of God’, remembering that the word kingdom signifies not so much a place as the sway of the “ruler”.  It is also understandable why in the New Testament the immanent coming of this kingdom is a major theme.  John the Baptist said and Jesus in his opening words repeated “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus’ conversation and teaching is called the “Gospel of the Kingdom.”  The “Kingdom” means the influence of grace in human hearts and it is also pictured as the ‘place’ from where God reigns.  Remember, Jesus taught his followers to pray ‘Thy Kingdom come”. Jesus preached this same kingdom of God when he said, “the kingdom God cometh not by observation [that is, calculation] . . . for, behold, the kingdom God is among you” meaning that “It does not come through rebellion or by force”.

 

In reality, the Jews were far from prepared for the fulfillment of the promises which the God had repeatedly made to their race. This was first shown to them, when the voice of one crying in the wilderness, the herald of the Messiah that of John, was heard in Judah. It summoned, but with little success, all Jews to repent, to change directions indeed something that was foreign to their hearts, but which could alone, despite their title of “children of Abraham”, fit them for the kingdom near at hand. Next it was shown to them by Jesus, who, at the very beginning of his public life, repeated John’s summons to repentance (Mark 1:15), and who, throughout his ministry, endeavored to correct the errors of Judaism concerning the kingdom which He had come to found among men. He pled that his hearers would not to be satisfied with the outward righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees if they wished to enter into that kingdom. The kingdom which the Jews should expect is the Kingdom of God in its modest, secret, and as it were, insignificant origin. It too is subject to the laws of organic growth as are all living things, and its planting and early developments do not attract much attention; but it is not so with its further extension, destined as it is to pervade and transform the world.

 

Of our two tiny parables of the kingdom, the first suggests that the one responsible for the harvest scatters seed and leaves it to germinate and mature.  The second suggests that, like a noxious weed, the insidious mustard, the kingdom takes over and drives out the crop intended by the cultivator of the field – oh yes, and becomes the safe haven for “the fowls of the air…”

This kingdom is indeed rejected by those who had the first claim to its possession and seemingly were the best qualified for entering into it; but all those, both Jews and Gentiles, who earnestly avail themselves of the invitation of the Gospel will be admitted. This is really a new Kingdom of God and no less truly the continuation of the Kingdom of God under the Old Covenant.

In thus describing God’s kingdom, Jesus justly treated as vain the hopes of His Jewish contemporaries that they should become masters of the world in the event of a conflict with Rome; He also set aside the fabric of legalism which their leaders regarded as to be perpetuated in the Messianic kingdom, but which in reality they should have considered as either useless or positively harmful now that the time had come to extend “salvation out of the Jews” to the nations at large; plainly, the legal sacrifices and ordinances had no longer any reason for being, since they had been instituted to prevent Israel from forsaking the true God, plainly, too, the “traditions of the Elders” should no longer be tolerated since they had gradually led the Jews to disregard some of the most essential precepts of the moral law embodied in the Law.


In C.H. Dodd’s classic book “The Parables of the Kingdom” he argues his theory of realized eschatology. The parables of the growing seed and the mustard seed are not parables about growth, but rather announce that the day of harvest has arrived. The seed planted long ago was now ripe for harvest, it was now that which gave shade and rest. The day of the Lord has arrived, the kingdom is come.
When following Dodd’s lead we can rightly say of these kingdom parables that they proclaim that the kingdom is “now”. The kingdom today is realized in the life of believers. God’s righteous reign (the kingdom) witnessed in calling out a people to be with him for eternity, is seen in the life of Jesus and in the life of his followers today.  The kingdom parables of the growing seed and the mustard seed, proclaim that the kingdom of God has burst in upon is; it is “now” and yes, it is also “not yet” as it waits our obedience, but above all, it “is”. Faced with this reality we are bound to ask how well our ears hear, for if God’s mysterious reign is indeed intruding into human affairs, then it is also intruding into our affairs. So, do we “repent and believe”, or do we ignore the fact that “the harvest is come” and that the mustard bush is sharing its shade?

 

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