Last revised: June 12, 2021
PROPER 6 (June 12-18) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 11
RCL: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
RoCa: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In 2018 a moral crisis is reaching a peak during the week of these texts. The morally bankrupt POTUS has seemingly crossed a line even for many of his supporters. The new immigration policy of separating children from parents at the border is coming increasingly into the light. The administration is trying to use scripture (primarily Rom. 13:1-2) to justify the policy. Increasing numbers of people, even white evangelical Christian supporters of Trump, are not buying it. (See this news clip of Joy Reid with Bishops William Barber and Michael Curry and author Frank Schaeffer.) Does a church undergoing a new and radical reformation see speaking out to such a crisis as imperative to its call?
Last week (Proper 5B), we highlighted the first parable — ‘Satan casting out Satan’ as Jesus’s parabolic diagnosis of the sinful distortion of human culture at its origins. This week the Gospel Reading presents us with the last parable and the summary statement in Mark’s chapter of parables, primarily using the theme of seeds sown and growing. Think about the context we are giving it here. If the first parable gives us Jesus’s diagnosis of the illness, then are these seed parables beginning to give us a glimpse of the healing process that Jesus is launching? The image is that of reseeding human culture itself. For the healing of our species, it is going to require a restart, a Human Being 2.0. Instead of human culture beginning with accusation and casting out, it begins with the One Cast Out — who stands in solidarity with all those cast out in every time and place (Rev. 7) — and forgiving love. It will be a fragile seed growing, looking like a weed in the field of fallen human culture. But it will grow and is growing now. The cross and resurrection are the guarantee as the seed which has already been killed and raised to new life. As Paul proclaims, “There is a new creation.”
So followers of Jesus are called to be weeds, to look like weeds amidst the dominant culture still based on accusation and casting out Satan, on a casting out the evil-doers who are dehumanized. In the face of a POTUS who represents a desperate attempt to fans the flames of fallen Satanic human culture, can we take the risk of speaking out and acting in solidarity with those cast out? And yet the great challenge is to do so not in a spirit of accusing and casting out (seed snatched up by the birds?) but in the Spirit of forgiving love. It also requires a Spirit of humble repentance, voicing clearly that we ourselves are in the process of being healed. The seeds of such a purely gracious and healing love are only beginning to grow in us.
May the Holy Spirit be with all those tasked with preaching these texts in 2018. May you sow seeds of healing in the midst of a moral crisis.
(Note: my emphasis in naming the current crisis is on the POTUS as an office whose power is dependent on all of us interacting in such a way as to empower the office. I struggle to have some empathy for Donald Trump the person, who likely is suffering from a personality disorder [see this from Trump’s co-biographer] that lends him to becoming possessed by the way our nation is currently empowering him.)
Reflections and Questions
1. Bernard Brandon Scott, in Hear Then the Parable, remarks that Jesus does extend the logic of Ezekiel 17 to some degree by changing from a cedar to the more lowly mustard shrub. The theme of God bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly is definitely a theme of this passage, especially in verse 24: “I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree.” The overall image of God breaking a small twig off of a mighty cedar to plant his own also conveys the lifting up of the lowly. Jesus seemingly furthers this trend by substituting a bush for a tree (though Q was apparently uncomfortable with this substitution, as shown by the transformation of the mustard bush into a “tree” in Matthew and Luke).
2. This passage speaks to the wisdom of the Catholic lectionary in matching First Lessons to the Gospel. In my comments on the Gospel, I present the Parable of the Mustard Seed as a joke, a joke that would be difficult to get without Ezekiel 17 in the background.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13), 14-17
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 124-125. In a section on Jewish life and life according to the flesh, Hamerton-Kelly gives a paraphrase of 2 Cor 15:16-17 as follows:
We once saw everyone in terms of whether they were Jew or Gentile, whether, if Jews, they obeyed the whole Law or not. This caused us to kill Christ and persecute Christians. Now that is no longer possible for us, because in Christ the new creation has come, and the chief mark of the new creation is reconciliation between God and humanity whose sign is reconciliation between Jew and gentile.
A related remark can be found on p. 160:
A grand soteriological category like “new creation” therefore has as its practical application a way of reading Torah that at last enables one to see its revelation as the disclosure of sacred violence and the command for agape love.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 69-70. In a very interesting point, Hamerton-Kelly uses 2 Cor 5:14 in talking about a “redefinition of the meaning of sacrificial terms.” The point of mimesis in the scapegoating/sacrificial events generally comes before the victimization; it comes with the mimicking of the accusatory gesture that leads to a victimization. But with Christ the point of mimesis is with the victim himself!
