“Why do you teach with parables?” the disciples asked Jesus.
“Those who are in on the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven will get something from them, but those who are not in on these secrets will get nothing from them and the parables will even confuse them further.
“Parables separate those who look from those who see, those who listen from those who understand.”
Parable has in its root a word that has the idea of throwing something down as fodder for horses, for instance, or putting two things side by side to see how they are alike, or moving oneself somewhere or near someone; a parable is kind of like the seed thrown out to see what will grow and where.
I like all of these meanings to help understand how the parables work. They have food in them for our souls, and we must ingest them and digest them and know which parts are not digestible
They are based on comparisons, like metaphors are, and some of the comparison works and some of it doesn’t, so we are required to exercise some imagination and judgment.
Their end result is to move us closer to Jesus, more deeply into God’s kingdom.
And they are also a challenge: as Jesus points out, you can throw hay before a horse, but you can’t make her eat.
So if we want to be insiders as regards the parables, we need to be willing to let them inside our hearts and minds, willing to do the work of chewing and digesting, imagining and judging, and willing to let them move us closer to Jesus.
Mark 4: 10-12
What are the secrets of the kingdom of God? Here are the statements and deeds that precede this comment that the disciples are in on the secrets.
- · “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” Mark 1:11.
- · “It’s time. The Kingdom of God is right here. Recognize it, turn your mind to it, change your mind and purposes, and put your confidence in this Good News,” Mark 1:15.
- · “Come right now, follow behind me, and I will make you fishers of human beings,” Mark 1:17.
- · Jesus drives out an unclean spirit, heals the sick and possessed, heals a leper, heals a paralytic, forgives sins, heals on the Sabbath.
- · “It is not the healthy , the strong, the powerful who need a doctor, but the sick, the miserable, the lost. I have not come to call, to invite, to salute by name the righteous , the law-abiding, but sinners, criminals, trespassers to change their minds and purposes,” Mark 2:17.
- · “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins,” Mark 2:22.
- · “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man owns even the Sabbath,” Mark 2:27.
- · “Which is lawful or allowed on the Sabbath: to do good, something that benefits another, or to do evil, something that harms another; to save life or to kill?” Mark 3:4.
- · “Whoever speaks evil of the Holy Spirit by attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan can never be released from bondage, never forgiven, but is in danger of being eternally separated from God,” Mark 3:29.
- · “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother,” Mark 3:35.
So the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven are these:
- · Jesus is God’s Son, acting as prompted by God’s Holy Spirit; God loves who Jesus is and what he says and does.
- · Jesus says God’s Kingdom is right next to you; turn to it and do what our Father says to do.
- · God’s call is immediate: come now and follow and help gather other people to follow also.
- · God says to do good to other people; there are no loopholes in this law, even if the Mosaic law appears to say otherwise.
- · Refusing to do someone good is the same as doing them harm.
- · God calls trespassers by name to change their minds and purposes; God has nothing to offer those who are self-sufficient in their obedience to the law.
- · God heals, makes clean, forgives all the time; those who do these things are doing God’s will and are God’s children.
So, these first Gardening parables show that the Kingdom of God grows naturally, invisibly, gradually, and hospitably.
Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is like this: A farmer tosses seed onto the dirt. The farmer sleeps each night and rises each morning, and without the farmer knowing how it happens, the seed sprouts and grows tall. Thus the dirt bears fruit with no one tending to it; first the slender grass, then the stalk and flower, then the full head of grain. And then, when the grain is ripe, immediately the farmer reaps it with the sickle, because the harvest has arrived.”
What do we learn about the kingdom of God from this? I think it is helpful to try to get at least two ways of understanding it.
So the farmer is God our Father, and the seed is the Son, tossed out into a mortal body. Time passes (sleeping/waking) and the Son grows, boy, man, Messiah, and then at the right time, our Father cuts down the mortal body of the Son in order to gather all the children of the Kingdom the Son has prepared.
Or the farmer is Jesus, sharing the Good News of the kingdom with other human beings. The Good News rests in our human selves and new life grows in us; it grows to maturity and then reproduces more of the Good News with more human beings.
In John 12:24, Jesus says, “This is the truth I’m telling you: Until a grain of wheat falls into the dirt and dies, it stays by itself in the same time and place; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
So the natural way of the Kingdom of God is that death precedes new life, and this turns out to be true in Jesus’s death and resurrection and in our own identification with his death. Unless we take up our cross and follow him, we have no part in him. The Good News is that embracing that death means also enjoying the resurrection and the new life of freedom from sin, freedom to obey our Father.
Mark 4:30-34, Luke 13:18-19; Matthew 13:31-32
Jesus said: “What shall we place the Kingdom of God next to, what shall we compare it to? It resembles the sand-sized seed of the salvadora persica tree [a spreading bushy tree, a tree with many medicinal benefits; for more see this website.]
[Of course, Jesus didn’t mention this website, but I do because I thought for years this meant the mustard seed from which the condiment is made.]
“This seed is smaller than the other seeds tossed out on the dirt, but when it is scattered, it springs up stronger than every other herb or vegetable, and shoots out big branches; as a result, birds that soar in the sky can roost in its shade.”
What do we learn about the Kingdom of God from this?
Jesus is the small inconspicuous beginning of something big; his entry into mortal human life and death preceded his springing up in resurrection stronger than all other forces, able to provide rest and shelter for all wanderers.
Or, the Good News is not impressive, and yet when it is shared, it has an enormous effect and brings good into the world.
Jesus explains this parable as he goes along. Its immediate context is the following statement: “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14: 31).
The Word I have spoken to you Pruning branches
Cut off fruitless
Cut back fruitful
Remain in me, I remain in you Remain connected to vine, bear fruit
Separate from me Cut off from vine, withers, burned in fire
Ask Bear much fruit
What we learn about the Kingdom of God from this is the importance of pressing ever nearer to our source of life, Jesus, and accepting from God’s hand the kind of guidance that limits one possibility in order to create greater possibilities for good in and through us.
To sum up:
Jesus in these three parables uses the natural process of planting, sprouting, growing and fruiting to describe what the Kingdom of God is like. The new life begins in death—what looks like the end is just the beginning. We are a part of both the death of Jesus and his resurrection. Also, the natural result of hearing and giving some growing room to the Good News Jesus brings is that it roots and grows and becomes a source of life and shelter and health for others.
These parables also speak to the Old Testament as well: The Kingdom of Heaven redeems the garden of Eden, and the overall will of God is to bring about goodness in and for all human beings. The mustard seed of the Good News brought by Jesus redeems the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Isaiah 61:11 For as the earth brings forth her bud and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.
Jeremiah 31:12 Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together to the goodness of the Lord, for wheat, and for wine, and for oil, and for the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all.
Ezekiel 36:35 And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities fenced and inhabited.