Years ago I had a professor who described his class- a survey of Christology- as being akin to “roller skating through the Louvre”- by which he meant: his job was, essentially, to say, “Look at this! Look at that! Look at this! Look at that!” Our journey through Mark reminded me of that professor and that class this week, in which we are confronted (gifted? overhelmed?) with four separate parables in one extended discourse.

Our Working Preacher podcasts and commentary (which can be found here) recommend that we use Mark 1:15 as a lens through which to look at the entire gospel. As his work begins, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom (basileia, more accurately, “authority/ reign/ rule”) of God has come near; repent,”- or, turn around/ change your thinking- “and believe in the good news.” Parables insist that the hearer/ reader change her/his thinking, first and foremost, because thinking does not necessarily lead to comprehension. The passage is dotted with Jesus’ instructions on apprehending his words: “Listen!” (v. 3); “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (v. 9); “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven’ “(v. 11-12); “For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (v. 22); “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you” (v. 24). In fact, one entire parable (the parable of the sower, v. 3-8) is about hearing and understanding/ not understanding (explanation, v. 14-20).

Alyce McKenzie writes (in The Parables for Today) that Jesus’ use of parables is subversive of conventional wisdom. “Jesus… uses the proverbial form to challenge security as a goal for living and to encourage radical reliance on God” (p. 9). The parable of the sower is a consummate example of this. The sower- let’s say, the one who seeks to share the Good News- casts her/ his seed (the Word) widely, with virtually no control over the outcome, which is entirely in God’s hands. (McKenzie treats this parable in a chapter titled “The Reign of God is Not Under Your Control.”) The same theme is expressed in the parable of the growing seed (“the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how,” v. 27).

Repent/ turn around/ change your thinking about things like secrecy and open knowledge, sometimes right in the middle of your own teaching- just a little bit after telling the disciples that the people are being taught in parables in order to confuse and confound them, Jesus encourages them to put their lamps on lampstands, for all to see. Jesus models a change in thinking, right there.

Repent/ turn around/ change your thinking about things like size and utility and worth- the ridiculously small mustard seed and the reviled, invasive mustard plant are talismans of the reign of God.

In the end, it seems to me that Jesus is telling us to look hard at the stuff of our day-to-day lives, at things like seeds and sowers, and lamps and bushel baskets, and birds and shrubs, because they, every one, are charged with the grandeur of God.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


And for all this, nature is never spent;

    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


~Gerard Manley Hopkins


Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

Sermon SEEDS (naturally!):

  1. Choose one parable and dig deep. I’m not convinced casting four parables at the congregation at once is going to yield a good harvest… if you know what I mean.
  2. Does “The Reign of God is Not Under Your Control” mean the same thing as “God is in Control?” This could be a potentially fruitful exploration of a beloved Reformed theme (the Sovereignty of God).
  3. The holy in the ordinary… where and when do we find ourselves shaken awake by the grandeur of God in the humble and homely stuff of life?
  4. Should we seek to be different “soil” than we are? The podcast conversation explored this idea for a bit, with no true consensus.
  5. I’m intrigued and, if I’m honest, a bit troubled by talk of “secret” knowledge (though I recognize “the messianic secret” is one of the hallmarks of this gospel). What are we to take from Jesus’ statement that his parables are intended to befuddle and confuse, unless he sees fit to give us the inside scoop? Is that Jesus, or is that interpretation?

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this very dense and also beautiful passage. Please join the conversation in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Parables Edition (Mark 4:1-34)

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