14 June 2015

Mark 4:26-34

"The kingdom of God ... is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth." (vv. 30-31)

Psalm: Psalm 92


Insignificant, unnoticed events are the focus of this passage from Mark's Gospel, which takes ordinary, everyday activities to explore the signs of God's activity in the world.

These two parables come at the end of a chapter-long account of Jesus' teaching, which begins with Jesus climbing into a boat in order to make a space from which he can address people who have followed him to the lakeside (verses 1-3).

There is a tendency to interpret parables in overly simple or overly complex ways. Parables are indirect forms of communication, and their meaning is more likely to shift than solidify. Certainly, the writer of Mark's Gospel believed the parables needed to be explained (verses 33-34); and even the disciples repeatedly failed to hear what Jesus tried to tell them.

Reading these parables centuries after they were first told, increases the likelihood of misunderstanding. Unlike the crowd by the lake, many of whom would have lived off the land, the agricultural examples given are unfamiliar to many readers today. In addition, the allusions to other biblical texts, obvious to Jesus' hearers, are often missed and with them, clues as to how to interpret the parables.

In the first parable (verses 26-29) a farmer prepares ground, plants seed and waits faithfully for God to bring about a crop. The second parable (verses 30-32) refers to the tiny mustard seed. Unlike the gentle pace of the grain, the mustard seed grows fast, springing up. God's kingdom emerges slowly or quickly, but always unexpectedly, in ways that cannot be controlled or forced.

The second parable draws on Ezekiel 17:22-24, which imagines the restoration of the royal house of David, as a cedar tree in which beasts and birds will shelter. But elsewhere similar images are used to critique the violence of human empires (Ezekiel 31Daniel 4). Such allusions suggest that the parable of the mustard seed in Mark is a parody: God's kingdom is more like a messy shrub than a noble tree (describes Adela Yarbro Collins in Mark (Fortress Press, 2007)). Yet this is enough. For God does not work through human strength, but the small, unnoticed actions of small, unnoticed people.

To Ponder

  • What do you think is a successful church?
  • What signs of God's working do you see in your local community, church or neighbourhood?

Bible notes author

Rachel Starr

Rachel Starr is the Methodist tutor at The Queen's Foundation for ecumenical theological education in Birmingham, where she teaches studies in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Before that she spent three years in Buenos Aires completing doctoral studies at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (Instituto Universitario ISEDET).