October 29, 2017
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Parables of the Kingdom
In our scripture today, we find Jesus teaching the crowd through parables. Jesus was a master storyteller. In using parables, Jesus started from the here and now to get to the there and then. He started from a thing that was happening at that moment on earth in order to lead people’s thoughts to heaven. He started from something which everyone could see to get to the things that are invisible. He started from something which everyone knew to get to something which no one had ever realized. This was the essence of his teaching.
By teaching in parables, Jesus shows that he believes there is a real kinship between earth and heaven. He believes that in the ordinary, common, everyday things of life it is possible to see God. In Romans 1:20 Paul writes: For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. In other words, “If you wish to see God, look around you.”
You must also understand that parables are spontaneous. They are given in the moment as teaching examples and are unrehearsed. Jesus would look around and seek a point of contact with the crowd. For example, Jesus sees the sower in a nearby field and on the spur of the moment that sower becomes his text. Parables are produced by the demand of the occasion and in the midst of debate.
And lastly, we have to remember that parables are meant to be heard and not read. They are heard once and only once. They are not allegories, where every detail of the story has some great significance. Parables are meant to bring out a great idea that will shine like a flash of lightning.
And so, in our scripture today, we find the parables of the sower, the lamp on a stand, the growing seed, and the mustard seed. Would you pray with me?
From the time we started reading Chapter 2 in the Gospel of Mark to now, there has been opposition to the ministry of Jesus. It runs the gamut from people questioning his ministry in their hearts, to the scribes and Pharisees openly questioning his teachings and healings, to finally, the religious leaders plotting on how to destroy Jesus. We have seen the hostility of the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Herodians and the misunderstanding of the people and even his own family. But Jesus perseveres in his ministry, especially in his teaching. This is the fundamental form of his ministry which provides the context for the exorcisms and healings. These are the signs of the Kingdom of God.
It is against this background of struggle and conflict that these parables must be heard. They are signs of the Kingdom in which the living Word brings to light the hardness of heart, blindness, and deafness of the crowds and the religious leaders around Jesus.
As our scripture opens, Jesus is once again teaching by the Sea of Galilee. The crowd is so large that he is in a boat and the people are gathered along the lakeshore. The way the hills slope to the water around Galilee, this makes a natural amphitheater for the crowd. As Jesus is talking, he sees a sower busy sowing seed in the fields beside the lake. Using this parable, Jesus is helping the disciples understand why he is not impressed by the large crowds that are following him. Jesus knows that most of them will never produce fruit from changed lives, because the Word he is teaching them is like seed falling into poor soil.
The first thing Jesus says is “Listen!” He wants these people to understand that what he is about to say is a matter of ultimate importance. It commands the total response of the hearer’s life to the revelation of the Kingdom of God. And so, after telling the parable, Jesus explains it to his disciples. The seed represents God’s Word and the sower is the servant of God who shares that Word with others. Jesus wants us to understand that the human heart is like soil: it must be prepared to receive the seed before that seed can take root and produce a harvest. Like seed, the Word is alive and able to produce spiritual fruit, but the seed must be planted and cultivated before that harvest will come.
Just like in Jesus’ time, we today can recognize four kinds of hearts and how they respond to God’s message in four different ways. First, there is the “hard heart.” The hard heart resists the Word of God and makes it easy for Satan, represented by the birds, to snatch it away. People who recklessly “open their hearts” to all kinds of people and influences are in danger of developing hard hearts.
Then there is the “shallow heart.” This heart is like thin soil on a rock, which is very typical to Palestine. Since there is no depth, whatever is planted can’t last because it has no roots. This shallow heart represents the emotional hearer who joyfully accepts God’s Word but does not really understand the price that must be paid to become a genuine Christian. Warren Wiersbe says in his commentary on Mark that “there may be great enthusiasm for several days or weeks; but when persecution and difficulties begin the enthusiasm wanes and the joy disappears.”
Third, there is the “crowded heart.” This heart is of a person who receives the Word but doesn’t truly repent and remove the “weeds” out of his or her heart. This hearer has too many different kinds of seeds growing in the soil, like worldly cares, a desire for riches, or a lust for things, and so, the good seed of the Word has no room in which to grow.
And lastly, there is the “fruitful heart.” This is the heart of a believer who bears fruit, that is, they have a changed life, the evidence of true salvation. Second Corinthians 5:17 reads, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! And Paul writes in Galatians 5:22, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The other three hearts produce no fruit. They belong to persons who have never been born again. To each of these fruitless hearts there is an enemy, it could be the devil himself, it could be counterfeit religious feelings, or it could be the things of the world that smother growth and prevent a harvest. But in every genuine Christian’s life, there will be some evidence of spiritual fruit. Just think, the crowds must have been astounded to hear this teaching.
