The language here is tricky: the text states that the general listener could understand, not necessarily that he did understand parabolic teaching. In fact, Mark 11:12ff presents an intriguing action/interpretation parable that creates considerable consternation among the disciples. In Chapter 11 Jesus curses a fig tree which evidently was quite lush but bore no edible fruit. He then proceeds to the temple where he dramatically expels the moneychangers. Returning along the same route, the disciples discover that this same fig tree is now brown and withered. Peter can hardly contain himself. There is general agreement today that the fig tree represented the official life of the Temple: lush and lovely to behold, but ultimately bereft of fruit. Ironically Jesus’ enemies may have sensed the underlying message better than his disciples, for accusations of Jesus’ intentions to destroy the Temple are reported in the Markan trial narrative.
Another challenge to understanding parables is the tendency of the three Synoptic Gospels to cluster them in series. (St. John’s Gospel did not include parables.) Sunday’s reading includes two parables; both connected by the generic theme of the Kingdom or Reign of God, but clearly separate pieces of literature and probably oral transmission. The first describes a man sowing an unspecified seed—its product suggests grain—and beginning a chain of events that are mysterious even to him. The plants grow relentlessly through the various phases of development, and the climax of this parable is the moment of fruition and the man “wields his sickle” “for the time is ripe for harvest.”
The editors of the Lectionary may have done well to stop here, because the inclusion of the second parable about the mustard seed actually distracts from the first, and I will bet you a pound of Panera Hazelnut Coffee that preachers around the world will preach generically about the Word of God as “seed” that needs to grow. This would be an excellent Sunday, however, to preach about the nature and purpose of parables.
The scholarly community today is in general agreement that parables were and are theological statements about the Kingdom of God, its nature, signs, time of arrival, etc. There are few subjects of New Testament study more intensely followed than the Kingdom of God. As of a few moments ago, Amazon.com listed 157,610 separate works under a search title “Kingdom of God.” It would be impossible to even summarize this work here, but recall our introduction to Mark earlier this year, “Repent, turn from your sins, for the reign of God is at hand.” Matthew, Mark and Luke are in agreement that a future is looming, both benign (Luke’s Prodigal Son) and awful (John the Baptist’s separation of chaff for the roaring fire—cut by that ever-present sickle we just saw in Mark’s parable.) I should add here that the Evangelist John does not have parables precisely because he believes the Kingdom has come; “he who believes in me (now) has life.”
Parables are of their nature unclear and mysterious precisely because they are analogies of a reality that is unclear and mysterious. In our parable at hand (the first one) for this Sunday, we have emphasis upon a man who is both a doer and a witness. He sows, then lives his life as a process takes place before his eyes that he does not understand, but yet lives in expectation of a fruitful end. The inclusion of the word “sickle” has interesting overtones; for us non-farmers the Palestinian harvesting process involved separating the desired grain from inevitable weeds, in a time long before pesticides.
The second parable this Sunday presents a significant literary and theological contrast. In this parable Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to the specific “mustard seed” which he describes as “the smallest of all the earth’s seeds.” At the NCEA Convention in April one of the exhibitors was marketing tiny containers of mustard seed, which looked to me like bits of ground cinnamon. But Jesus goes on to describe the remarkable growth of such seed into “the largest of shrubs.” Already the irony of smallest to largest is established, but Jesus adds another twist: the branches are big enough “for the birds of the air to build nests in its shade.” This last clause connects the new concept of the Kingdom of God with the apocalyptic passages from Isaiah, where a promise is made of a coming day when all the nations of the world would stream to Jerusalem bearing gifts (presumably for safety and protection?) Isaiah 60: 1-6 is, incidentally, the first reading for the feast of the Epiphany.
And on we could go. The key to the enrichment from the parables is to celebrate the yet unfolding mystery of God’s workings while respecting the autonomy of their telling. As Jesus himself observed, seeds essentially do the same thing, but they are certainly not all the same.