Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mark 4:26-34 Commentary

Mark chapter 4 has three different parables about seeds. The first parable is the well-known story about the sower who sows his seed in four different kinds of soil (v 1-9). While with his disciples a little later on in the day, Jesus tells his disciples that the sower and the soil story is about the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.

But in the two seed stories the lectionary has kept together for us this week, Jesus comes right out and tells everyone listening that they are parables that will help them understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. The two stories are different, but they both highlight the mysterious nature of the way the Kingdom of God grows. And in each, the Kingdom is a blessing.

Notice how in each story there isn’t much human involvement ushering in the Kingdom of God. Not only is the person utterly anonymous (the word used is the generic Greek word for human, anthrōpos), but they don’t even “sow” the seed—they literally throw it (ballō) on the ground. The person does not tend to the seed, does not water it or prune it as it grows. For all intents and purposes, they neglect the seed and go on about their own life. Jesus says that this person has no idea how this seed is growing.

That’s because it isn’t growing because of the person who threw it. It’s growing because that is it what it was going to do in an earth ripe to receive it. “The earth,” Jesus says, “produces of itself…” because its Creator is also its Redeemer. Groaning in pangs for the new creation, the place humans call home is receiving the Kingdom of God even as its inhabitants are unaware of why or how.

Our lack of knowledge as to how the Kingdom comes in our midst does not stop us from benefitting from it. As the world is transformed by the Spirit of God we will eventually be caught up in it. We may not understand how the seed grew in the conditions we put it in, but we know what a crop ready to be harvested looks like. I, for one, am appreciative that though our contributions to the goodness of God’s Kingdom being known and understood are miniscule, God does not stop us from being part of its harvest blessing.

So what is the Kingdom of God like? It’s like something we take for granted or show the least amount of concern about, and it still welcomes us in. The Kingdom grows, not because of us, but because of the miracles God works at God’s wise timing in and among God’s creation, the earth. The Kingdom is not something we can understand or control, but it is something we participate in as its blessings grow.

That’s the central message of both of these seed parables. As Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to the mustard seed, he doesn’t even need to describe it as mysterious or awe-inspiring. The true nature of the mustard seed turned plant does that all on its own. In Palestine, these shrub trees grow well over fifteen feet tall; they have thick branches and is an evergreen (it keeps its leaves year round). As Jesus says, it makes a great home for birds—an image of blessing yet again.

Here, where there is not even a reference to a generic human being involved, Jesus purposefully describes the mustard seed as being “sown” (speirō, the same word from the parable about the sower and the soils). Juxtaposing the almost careless nature of humanity’s involvement in establishing the success of the Kingdom of God, here we get a divine passive: God sows the mustard seed that is the Kingdom of God, which grows and becomes the home of living things. It is, yet again, a blessing without our merit.

There will be other ways that Jesus helps us understand our responsibilities and involvement in the Kingdom of God, but in these parables our attention is focused on just one thing: Jesus ushers in the Kingdom of God for our good and in ways beyond our understanding and commitment to him.

Textual Point

The mustard seed is not the smallest seed to ever exist—nor was it even the smallest seed in the region during Jesus’s time. Describing it as such is part of the genre of the parable as it helps to draw our attention to the mustard seed itself as we try to find the one thing the parable is communicating. What does appear to be unique about the mustard seed among the other small seeds—and as Jesus points out in his parable—is how big of a plant its small seed produces. “Smallest” to the “greatest” might not be literal, but it is an effective image.

Illustration Idea

In a sermon preached on March 10, 1522, Martin Luther preached about seeing the mysterious growth of the reform movement, saying, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses on it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” (William Placher’s Belief Series commentary on Mark alerted me to this illustration.)


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