As we move on to verses 21-25, we can discern four different pithy sayings, one right after another. These four different sayings are found scattered among the verses in the Gospel of Matthew, but here in Mark, they are in quick succession. In the first, the parable of the lamp, Jesus uses a common object, the lamp, in a familiar scene, the home.
Now the lamp is a clay dish filled with oil, with a wick put into the oil. In order to give light, the lamp had to “use itself up,” and the oil had to be replenished. If the lamp is not lit, or if it is covered up, it does the home no good. Jesus wants his apostle to know that they are like that lamp: they are called to shed God’s light and reveal His truth. But like the oil in the lamp that needs to be replenished, the apostles cannot give out unless they first take in the teachings Jesus has to share. To Jesus, truth and Christianity are meant to be seen, even though it might lead to death, which was a great possibility in the Roman Empire.
And then Jesus said, “Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” Folks, truth cannot ultimately be hidden. There is something about truth which is indestructible. Some people may refuse to face it; they may try to suppress it; they may even try to obliterate it; they may refuse to accept it, but truth is truth and in the end, it will prevail.
When Adam and Eve broke the commandment of God, their first instinct was to hide. But truth has a way of emerging. We cannot have any secrets from God. And like Adam and Eve, all will be revealed in the presence of God.
Then Jesus said, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and even more.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, our getting will be determined by our giving. For example, this is true in our study of the Bible. The more we dig deeply into the scriptures the more we will learn and the better we can live our lives. This is also true in our worship. The more we bring to the worship of God’s house, the more we will get from it. We must come to worship prepared to give, remembering that worship is a corporate act, and that each of us can contribute something to it. We need to come expecting to meet God. And we should come hoping to see our reflection in other people. If we wish others to love us, we must first love them. If we wish to have friends, then we must show ourselves to be friendly. Our getting is determined by our giving.
And lastly, Jesus said, Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is the law of increase. For example, the more we know the more we are capable of knowing. The more knowledge we have, the more we can acquire. If we are not out to increase our knowledge, then the knowledge we have now will soon slip from our grasp. The Jewish teachers had an expression that said that the scholar should be treated like a young heifer, because every day a little heavier burden should be laid upon him.
The law of increase is also true of our effort. The more physical strength we have, the more, within the limits of our bodily frame, we can acquire. The more we train our bodies, the more our bodies will be able to do. The more we develop a skill of the hand, eye, or mind, the better we are. If we never try anything new, we will soon find that we are stuck in a job with no progress.
The law of increase is also true with the ability to bear responsibility. The more responsibility we take on, the more we are able to bear; the more decisions we compel ourselves to take, the better we are able to take them. Jesus said these things because he knew they would affect our lives as we live out the purpose God has for us.
As we come to the conclusion of our scripture today in verses 26-34, with the growing seed and the mustard seed, Jesus reminds us of two things. First, that we can’t make the seed grow. In fact, we can’t even explain how it grows. There is a mystery to the growth of the seed and the development of the harvest. You and I know that it takes a good deal of faith to be a farmer, and also a good deal of patience. Even though Jesus explained in the first parable that much of the seed that is scattered would never be productive, he doesn’t want to discourage his workers. And so, he reassures them that in due season the grain will ripen and there will be good harvest. In God’s time, people will repent and believe.
But please, understand this, we can only tell people about the good news of Jesus Christ, but we cannot bring them to faith in him. Only God can do that through the work of the Holy Spirit. People must choose to believe and through some mystery, much like the growth of the seed, the Holy Spirit brings people to Christ.
And with that, the parable of the mustard seed gives the disciples both warning and encouragement. The encouragement is this: from very small beginnings, God’s kingdom will eventually grow in size and in influence. The mustard seed was a traditional symbol of that which is tiny. But look what has happened. Jesus begins with twelve apostles. Later, there are 500 believers. Peter won 3,000 at Pentecost and throughout the Book of Acts the number of believers steadily increases. And now, the good news is carried to every point on earth.
But the warning is this: as Christianity continues to grow and grow there will always be those pesky birds ready to snatch the seed. The growth of Christianity will give the opportunity for Satan to get in and go to work. After all, there was Judas in the small band of disciples, there was Ananias and Sapphira in the early Jerusalem church, and there were Satan’s ministers who invaded the Corinthian church. In fisherman’s terms, as the net gets bigger, the greater the possibility of catching both good and bad fish. But know this, despite the attempts of Satan, the Kingdom of God will continue to grow.
In all of these parables, the benefit for us is that Jesus has an inner circle to whom he could really and fully explain the things of the kingdom. What is miraculous is that we can still listen in on Jesus’ teachings even today! We should not forget what we have learned here today from these scriptures, but we should quietly think them over until we discover what they mean for our life and for our living. If we are to learn from Christ, then we are to keep company with Christ. It is through his teachings that we win in life itself.