Proper 6 · Mark 4:26-34 · June 14, 2009
By Thomas Egger
Mark 4 begins and ends with references to Jesus as a teacher (4:1, 4:38). Yet it is clear from the central theme of his teaching (the kingdom of God) and from his authority over wind and sea that Jesus is much more than a teacher. In his words and works, the end-time reign of God is being “planted” in the world. A new age has begun and soon will come “fully”—the full grain in the ear and the tall and sprawling mustard bush of these Mark 4 parables.
The kingdom of God
This coming kingdom is not a New Testament innovation. It is the fulfillment (1:14) of God’s promise to restore David’s kingdom forever (Mk 11:10). It is the promised goal for which the hearts of all pious Israelites had long been longing (e.g., Joseph of Arimathea, Mark 15:43). That this reign of God is present in and established by the person and work of Jesus is accented by the kingly portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s passion narratives (15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32).
Jesus’ own preaching is summarized: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:14). Although the kingdom is “at hand” and the reference to “those outside” in 4:11 perhaps suggests that the disciples are (already) inside the kingdom, elsewhere Jesus can say that the disciples will see the kingdom come in power (9:1), that he will drink of the fruit of the vine anew in the kingdom of God. At the heart of our two parables lies this tension between the present dawning of God’s reign in Jesus and the continued longing for its fullness, still to come.
The rhetorical goal of the parables, then, is to encourage weary or doubting Christians. As surely as Christ has come, as surely as he has died and risen again, as surely as his Gospel word is being planted in the world, so certain is the eternal, joyous, secure, righteous kingdom of God which is coming. Though it may take many “days and nights,” though Christ’s work in his church may now seem “small,” be sure that the harvest will come and that we will be given a place to “nest” in God’s presence forever.
The automatic seed (verses 26-29)
This parable portrays a farmer who broadcasted his seed (βαλη)-subjunctive aorist) and then keeps on sleeping and arising (καθευδη και εγειρηται-subjunctive present) while the seed goes about sprouting and growing. This miracle in the earth simply happens, as a matter of course, automatically (αυτοματη), so that the seed’s “fruit” is produced (καρποφορει). The farmer “knows not how” all this happens (v. 27), yet he is confident that a seed, when planted, will grow. Seeds just do that.
So it is with the full fruit of God’s coming reign. The work of Jesus and, especially in Mark 4, the words of Jesus (Mk 4:14) are being sown. There is no question that the harvest will soon follow. Verse 29 borrows imagery of eschatological harvest from Joel 3:12-14. This parable also contains significant linguistic and theological ties with Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1; and 27:2-6.
The context of Mark 4 pushes towards an identification of the “seed” with the word of the Gospel. To this, passages such as 1 Corinthians 3:6-9 and 1 Peter 1:23 could be added. Another interpretive possibility is to identify the seed (σπορος) with the dying and rising of Christ (note εγειρω in v.27 and cf. John 12:24). Ultimately, the saving work of Christ and the saving word which proclaims and bestows it go together. The planting of the Gospel word of the kingdom, so full of Christ and his saving death and resurrection, will not be in vain.
The mustard seed (verses 30-32)
As in the previous parable, the mustard seed contains the promise of its end: the full plant. In addition, this parable warns against despising the seed for its smallness. The cross may be foolishness, the means of grace unimpressive—but they are bringing about the end-time restoration of God’s reign among his redeemed people!
Old Testament allusions are strong here. God’s end-time reign as an enormous tree is emphasized in Ezekiel 17:23 and 31:6. Jesus’ language also echoes the description of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingship in Daniel 4:12, 21. Just as significant, perhaps, is the king’s vision and its interpretation in Daniel 2:31-45. The great, layered statue represents a succession of powerful kingdoms, but in the end a mere stone (small as a mustard seed?) strikes the statue, breaks it to pieces, and then grows into a great mountain which fills the whole world. This stone is the kingdom of “the God of heaven” which shall “break in pieces” all other kingdoms and which shall “stand forever” (Dn 2:44).
Suggested sermon outline
I. When God will be king forever!
A. The joy and beauty of the kingdom Christ has prepared for us
B. The “seeds” from which this kingdom are growing
1. Jesus’ saving life, death, and resurrection
2. Jesus’ continuing work through his Word
A. The church’s failures (as if we must make the seed grow)
1. Startling statistics regarding church decline
2. We mill about in the garden, lurking over the seeds, wringing our hands about what we can do to make them grow
B. Competing kingdoms (as if Christ’s kingdom is too small to really matter)
1. The greatness of nations, national interests, national events—the life of the church is marginalized
2. The glamour of a modern godless culture—reality television and supermarket tabloids garner much more attention than the church
3. The success of other religions and false Christianities—compare the annual budget of the Mormons with the LCMS!
4. The largest threat of all: the reign of me! Every day I am turning from the light of God’s reign to the darkness of life as my own king!
A. The parable of the automatic seed (as reply to ΙΙ.a.)
B. The parable of the mustard seed (as reply to IΙ.b.)