3. James Alison, Undergoing God, pp. 105ff., in chapter 7, “Reconciliation in the wink of a hippo,” originally given as an address to the Trinity Institute in 2006, “Blindsided by God: Reconciliation from the Underside.” He begins by comparing Paul’s ‘location’ in writing 2 Corinthians 5 to Steve Martin’s character in the movie “Leap of Faith” (1992), and writes,
Something like this is behind all of Paul’s preaching. It’s not that he’d been a charlatan before. But he had been the machine man, the system man, the man who knew how it all had to be, how to make it perfect. This involved living with an attitude of perpetual war against those who threatened the system of goodness – what we call “zeal for the Law.” And in the midst of this there suddenly happened the Real Thing. That is to say that the Rock, Yahweh, about whom he had talked, whose Law he had obeyed, to whom he had prayed and for whom he had preached, organized, and persecuted, was suddenly present to him in a way which completely inverted everything he had known. (p. 106)
This inversion is what we are suggesting in Jesus’s parables: human culture originated in accusation and casting out of those dehumanized as demonic being inverted by a new enculturation, a reseeding, originated by the One Cast Out and his forgiving love.
Reflections and Questions
1. I wish this passage went one more verse into the “ministry of reconciliation.” I may go one more verse in my sermon, anyway. I’m considering bringing in “Generation X” as an example of the birds who have come to nest in the mustard bush. As the Paraclete has brought the kingdom to branch from the seed, one of the marks of Generation X has been a high degree of tolerance for those who are different. Greater tolerance is, I think, an effect of the growing kingdom of God, the work of the Paraclete. But there is still a vast difference between tolerance and a ministry of reconciliation. It is akin to the difference between birds who come roost in the branches of a mustard bush and a farmer who sows it and cares for it. Without the intentionality, today’s tolerance for some folks may turn into tomorrow’s intolerance for someone else; the bird may simply take flight and roost on someone else’s branch (namely, a branch under the care and nurturing of Satan). In fact, a case may be made for this happening to Generation X’s parents. The baby boomers were iconoclasts in the 60’s and gave up many of the previous generations divisions between peoples — only to take up their own later on. And so each generation comes to roost in the branches of this growing bush at one time or another. The real difference comes in intentionally caring for the bush; that’s the difference between tolerance and a “ministry of reconciliation.”
1. The first parable in this passage (vv. 26-29) is a rare instance of Mark narrating something that neither Matthew or Luke paralleled.
2. The Synoptic parallels for the Mustard Seed parable (Mark 4:30-32; Matt 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19) are almost comical in how they differ on describing the mustard plant. Mark’s account (first in historical sequence) describes it as the “greatest of shrubs.” Apparently, Matthew and Luke found that wanting, so Matthew adds tree to shrub and Luke skips shrub altogether. Luke also omits the description of the mustard seed as the “smallest of all seeds.”
3. I find that the parables in Mark 4 are best read with Mark’s first parable in mind, that of Mark 3:23ff., which is essentially about the kingdom of Satan being divided against itself and coming to an end. With Mimetic Theory in mind, especially Girard’s essay on it (see last week’s page Proper 5B), this first parable establishes the anthropological reality of human kingdoms caught up in the satanic game of bringing sacred violence to bear on the perceived enemy — the pervasive Us-Them structuring of human culture. It is into this pervasive reality of Satan’s kingdom that God’s kingdom is ‘sown,’ as described in the parables of Mark 4. In our day, think in terms of the history of white supremacist racism over the past 500 years.
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 83ff., provides a helpful overall viewpoint on the parables.
2. Bernard Brandon Scott‘s Hear Then the Parable, chapter 19, is my favorite commentary on the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Much of my commentary has been informed by it.
3. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ch. 5, “Sowing Hope.” On the parables in general, Myers and his team write:
Parables have typically been preached in North American churches as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” That, however, is exactly what they are not. Rather, Jesus is describing the sovereignty of God in the most concrete possible terms, using images any illiterate peasant could understand. The genius of parables is that they offer recognizable scenarios, drawing listeners in, then throw surprise twists in order to challenge listeners’ assumptions about what is possible. Jesus no doubt struggled to explain his vision because it was so much at odds with the prevailing order and thus with the expectations of his audience. (p. 39)
A strong theme in this book is that Jesus came to begin fulfilling the Jubilee, the prophetic call to cancel debt every fifty years. On this section of parables, after elaborating Old Testament parables about trees (including Ezekiel 1), they write:
Jesus’ allusion to this tree-parable tradition in his conclusion, then, places the entire sermon firmly in an anti-imperial context. In Mark’s time, Judea was once again a tiny client-state being “fed by the streams flowing from” the imperial center of Rome (see Ezekiel 31:4). And, within Palestine, Mark’s community was a small, persecuted minority. What chance did followers of Jesus have against the power of the Judean Temple-state, much less against that of Rome? The parable of the mustard seed proposes exactly such a mismatch: “All the trees of the field shall know that I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree” (Ezekiel 17:24).
