Mark 4: 26-34
Last week I spoke about the story of Adam and Eve and the rich history of storytelling which is recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. This week we are again with story, the stories of Jesus, his parables, which are both shaped by his Jewish upbringing and bring something new.
As with Genesis, we are talking here about a live, interactive format. The word “parable” is lifted from the Greek and contains the idea of an arc, of something tossed out, to attract the attention of an audience, something playful. The commentator CH Dodd defines a parable as:
“A metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
Jesus’ parables were often a prelude to a discussion – especially where he was with a smaller group of the disciples, but also where he found himself in debate, often hostile, with other religious leaders. The reactions, where they are recorded in the gospels, are often ones of astonishment – “who then can be saved?” for example. And in the case of the religious leaders, who recognise the threat against their authority, anger. Whatever we can say about these stories, they are not boring, or obvious, or pompous.
In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel we find two parables of the Kingdom of Heaven, both stories about seeds. And they come immediately after that more famous parable of the sower and the four different types of seed.
The first gives an unusual perspective on the life of an arable farmer. Many might take the view that the key to success and a good harvest was the hard work they put in, to preparing the ground, and tending their crops. But wait a minute, Jesus says. Here is a farmer and look, the seed grows just as fast whether he is at work or asleep in his bed – all by itself. Its growth is not directed by him. He doesn’t even know how it happens. It just does. What might this say about the Kingdom of Heaven?
The second describes the mustard seed, drawing out also the mystery of growth: how can a plant so large come from a seed so tiny? There is a similarity here with the fourth of the sower’s four seeds, which falls on good soil, and grows as much as 100-fold.
And so as I read these stories, I am left with a question: Does that relationship we take for granted in daily life, between effort and reward, between resources applied and result, does it then not apply in the spiritual realm?
What I can say is that this linkage, between effort and reward, is deeply engrained in us. Looking back, I recall how it was hammered into me in the early years of my education.
A few years ago I found, in my father’s papers, my early school reports, which he had kept, and where effort, or the lack of it, is a continuing theme. Here they are. They make interesting reading, brining back memories! Here are just a few extracts:
At 8: He must not be so easily contented with untidy writing.
He is very untidy at times unless ruthlessly checked.
At 9: At a generous count, 34 of his mistakes in the examination could be attributed to carelessness.
His work is often illegible and badly punctuated.
I enjoy his company, but am equally convinced that he could make a much greater effort.
At 10: It soon became apparent this term that he would have to be harassed. He was.
We have, rather too frequently, had words about his presentation and lack of care…the velvet glove will have to be removed if he doesn’t take appeasing action.
Typical of him to ease off towards the end…
At 11: His promising exam result has served to highlight the mediocrity of much of his term’s work.
There are criticisms of his efforts in nearly every report…
What comes back to me as I read these is the unrelenting campaign, waged over years, to impress on me the need to work hard, and then my younger self, heavily outnumbered, slowly giving in. But, for good or ill, the message sunk in and has become a part of me: that in life, if you want good results, you have to put in the work.
And so, coming back to these parables, I struggle with the radical suggestion that, the growth in God’s kingdom, his presence, his activity in the world, is not dependent at all on our effort, that God’s presence with us, his love for us is in no sense a reward for human effort. That perhaps God’s loving, creative activity in the world is utterly outside our control or influence, far greater, far more pervasive than we can see or imagine, a mystery we cannot fathom.
This week I have been reviewing a business plan for a company I am on the board of, which is aiming for 6-fold growth over 4 years. And all the detail of actions and deliverables is there, all the inputs of effort and skill required to meet those targets.
I am convinced that the church cannot be like that, that God’s work in the world cannot be seen or managed in those terms. And so I see our calling as to pray, to listen, to notice and above all to learn how to love and accept love, with God and with each other, trusting that the working out of that love will be good, that a natural response of action will follow.
And yet maybe, in its practical outworking, it is not completely either or? Maybe the church could use just a little management effort? And maybe my business could use a little prayer and contemplation, a sense of the mystery of growth?
Richard Young (Rector)