+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
After three weeks of reading Mark’s breathless account of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, today’s text brings the action to a halt. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus spends a full day speaking to the growing crowd that has begun to follow him, using what is undoubtedly his signature teaching tool: the parable. Parables sometimes defy description, but generally speaking they are short stories or sayings that draw on familiar images or common patterns of thinking and behavior and use them to convey deeper truths about life, the world, or the divine. The parables of Jesus are no exception: his stories make reference to everyday tasks like sowing seed and lighting lamps, but they speak about far more profound realities – the kingdom or reign of God, the spread of God’s word, and the nature of truth and revelation.
It’s important to note that Jesus isn’t the only person in history to teach in parables. He is, however, perhaps the most well-known, and his parables are among the most well-known in human history. As a result, those of us who have heard these parables many times are prone to thinking that we have them figured out. That thinking has become even more acute in recent times, as modern people have come to have what my wife would refer to as “an intense need to know.” What are these parables all about? What do the figures in these stories and sayings represent? How are we to understand what Jesus is trying to say to his disciples and to us through the use of parables?
One possible way of answering those questions is to read what Jesus himself says about them, since in addition to the parables themselves, Mark also records Jesus’ teaching about the purpose of these stories:
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven…’ Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mark 4:11-12, 24-25)
That’s not much better, is it? If you’re looking for clear and unambiguous information about these parables, Jesus isn’t offering it. Like the practice of secrecy regarding his ministry that we talked about two weeks ago, Jesus’ use of parables seems to consistently defy our expectations and run contrary to our ways of thinking and doing. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the first parable that appears here in chapter four: the so-called “parable of the sower.” In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a farmer going out to sow seed in his field. Most often when we read about the sower, we operate under the assumption that God is the farmer, that the seed is the word of God, and that the various types of soil represent different people who have differing responses to receiving that seed (or hearing that word). But here, as in very few other places, Jesus presents us with an explanation for his parable, and – at least to me – it doesn’t make figuring out what God is up to any easier. Suddenly, in Jesus’ explanation, people are seeds, our life-circumstances are different types of soil that change our ability to be responsive to the word of God – which, in this explanation at least, isn’t represented by anything concrete – and there’s no key to finding out who or what the farmer is at all.
Then, as if the internal inconsistency of this parable isn’t enough, Jesus tells another agricultural parable that completely flips the script. In this one, a man sows some seed in his field, lets that seed grow (seemingly without supervision), and then reaps the harvest. There’s nothing about different types of soil, different yields, or different seeds. There are no barriers to growth. The seed is planted and it yields a harvest. And so it goes. The kingdom of heaven is compared to a person going out to sow; or to what happens when a different man plants seed in his field; or to a particular kind of seed; or (if we were to look at other gospels) to a woman kneading yeast into dough, a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, or another woman looking for a lost coin, or a man with two sons.
There are no easy answers here. Perhaps that’s the point: that parables are designed to keep us from thinking that we have a corner on the truth. In a way, then, they accord exactly with our lives, which are inherently messy and don’t often lend themselves to the kind of simple cause-and-effect explanations that we seem to crave. They teach us that God’s work can be made known in the invisible and the hidden, as well as in the bright and beautiful signs that reveal the kingdom’s presence among us. They teach us that God’s word inevitably brings a harvest of righteousness and knowledge to the world, even as they teach that we have a role to play in either resisting or welcoming that word into our lives. They teach us that God sometimes uses ambiguity to reveal the truth, that people and things are complicated and compromised and yet capable of being used as instruments of God’s will and signs of God’s kingdom. But even more, the broader setting of Mark’s Gospel reveals that even those who have been given the secret of the kingdom can still find understanding elusive.*
I admit that it sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. But I think it’s important that in a world in which easy answers and simple solutions are demanded and offered left and right, we recognize that the world is complex, and that God by nature must be infinitely more complex. That doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about the world or about God. It just means that we have to recognize both our limitations and God’s unlimited possibility. It means that when parables in particular (and the Scriptures more broadly) become comfortable for us, there’s a good chance that we’re not reckoning sufficiently with mystery. In fact, I’m convinced that some of the most faithful and faith-filled responses to life’s most difficult questions begin with the phrase, “I don’t know…”
We can’t stop there, of course. Jesus tells us as much in the middle of this reading – not in the most transparent way, of course, but he says it nonetheless: Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you. (Mark 4:24) Jesus indeed calls us to seek deeply and pursue knowledge and understanding and truth, and promises that they will be given to us, but he also makes it clear that those things will come to us in God’s time and in accordance with God’s agenda, not our own.
Brothers and sisters, today’s reading may strike you as unsatisfying, but it also communicates an important lesson for us as people of faith (and, to be honest, simply as people). The statement “God works in mysterious ways” is more than a throw-away phrase to be used when something we don’t expect happens to us or someone we know. It is a profound truth about our world which brings both consternation and comfort to us as we try each day to follow Jesus and to serve God and our neighbors. To us has been given the secret of the kingdom: may God grant us the patience to dwell with ambiguity and uncertainty, the strength to persist in pursuing the truth, and the grace to recognize that truth when it comes to us. Amen.
* I am indebted in this analysis of parables to many commentators, but particularly to Amy-Jill Levine and her book Short Stories by Jesus.