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Mark 4:26-34

The pair parables that comprise today’s Gospel reading come at the end of a collection of parables in Mark’s Gospel in chapter 4. Our last two verses tell information that is important at the outset. The first part of verse 33 intends to show us a pattern: “With many parables like these Jesus used to speak the word to them …” The verb for speaking (laleō) is in the imperfect tense (elalei), which conveys a continuous or repeated action in past time. This was Jesus’s habit, his way, his practice: speaking to hearers in parables (metaphorical stories). This way of teaching or storytelling represents the way his disciples and other listeners were “able” to hear it (v. 33b). That comment on the hearers’ ability could be taken at least two ways: 1) that they had to hear his teaching this way because it was the only way he offered it; or 2) that he taught in this story-form because they were receptive to hearing it this way. Usually the Christians with whom I am in conversation take this in the second way, as Jesus adapting to the ability of his hearers. There is just enough enigmatic and confounding in Mark 4:11-12 and its allusion to Isaiah 6:9-10 to make us pause and consider the former option.

Therefore, since parables represent the typical form Jesus’s teaching took, as Mark himself states in our passage (4:33-34), we should imagine that Jesus told and re-told these stories and others like this in many times and places in his itinerancy. The broader chapter also illustrates that the disciples—those who picked up and traveled with Jesus, not limited to the twelve (see 4:10 “those around him with the twelve”)—had opportunities to ask questions about parables, which represented access that local listeners would not have had. Given the likely reality that Jesus repeated and tweaked his parables from telling to telling, based on setting, it should not surprise us that each Gospel author seems to have recollected parables and grouped them, often thematically (see Matthew 24:32–25:46 for example), in ways that fit their portraits of Jesus.

Chapter 4 is sometimes called Mark’s Parable Chapter, since, compared to the other Gospels, Mark includes Jesus’s teaching in lesser quantities. Nevertheless, Mark places this sequence of parables early in the Gospel, clearly an important aspect of Jesus’s mission, as he presents Jesus as an authoritative teacher and preacher without rival (1:27-28). In Mark ch. 4, the first, most substantial, and most famous of these collected parables is the Parable of the Sower (4:3-8). Despite our familiarity with it, the disciples have lingering questions (4:10-12), which spark the parable’s explication from the mouth Jesus (4:13-20). After this, Jesus moves away from agriculture into imagery that would have been familiar to urban or rural life, that of lamps and measuring. In doing so, he tells some of his briefest parables, not much more than aphorisms, the Parables of the Lamp (4:21-22) and Measure (4:24-25).

Our two parables return to the agricultural setting and the imagery of seeds. These two parables are also the first to be explicitly pointing to the Kingdom of God (4:26, 30). We will treat each in turn.

The so-called Parable of the Growing Seed (4:26-29) provides a helpful counterbalance to the Parable of the Sower. In the Parable of the Sower, everything comes down to the “soil” (or the hearer) and its receptivity to the seed (or the word). A seed’s withering or flourishing is entirely dependent on the soil on which it happens to land. If the soils are a metaphor for people, that gives a lot of credit and/or responsibility to humans to be the right kind of receptive (or “good”) soil.

In the Parable of the Growing Seed, the crucial and even wondrous element is the seed itself. We find another sower. This sower is comparatively clueless to the mechanisms or processes of plant-growth (v. 27). After sowing, the sower continues with daily life, sleeping and rising. Nonetheless, the seed does what seeds do: it grows. The soil, or earth (gē; the same term used in 4:5, 8, 20), does not interfere this time. Instead, it bears fruit “in itself” (or, as the Greek renders it, “automatically”/automatē). Verse 28 spells out the stages of growth: “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” (NRSV). Only at that point, when the grain is fully formed, does the sower have another job to do. Then this sower “sends the sickle” to harvest this miraculous growth.

The duty of this sower was simply to sow, wait, and harvest. I suppose if we view this sower as God, we must take a fairly deistic interpretation of God’s involvement in our world: God’s just set everything in motion, lets the seed and earth function by established natural laws, and then waits for the end. But that’s not the tone of the parable. God is not the sower who “does not know” how the seed grows (v. 27b). Instead, we should see God in the inexplicable and wondrous growth that goes on while we live our lives. Here, the sower is a lot like us on a daily basis: waking up, doing a job, and then sleeping. Repeat. The miracle of growth happens while we are not watching. It cannot be forced. It cannot be prodded or controlled by us. Nevertheless, if we wait, the growth happens. Only the God who gives life can be given credit for this. So, I read this parable as attributing the processes of sustaining and growing life to God. Our job here is minimal: plant and harvest. God takes care of the hard part.

The tone of wonder continues into the Parable of the Mustard Seed (4:30-32). Jesus wonders aloud, “Hmm [author’s imaginative addition], how can we make an analogy for the Kingdom of God or what kind of parable can we put to use?” (v. 30). He finds an apt comparison in a mustard seed (v. 31).

Excursus on the Size of Mustard Seeds (and Christ’s Incarnation):

I am not much of a gardener myself—as my barren front yard attests plainly to my neighbors—but, apparently, mustard seeds are not actually the smallest seeds on earth. Jesus’s statement in Greek does not use the superlative term “smallest”; instead, the Greek uses the comparative “smaller” (mikroteron). But it does go on to say “smaller than all of the seeds on the earth,” which amounts to the same claim. There exist smaller seeds than mustard seeds. This error or gap in knowledge represents just one of many pieces of evidence throughout the Gospels that serve to remind us of what we are claiming when we speak of the Son’s incarnation, Jesus’s full humanity. The Son takes on human limitations—limitation of power, of knowledge, of presence, of culture, etc.—when the Word becomes flesh (John 1:1). So, shout from the rooftops that Jesus was mistaken about mustard seeds, based on his location and knowledge of vegetation, because Jesus was fully human. If this small error in botanical awareness, enshrined in Scripture and credited to Jesus himself, is enough to make someone question the validity of Scripture, then this is a conversation that needs to happen. Such a person has placed far too much faith in a text and far too little in the God who inspired and inspires. At the same time, I remain doubtful that even the most rigid inerrantist (i.e., one who claiming the absolute perfection and lack of errors in Scripture) would take issue with acknowledging that mustard seeds are not, in fact, the smallest. Nevertheless, this is a good opportunity to remember (1) that God became flesh, truly human, in Jesus of Nazareth and (2) that Scripture seeks to point us to that incarnate Christ, not to provide us with information about seed size (nor many other things people purport to make the Bible about).

Return to Commentary:

This “smaller” seed becomes, when sown, “greater than all the vegetables” (v. 32). We may have expected a mighty tree, but Jesus’s comparison remains small here. The fully-grown mustard plant is grand relative to all the lachana, that is, the Greek term for domesticated herbs and vegetables one might find in a garden. Jesus notices that the birds of the air find shade and rest in the large branches of the mustard plant (v. 32).