All Saints Margaret Street

Sermons

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High Mass - Third after Trinity

Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses

Reading:  Ezekiel 17.22-end; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4. 26-34 

“With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (Mark 4.34)

All over the world today, Christians have been hearing or will hear, Jesus telling us these parables of the seed which grows in secret and the tiny mustard seed which grows into a great bush.  And preachers have stood or will stand in pulpits with the daunting task of explaining to latter-day disciples, if not everything, at least something of what Jesus means.    

In today's Gospel, Mark draws his description of Jesus' teaching in parables to a conclusion. He looks back to Jesus' teaching of the crowds and the disciples with “parables” beside the sea. 

We often assume that parables, these “everyday stories of country folk,” make things clearer for such simple souls, by using vivid and concrete pictures from everyday life. 

But the disciples were mostly such simple folk too. They had not been trained in the law of God and its interpretation. Mark portrays them as a pretty dim lot, and Jesus has to explain the parables to them in private. 

To complicate matters further, Mark has Jesus say a little earlier, when he is explaining the parable of the sower to the disciples: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven.” 

So what are we to make of parables if they are clearly more than teaching aids for the uneducated?  

The word “parable” comes from the Greek word ballo, meaning “throw, place, put,” and para, which means “alongside of.”  So a parable puts one thing alongside another, to make a comparison: “The kingdom of God is like.....the kingdom of heaven can be compared to.....”   

So far, that seems quite straightforward, but the Greek word was also used to translate a Hebrew one mashal, which means a “riddle, a fable, a darkly mysterious saying.”  So a parable both makes clear by its concreteness and makes things mysterious by its riddling character.  It captures our attention by its vividness or strangeness but it also leaves us in sufficient doubt about its precise applications to tease or prod our minds into active thought.  

Parables then are comparisons that take ordinary elements of human experience - farmers, seeds and so on - and put them together in odd ways that challenge our ordinary ways of thinking and lead us to look at the world afresh. Jesus' parables seek to draw out such a radical shift in the way we see the world and live our lives. If we are to make the world a little more like God's reign, then we must start acting and thinking differently, and parables push us in the right direction, towards faith, and that is something human argument alone cannot bring us to. 

And for that we need “ears to hear,” which is the case just as much for the disciples, to whom Jesus explains things in private, as it is for the crowds.  There is a level of obscurity, of mystery in the parable and only the attentive ear of the believer can penetrate that obscurity.  Being “inside” does not lessen the challenge to listen to the word of Jesus with faith.  

So the first step in attempting to make sense should be a humble silence, what Paul calls, “the fear of the Lord,” a reverence before God, a refusal to jump to conclusions, a persevering willingness to listen and look; a readiness to learn more. These stories which seem so simple should not be forced into boxes of our making.  These “dark sayings” are not just improving tales intended to promote desirable religious or moral behaviour. 

The parables may have a deceptive charm, but there is nothing cute about them. Their accessibility lulls hearers into dropping our guard just long enough to realize that “the gospel of God” (1.14) has invaded our world to convict us of our own blindness, deafness and spiritual hardness of arteries and heart. (4.12).The parables cannot be evaded: they put us on the spot and force decisions. 

Jesus does not talk in direct analytical terms about the kingdom's character.  His descriptions are allusive, “truth told on the slant” as the American poet Emily Dickinson put it.  And so, parables, like poems, are things we “have ears to hear” needing to read and re-read, hear and hear again, ponder and re-ponder.  

Like the farmer who scatters seed on the ground, then just has to wait, the characters in them often seem quite passive.  The vital activity remains beyond their ken and control, it goes on as they sleep and rise and sleep again. 

Mark is not interested in religious or political projects, dependent on human initiative and measured by mortal standards. The Church of England with its current obsession with management and measurement might ponder that.    Instead, this chapter offers glimpses of the kingdom of God, God's sovereign authority, which through Jesus' words and deeds in breaking into the world. If some among Jesus' audience enjoy even a shred of insight into his teaching, it is clear that such understanding is God's gift and not the product of their education, industry or cleverness.

That kingdom subverts all human expectations. A seed bursts into life, its fruit matures, without the slightest cultivation. The smallest seeds becomes the biggest of bushes - not exactly a cedar of Lebanon but big enough for birds to nest in.  Such images are not intended to clarify but to stupefy - which is, in itself, a form of clarification - things are often not as we first think they are.  Those receiving such instruction remain puzzled.  The kingdom of God does not operate in accordance with received opinion and the power of this world's principalities.  At every point it upsets conventional wisdom. Jesus speaks of God's kingdom, God's authority, which is not one with which this world is familiar. There is a fundamental human inability to grasps its nature, even less to manipulate its power. 

The nature of the parables says something, not just about the nature of the kingdom of God, but about Jesus himself.  Mark's first readers and hearers – and there would be far more hearers than readers - knew how the story ended.  As it unfolds, he signals that time and again in the threefold prediction of the passion. So Mark is inviting us to see Jesus as a living parable, and a dying one: as unsettling of our ideas of what God should be like, as the parables are of our ‘this-worldy’ ideas of what God's kingdom should be like.  It is the centurion at the cross who grasps something of this when he says, “Truly this was the Son of God.” 

The original ending of Mark's Gospel has the women who go to the tomb on the first Easter morning finding it empty and being told by an angelic figure: “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee, there you will see him, as he told you.  And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”   

A later editor thought this cliff-hanger needed an improved ending and provided one gleaned from the other gospels.  As the women must have got round to saying something eventually, their amazement, their fear, like the “fear of the Lord” which Paul speaks of in the epistle, is the right response to the revealing of the being and ways of God; the revelation which compels us to no longer view Christ from a human point of view, and because of him, to view no one from that human point of view, but in the light of the new creation in which we are risen in Christ.