What Good Fathers Know: Reflections on the Seed Parables in Mark 4:26-34
As opposed to the pomp and puffed up power favored by the empires of the world, Mark uses seed metaphors to help us discern God's presence and work (kingdom or reign) in small, surprising places.
In the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26-29), the seeds are a good image for a mysterious reality whose growth occurs without our instigation and often without our knowledge.
In the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32; Matthew 13; 31-32; Luke 13:19), the smallness of the mustard seed—characterized as the smallest of all seeds—is contrasted with the size of the final tree. Parables paint scenes from the natural world but always with a strange twist or incongruous detail. They are, to quote C.H. Dodd's definition, "realistic, yet strange." The fact is that the mustard seed doesn't really grow into a tree but a large bush. This extravagant detail is meant to remind us of the kingdom of God. While it has small beginnings, the results are surprising.
The phrase "the birds of the air nested in its branches (or shade)" is a clue that connects this parable with several Old Testament passages where trees are used as metaphors for nations. Israel is depicted as a noble cedar in Ezekiel 17:22-24—"In the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind" (v. 23). Assyria (Ezekiel 31:6) and Babylonia (Daniel 4:12) are both portrayed using the metaphor of a cedar tree. They are lofty and proud, but pride will lead to their downfall. The righteous person who trusts in God is compared to a flourishing tree in Psalms 1:3, 92:13-15, and Jeremiah 17:7-8. (Donahue, 37)
Parables, rather than simple stories with one point, are complex scenarios that can evoke all kinds of connections with other texts. The humble mustard seed that becomes a shrub could make us think of God's care for us like a flourishing tree. Likewise, it could turn our minds to the fact that the mustard shrub is not going to be like the mighty trees or empires of former times, which grew through power and violence.
A scruffy shrub seems like an odd choice as a metaphor for God's kingdom when one could have chosen a magnificent cedar. Jesus' parables call his audience to expect the in-breaking of God's reign into our ordinary daily lives. They also call us to remember that the kingdom of God has its own time and rate of growth. They call us, in John R. Donahue's words, "to look beyond what we see to what we hope for."(Donahue, 38) That's what loving fathers do with regard to their children.
In Mark's gospel several characters, who are insignificant and not even disciples, are praised for their faith. The disciples, as we've seen, often fall short. These commendable cameos include the paralytic's friends (2:1-5), the Gerasene demoniac (5:19-20), Bartimaeus (10:52), the scribe (12:34), the woman with the ointment (14:3-9), women disciples at the crucifixion (15:40-41), and Joseph of Arimathea (15:43). (See: Larry W. Hurtado's essay, "Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark—and Beyond," in Longenecker's Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 21.) These persons are, in a way, living parables. They are examples of mustard seeds, which grow into examples of faith that can nurture future would-be disciples.
We 21st-century types want our lives to be full of successes and significance. We want our children to be impressive to the world around us. Jesus calls on us to have more patience with and respect for failure, hiddenness, and insignificance. They point beyond themselves toward the reality of the kingdom of God already in our midst. There is a message there for all of us in our relationships with one another today, not just fathers.
Stephen C. Barton, The Spirituality of the Gospels (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992).
John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parable (Fortress Press, 1988).
Richard Longenecker, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament (Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996).
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Fortress Press, 2002).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.