With such parables, Jesus “spoke the Word to them,” carefully interpreting their political allusions to his disciples (Mark 4:33f). This Jesus is no guru dispensing arcane secrets, pedantic theology, or pious platitudes. He is a popular educator using language that peasants can understand, images they can relate to from their experience, and stories which portray them as subjects of the sovereignty of God. In so doing he sows hope among them, insisting that the tall trees can be brought down and that the smallest of seeds will bear Jubilary fruit. (p. 44)
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 85-92.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015 I was more heavily influenced by Myers‘ reading of Mark (above), which is to understand the prophetic critique of empire. Is Jesus half-joking in using the image of a mustard bush to lampoon empire a sow seeds of hope for their small, persecuted community? A dominant image for me became people’s live who feel like weeds in someone else’s garden. Our youth were preparing to go to the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit in July, and part of the preparation was to try to understand white power and privilege due to racism — and to understand how many people in Detroit can feel like weeds in someone else’s garden, the flip-side of privilege. They were going to help sow seeds of hope to the people of Detroit. But are we as white suburbanites open to the seeds of hope already sown there? To the gift of reading Mark’s Good News from their perspective, as a call to repentance from privilege and lives of compassionate solidarity with the poor and marginalized? The sermon, “Helping to Sow Seeds of Hope,” was extemporized from PowerPoint slides with embedded video clips about white privilege.
2. Last week (Proper 5B) I suggested that a good translation for “parable” in Mark would be “riddle.” This week, I’d like to suggest that the Parable of the Mustard Seed is a humorous riddle, if not a joke (link to sermon on this theme entitled “Parable Power“). Unfortunately, for the 20th century person, it fits into that joke-response category of, “I guess you had to be there.” We don’t get it. It does at least help to read Ezekiel 17 only minutes before, but we still tend to listen to scripture with our ‘serious ears’ on, so we probably miss the rather burlesque element of Jesus changing Ezekiel’s metaphor for the kingdom of God from the mighty cedar tree to that greatest of all … shrubs!
Moreover, this is the mustard shrub Jesus is talking about, so most of us modern city dwellers don’t realize that this farmer is also sowing a weed into his garden (if we take Luke’s “garden” over Mark’s more vague “ground”). Now, if we’d change that to something like a man sowing dandelion seeds into his lawn, I think we’d finally realize that this is a joke.
It is a joke, of course, with a serious message behind it. But the vehicle of a joke is more gracious than that of a diatribe. These series of parables began with the Parable of Satan casting out Satan, last week’s text, which is closer to a diatribe, though in riddle form it tends to be ‘heard but not understood.’ The issue at stake is to either live by the power of Satan, which is the power of accusation followed by casting out, or to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the power of forgiveness (or to use St. Paul’s word, reconciliation). The only unforgivable sin, then, is to not believe in the power of forgiveness; the only way to not be reconciled is to reject the offer of reconciliation.
We are faced, then, with a choice of households, or kingdoms, to live in. This week’s parable of the mustard seed prepares us that this may seem, in the eyes of the world, like a crazy garden to live in if we choose God’s. We will seem like weeds to the world, very out of place as we try to live out of forgiveness in a world based on vengeance.
Yet we are reassured that these mustard shrubs will continue to grow and become substantial. After two thousand years how substantial is this shrub? In what ways has the power of the Holy Spirit shaped this world we live in? (See the suggestions above, concerning Generation X, under the Second Lesson.) I think we are called not to just come roost in this shrub’s branches but to join with the sower in caring for it and seeing to its spreading. We are called to a ministry of reconciliation in a world based on conflict. To that world those who accept the call must seem like weeds that best be “destroyed” (which, of course, is Mark’s word in 3:6 for what the world would try to do to Jesus).
3. When Easter is mid-April, we miss the Gospel for Proper 5, “the Parable of Satan Casting Out Satan,” one of the most important passages for interpreting Mark according to mimetic theory. See last week’s page.