Portable Commentary

13 June 2021

Thought for the day  
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care is a daily therapeutic miracle, healing the heart. There is a gentle reflection of this in John 11, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
Sometimes, it is better to leave things alone and they will come along of their own accord. Parents know this very well…you just have to trust the process / the growth. The typical heresy of our time is not quietism but rather meticulous activism, often declining into pernickety interference. Some things just take time and the courage of non-interference!

You are the mystery at the heart all and in you we put our trust. When we are asleep, when we are awake, you are silently at work. In you, we place our trust. Amen, amen

Mark 4:26   He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:30   He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet 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.”

Mark 4:33   With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Initial observations
The Lord’s Supper, as an event in the life of the historical Jesus, is both a proclamation of the Kingdom of God and an interpretation of the death of Jesus. In all probability, it was not Passover, but undoubtedly the context is the feast is significant.

Kind of writing
The parable is found in chapter 4, a chapter with a special structure.
Section Content Vv. Words
A 1-2 Introduction 2vv. 46
B 3-9 Sower 7vv. 105
C 10-12 Reasons 3vv. 52
D 13-20 Allegory 8vv. 146
C’ 21-25 Enigmas 5vv. 74
B’26-32 Seed Parables 7vv. 117
A’ 33-34 Conclusion 2vv. 26

The structure here is significant because C-D-C’ all deal with reactions to the teaching of Jesus, while B and B’ simply offer that teaching in parable form. Furthermore, the allegory at the centre may indeed reflect what Mark wanted his listeners to hear, but it also shows signs of being a reflection of some preacher’s adaptation, and hence a reflection of church tradition. This means that in this chapter we have the opportunity to observe three things:

(a) The setting in the life of Jesus
(b) The setting of the life of the early church
(c) The setting of the evangelist, i.e. the parables in their present context.
Our concern is with level (c) but we will keep an eye on the other levels.

Old Testament background

The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel. Say: Thus says the Lord God: A great eagle, with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colours, came to the Lebanon. He took the top of the cedar, broke off its topmost shoot; He carried it to a land of trade, set it in a city of merchants. Then he took a seed from the land, placed it in fertile soil; A plant by abundant waters, he set it like a willow twig. It sprouted and became a vine spreading out, but low; Its branches turned toward him, its roots remained where it stood. So it became a vine; it brought forth branches, put forth foliage. (Ezekiel 17:1–6)
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:5–6)

New Testament foreground
The immediate context is ch. 4 on the seed parables. The wide context is the preaching of the Good News and the various reactions to that proclamation. In the view of Mark, this teaching can by grasped only by those who have come to full faith in Jesus as messiah and as Son of God, after the resurrection. This emerges in his parable theory (see below) and through the centrality of the person of Jesus. Pre-Easter and post-Easter tensions are found throughout Mark.

St Paul
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:24–30)

Brief commentary
Verse 26 The comparison is with the whole situation in the parable. What this parable might have meant during the ministry of Jesus is probably connected in a general way to the sense of wonder associated with the mystery of growth in nature and in cultivation. By the time Mark offers this parable to his church, it takes on the extra meaning of encouragement to preachers. Preachers don’t know how the seed they sow will germinate—a mystery in the hands of God—and their duty is simply to scatter the seed.
Verse 27 The regular rhythm of life conceals the mystery of germination and growth.
Verse 28 “Of itself” is in Greek automatē—“automatically” but Mark has in view God’s action in causing mysterious growth. The human contribution is deliberately set aside here. There are observable stages, even though the process remains hidden and deeply mysterious. The general meaning is in view and there is no need to see here a division into temporal periods. At the level of Mark, words like sprout and shoot point discreetly and obliquely to the messiah (cf. Zech 3:8; 6:12; Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-16; see above).
Verse 29 Harvest is a regular image for the end, the eschaton. The eschaton points to God’s own time of the kingdom, which will make manifest what is hidden from us now.
Verse 30 This is the only parable found in both Q and Mark (meaning it has a complicated history). The double question at the start is unusual. Who is the “we”? At Mark’s level, it is the voice of the community, an ecclesial “we”. This “we” blurs the line between Jesus and the voice of Mark’s tradition.
Verse 31 It is true that the mustard seed is quite tiny, in comparison to the final shrub.
Verse 32 Farmers of the period did not welcome the mustard “tree” because it tended to colonise the land. At Mark’s level of redaction, the birds (see Ez 31:6) point to Gentiles “moving in”, also perhaps not so welcome to some. The size reflects in part botanical reality. Very small mustard seeds grow to a height of over 2 metres and birds find in it shade and seeds. The image of a large tree for the end is found also in the Bible (see Ezekiel 17 above; cf. also Ex 31:6; Dan 4:10-12, 19-22). It is an analogy of replacement. God’s just rule will replace worldly empires. As we see from the comment on vv. 31-32, the image is somewhat double-edged.
Verse 33 All the verbs here are in the imperfect tense, i.e. continuous, repeated action. Probably here we listen to the voice of tradition Mark received. Jesus taught in order to be understood. “The word” is early Christian shorthand for the proclamation of the Gospel.
Verse 34 This is the voice of Mark, offering his parable theory again. Cf. Mk 4:10-12. According to that theory, Jesus was not understood and did not intend to be understood until after the resurrection. There is a truth in both, of course, but the idea that Jesus spoke in parables in order not to be understood is certainly bizarre. Why speak at all? For Mark, however, the teaching of Jesus does not stand alone but rather is a function of his Christology. In a word, the tale requires the teller, the Gospel requires the Christ.

Pointers for prayer
1. If you sow seeds, or watch plants grow, you have ample opportunities to pause in wonder at the whole process of growth. It takes place imperceptibly and comes to fruition in beautiful flowers, majestic trees and abundant harvests.
2. Jesus uses this as a parable about the growth of the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of right relationships with God and with one another. There too growth is slow, development is imperceptible, and then without realising it you have a mature relationship. Recall the stages of such development in your life and relationships, and give thanks.
3. In the second parable Jesus invites us to reflect on the importance and significance of relationships in our lives as they grow and mature. This is true both of our relationship with God and with others around us. When have you found a relationship in which you could “make nests in its shade”?

O God, at whose bidding the seed will sprout and the shoot grow towards full stature, hear the prayer of your assembled people.
Make us trust in your hidden ways, that we may pray with confidence and wait for your kingdom now growing in our midst.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.