June 16, 2024

The Mustard Seed

The Mustard Seed

Sunday 16 June 3rd After Trinity
Readings: Ez. 17. 22-end; 2 Cor. 5. 6-17; Mk. 4. 26-34
Theme: The Mustard Seed

Over the coming weeks of ordinary time, we will be reading the gospel of Mark and so today, I would like to mention a few of the key characteristics of this gospel. The first thing to mention is that this gospel is generally considered to be the earliest of the four gospels. As we have four gospels it is always good to remember that coming to know Jesus through the gospels is never a monochrome experience. The very fact that we have four gospels written for four different communities and so from four different perspectives indicates that the picture that has been transmitted to us of Jesus from the New Testament is one which adopts different colours in each of the gospel writers. In the case of the gospel of Mark, we can single out four key characteristics which St Mark emphasizes: The personality (identity) of Jesus, his actions, what he taught and what others said about him. An overarching theme of St Mark is that Jesus must die and suffer and through this, his true identity as the Son of God will be revealed (Mk. 15.39).

This is why Mark places a good deal of emphasis on the cycles of nature in his account of Jesus. In our gospel passage today, we are guided by St Mark through the analogies that he uses to express the meaning of the kingdom of God which Jesus came to preach. Mark takes the experience of agriculture as his framework for talking about Jesus and his mission as this would have been one which was very familiar to his readers. The image of the seed becomes an analogy to speak about the identity of Jesus, the meaning of his actions, his teachings and the reactions of others to these. Let’s look at how this plays out in our gospel passage for today.

What does this seed image tell us about the identity of Jesus? It tells us a number of key things. First, it reveals that it initially appears as quite small. As we hear it in today’s gospel passage, it, ‘is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth’. In other words, the identity of Jesus is one which is somewhat surprising. He seems so ordinary, and indeed he is very ordinary, yet, just like the mustard seed, when he is buried in the earth, which is an analogy for the death of Jesus, he will become, just like the mustard tree, the largest of all, so that, ‘all the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’. In using this analogy of the mustard seed, Jesus is revealed as the one who is the Son of God. The one who became small for us, so that through his death and resurrection, we could shelter in the branches of his universal offer of salvation.

The second thing which is revealed by this analogy of the seed is that the very actions of Jesus are like the sower who ‘scatters seed on the ground’. These seeds, whether they be healings, miracles, or eating with sinners, convey to us the meaning of the message of salvation. The salvation given by Jesus is scattered throughout the world and it sinks into the minds are hearts of those who receive it gradually. It takes times to receive it as the process of reception is one which needs time to germinate. This is why people do not often understand what he is doing and Jesus has to explain things to his disciples in private, as we are told in today’s gospel passage.

This notion of scattering seed is why Jesus would only speak to people in parables or stories. A story is something that you have to inhabit for yourself to understand otherwise you never properly understand its meaning. You might think of the literary genre of the parables as akin to jokes. In order to get the joke a certain process of inhabiting the story being told needs to happen. A joke is not really something that someone can explain to you, because in so doing, you miss the point of it, which is to inhabit the story for yourself. This is why when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he spoke in parables, because the kingdom is something one needs to experience for oneself in order to understand what it is about.

This brings us to the third characteristic emphasized by St Mark in his gospel, namely, the significance of his teachings. Jesus teaches by example. He does not teach in a theoretical way, but rather embodies his teachings in what he does. Life and message are one for Jesus. This is why Jesus uses so many images for the normal life of the people of his time, like farming and sowing seeds and so on. These familiar images are used as analogies to communicate his teachings in a language that would have been familiar to his hearers at the time. Just like the seeds that are sown in the ground, it seems as if for a long time nothing is happening. It is only when things begin to emerge from beneath the ground, that is to say are revealed, that one can understand the process of growth that was happening all along. Jesus’s teachings are like this. They appear to be dormant for a while, but during this time they are taking root in us and develop into a faith that has a solidity to it we never realized was there all along.

This leads us to the final characteristic outlined by St Mark. The reactions of others to this message are often one of rejection or of a failure to comprehend. It seems as if nothing of note is really happening, the hoped for dramatic change seems not to arrive. But the patience of the disciple is required and only when this is in place can the message truly overcome our resistances to it. Yes, the reaction to Jesus initiates a resistance to it. It is as if the message of eternal life must fight with the message of eternal death in order to finally win through by allowing itself to be defeated in the cross. However, when Jesus allows himself to be defeated, he is revealed for who he truly is, namely, the one who turns defeat into victory and death into eternal life.

St Mark guide us over these coming weeks to come to a deeper knowledge of Jesus, so that through the seeds scattered in us by your gospel, we may share in the life of his eternal kingdom.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.