Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Mystery of the Kingdom in Parables. Homily for MARK 4:26-34

Homily for 6.17.12
MARK 4:26-34 (see below)
Year B

The Lectionary Gospel reading for today brings to us the confrontation between the Messiah Jesus and the expectations of the crowds who heard him and the political realities before him on the ground. 

While most preachers attempt to be straightforward with their words in their homiletic efforts, Jesus takes the rather curious path of being, at best, ambiguous in his. He presents the important truth of the Kingdom of GOD within the mystery and enigma of parables.

Clearly, the parables that Jesus employed to present the Kingdom of GOD are an integral part of his teaching. We can describe them as “similitude,” an "extended metaphor," or an "example story." (Handbook of Biblical Criticism, pg.129)

Today’s outline is designed to help unpack the text. We will think-through the idea of the Kingdom of GOD, we will question why Jesus spoke the Kingdom in parables, which will lead us toward an understanding of the specific parables before us today, which in turn will serve to remind us that there are no little places, no little people and nothing wrong with small beginnings because within that smallness and weakness is found GOD's strength and that which brings glory to the GOD who is there.


What then is the Kingdom of GOD? Of course, much could be said here, but it seems to me that the key components needed to understand the Kingdom of GOD are:

1) GOD's Kingdom exists where GOD's King Jesus is known, trusted and followed. That is, the Kingdom is not a place, at least not initially, but a way of life initiated from the work of King Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

2) The work of the King that commences the Kingdom must be understood as nothing less than the death and resurrection of King Jesus. That is, good moralism or a dedicated social concern could NOT set the Kingdom in motion, only the death and resurrection of Jesus -- a death and resurrection that takes seriously the problem of evil -- could fundamentally change the character of the world at its core.

3) Through the enabling power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the risen Christ, the followers of King Jesus practice the Kingdom way of being in the world, displaying to all who care to see how GOD's will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

4) In this way the Kingdom people -- the new humanity, the new community, the new people of GOD -- do not bring in the Kingdom-complete, but instead work toward that moment when the King appears and finalizes what he began.


Ok, but why then would Jesus only clearly explain such an important message as the Kingdom to only a small group of people -- the disciples, while employing the mystery of parables as a means of proclaiming the message to the rest of his hearers -- the crowds.

First, hear Jesus’ explanation to the disciples of his use of parables from an earlier text in Mark 4:
And when he was alone, those present along with the Twelve questioned him about the parables.

He answered them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables,

so that

‘they may look and see but not perceive,

and hear and listen but not understand,

in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.’” (Mk.4:10-12)
This seems very strange. Why wouldn't Jesus want his hearers to listen and understand and be converted? Well, of course, he does want them to hear and be converted, but there are two underlying ideas at work here.

First, as N.T. Wright reminds us, Jesus' presentation of a new King and a new Kingdom was a politically dangerous message, one which had to be proclaimed carefully. Besides that, his Hebrew hearers had a totally different way of seeing GOD's Kingdom,  coming not from small places like Galilee or from small people like this young Hebrew prophet, but from a Military Messiah who would break the back of empire -- both the Roman and the Herodians, and launch the new age for Israel.

But, second, the reception of the message of the Kingdom of GOD depended upon first truly trusting in the King, a trusting that involved action. Or, as St. Paul terms it, “the obedience of faith,” (Romans 1:5; 16:26 NRSV), or as we say around here, “the Kingdom of GOD is something to be done." 

In this regard listen to Lamar Williamson's thoughts from his commentary on Mark's Gospel:
" the authentic speaking and hearing of the parables, Jesus gives the kingdom itself as a mystery...The Kingdom of God is at hand in the fruitful word of Jesus Christ. To hear the word of and about Jesus, to believe it and act on it, this is the secret of the reign of or rule of God in individuals, in the church and in the world...we may understand 'the secret of the kingdom of God' to be Jesus himself, present among those to whom he speaks." (pgs.92-93) 


Which brings us to today's text, where we find Jesus teaching in the parables and calling on his hearers to understand the mystery of the Kingdom in terms of its smallness and quietness. Here Jesus likens the Kingdom to seed sowing, the smallest of seeds growing to become the largest of plants, and the growth of the kingdom-seeds in the darkness.

What does this tell us about the Kingdom? Well, it tells us that the Kingdom would not be the crushing and outright victory his Hebrews hearers dreamed of it. No, the Kingdom would come incognito and silently. You would wake one day and there would be the the Kingdom, present, thriving, growing. 

Or, said differently, you would wake one day and find the Kingdom present before you in the person of a young Jewish prophet who preached with authority, who had the Spirit’s power present to heal and to defeat the powers of darkness, and who willingly chose to go to the cross of Roman execution in order to set the Kingdom in motion.

This is important. The Kingdom comes without fanfare and grandness. In fact, it becomes present without us knowing it. It becomes present through the countless little, quiet ways GOD's Kingdom people, being the new humanity, follow the King everyday. Suddenly, it's there! It springs to life and the surroundings are changed but we do exactly know how.

This means, as we have said so many times before, there are no little people, no little places and no true Kingdom acts that do not bear the fruit of the Kingdom by making the King present. Do not worry about being small and weak in the eyes of the world. And certainly, do not compromise the Kingdom-message with the world that proclaims Jesus as King, in order to win a hearing. So what if we are in one small place and without much power. So what? This is only the world’s view, but not the true view. No, in reality, our weakness allows the King to be strong through us, which leads to the final thought.

(or whose kingdom are you building?) 

You see, it is in our smallness and the weakness that GOD shows his strength, but it is also through our smallness and weakness that the real credit for Kingdom work goes to the King, and not to the Kingdom people.

Said differently, if we are weak and we know it, when through our weakness our Kingdom efforts we suddenly see the Kingdom of GOD sprout around us, instinctively we know this is GOD's good work through us and not our own majesty!

Or, said still differently, we must continually ask ourselves just whose Kingdom are we building -- our own or GOD's? This, of course, is a constant struggle. Will we be wise and powerful and important in the eyes of the world, or will we be faithful to the King? To have it both ways, without compromising the Kingdom message or practice, believe me, is very difficult indeed.


MARK 4:26-34

Jesus said to the crowds:
"This is how it is with the kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and through it all the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come."

He said,
"To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade."
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.