Parables tell seemingly ordinary stories with a surprising twist – like a mustard seed tree!– that make us stop and reflect for a moment and maybe see things in a new way. The quotation from the prophetic writing in the middle of the chapter suggests that there will always be those who will hear but do not understand, or perhaps even those who CHOOSE not to understand.
We had a group Zoom call this week for those of us who were on the Come and See trip to the Holy Land in November, and we were sharing stories of our time since we got home. One of the participants, Sherrill, was telling the group about a gathering with some friends who had asked her about her trip. One of the things she told them about was our meeting with Military Court Watch, an organization that monitors the arrest, illegal detention and confinement of Palestinian children under the Israeli occupation. Children are taken away in the night without their parents or guardians – sometimes awakening to find armed soldiers standing over their beds! They are blindfolded, handcuffed or zap-strapped and taken to detainment centres where they are questioned without any legal representation and threatened, including threats against their parents and even threats of sexual assault in some cases. They are held for hours, days or more and forced to sign confessions of stone-throwing or something similar. The confessions are written in Hebrew, which they do not read, so they don’t know what they’re signing. Then they are take away from the prison and dumped off, often far from home.
Adolescent boys are especially targeted, but we even met an 8 year old girl who was supposed to be arrested for dripping water – by accident – on some Israeli children who were playing in one of the illegal settlements. Her home was above the settlement playground and she was taking a drink of water on a hot day. Soldiers were sent to arrest her and take her away, but when the whole neighbourhood resisted, the young conscripts gave up. I don’t think their hearts were in it anyway!
Sherrill shared these stories, and one of her friends flat-out refused to believe her. It didn’t matter that we had been there and she had not, or that we had met the people involved and she had not. To believe what she had been told would have shaken her worldview, so she closed her ears and her heart and preferred to assume that her friend was lying to her. The frustration and disappointment in Sherrill’s voice was clear. I wonder if Jesus got that frustrated? When he went off on his own to talk to God, did he complain about how people “just didn’t want to know”? Or like the reading today implies, did he tell stories in such a way that only those who had the capacity to follow him could understand them?
Verses 10-12 suggest that that those who know Jesus closely (the disciples) will understand better than those on the outside. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it’s not. Even Jesus is surprised sometimes that the disciples “just don’t get it”; and there are times when the disciples are baffled but those who are enemies of Jesus understand perfectly well – and don’t like what they hear.
Parables generally don’t come with an explanation. They’re more like a Zen Koan – you’re supposed to let it speak to you, not have it explained to you. Be that as it may, we’re told that Jesus is talking about “the word of God” – the message God gave him to share with the people. Some will hear, some will not. Some will follow for a while, and then give up because wrongdoing is more attractive, or because Jesus’ way is too challenging, or because their lives are just too busy or complicated or they’re too worried about getting ahead to make room for God’s good news. Some, though, will hear – and they will change the world. They will share the good news; they will let people know what God’s reign of justice and love is about; they will have a much greater impact than anyone could expect. The truth of these parables has been shown in the 2000 year impact of a religion that started with a Jewish preacher and a handful of men and women in a Roman provincial backwater, and grew to encompass the world.
What is the nature of this world-changing news? We get some hints in the next proverbs: what you give to others is what you will receive back, and more so; AND those who have nothing will have everything taken away. What? Come again? There’s that unexpected twist. We’ve heard it said, and some of us have experienced, that one receives more in giving generously than in receiving – so that first part isn’t too confusing. But the second?
I wonder if the thing we have or don’t have isn’t money or possessions, but the Word of God alive in our hearts. If we are allowing God to work in us daily, then God will work in and through us even more. If we have nothing – if we are closed to God’s will, God’s work, and God’s blessing – we will have even less than nothing. The Kingdom of God – God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven – is powerful. It can grow from the smallest seed into a mighty tree. But if we don’t have room for it – if we’re hard soil or rocky ground, or we let our lives or our priorities choke out the word in us – then nothing will come of God’s word. It takes the willing human heart, directing human brains and muscles and sinew and bone, to cooperate with God in the remaking of the world. One of the things that stands out in Mark’s Gospel is that there are occasions when Jesus could not do what Mark calls, “Works of power” – because people simply didn’t believe in him (e.g. Mark 6:6). There’s a bigger lesson there: that we have to cooperate with the will of God for it to be fulfilled. God CAN make things happen without us – but generally speaking, God doesn’t.
Some people think believing in God is a way of abdicating responsibility for the world. Being a Christian is actually the reverse. In following Jesus we are taking on his work of healing human hearts and bodies, blessing creation, including the marginalized, welcoming the outcast, challenging evil systems, confronting wrongdoing, sharing the good news of God’s great love for us and for the world, practicing forgiveness of sins and reconciliation of humanity. That would be a tall order if it were just another form of activism – but it’s more than that. We’re working with the Holy Spirit, the ongoing presence of Christ among us, who moves in us and others each and every day.
With the Word of God planted in your heart, what is your response to the realities of this day and this week? To the Ukrainian plane downed by accident? To the wildfires in Australia or the volcano eruption in the Philippines? To the incarceration of children in occupied Palestine? To the people without permanent shelter who have weathered a week of frigid temperatures? To the growing number of attacks on LGBTQ2S+ people, especially trans women? To your friend whose mother just passed away or your colleague who has been diagnosed with cancer? To your child you who is struggling at school or your spouse who is driving you around the bend?
What seeds has the Spirit planted in you today? What seeds will you plant in our communities this week? May the Word of God dwell in you and shape your living. Amen.