Mark continues with the fast pace from the previous three chapters with several short parables. We begin with the parable of the sower. Imagine being a farmer sowing this crop. Our farmers are careful with their seed, careful not to waste it. I imagine a farmer in first century Palestine being even more careful with the seed. This is seed that they saved from last year’s crop. If it isn’t going to grow something, it could be eaten. In a time when life is precarious and seed is precious we hear this story:
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.”
Farmers would have been careful about the seed they were planting and yet here is a farmer throwing the seed willy-nilly everywhere. The seed lands in places where there doesn’t seem much chance of growing and flourishing. It seems wasteful. But when you scatter seed how do you know where it will land? There is no way of knowing.
But there will be some seed that will land in good soil and grow deep roots and flourish to bear new seed for a new season.
But the disciples didn’t understand. They went to Jesus and asked, “Why are you talking about farmers and seeds and soil? What does that have to do with your message?” And so Jesus gives them and explanation.
The explanation tells us that like the seeds that land on the packed ground of the path some people don’t really stand a chance at hearing and following Jesus’ message. Then there are others who hear the message. It sounds good in theory but they are easily distracted by life or the pressure to conform to the culture around them. Then there are people who will hear the message, put down good roots and thrive to produce more seed.
Jesus moves on to another parable—the parable of the light. This parable reminds us to pay “attention to what you hear.” The Greek word for what may also be translated as how. “Pay attention to how you hear.” How we hear something is as important as the actual message. Many of us will hear the scripture from the perspective of white, middle class Canadians. But can we also hear the message from the perspective of a new immigrant? Can we hear the message from the perspective of someone who truly struggles to make ends meet each month?
And here’s the message:
“The measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
How we hear scripture is important. We can hear it as ourselves. But we also need to use our imagination and imagine what it might sound like to someone other than ourselves. How would scripture sound to someone on the margins of our culture?
Hearing the message as a myself—I might think if I work hard everything will fall into place. I’ll be able to continue doing work that I love. I’ll have enough money to make ends meet, a bit to save and for a few extras. In my more cynical moments I am reminded that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In the grand scheme of the world I am one of the wealthy ones and it sometimes seems impossible that the world could be any different. From here it is easy to become complacent and even indifferent to the plight of others.
Hearing the message as one of the workers from White Spruce (a provincial jail that supplies a work crew to various community groups) it might sound more like this—I work hard and get nothing back. No matter what I do nothing falls into place. I’ve never had much and what I do have keeps getting taken away from me. I guess the scripture is true. If you have nothing, it will always be taken away. People who have wealth and power always get more wealth and power. From here it would be easy to spiral into despair.
It sounds very different depending on your perspective and location. We always need to read scripture looking for the good news. What good news do these parables have for us? Perhaps because we haven’t really heard the message, the message is not one of good news. At face value, this message seems to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. It seems to reinforce complacency. Because we haven’t really heard the message of God’s love we are caught in a cycle where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and there seems to be little we can do to change that. If we actually hear the message, then the cycle of poverty can be changed.
Jesus takes us back to seeds again. A farmer goes and plants seeds and then goes on living life—not being terribly worried about what the seeds are doing. After a period of time, the seed sprouts and grows and then the farmer comes back to harvest the crop. All the farmer had to do was plant the seed. The sun, the soil, the rain does the rest and creates the conditions for the seed to grow. In these parables seeds are often understood as the message of God’s love. So all we are being asked to do is scatter the love. We don’t have to make sure it grows or oversee every step. All we have to do is plant it. It doesn’t even have to be a very big seed, or a very big bit of love. A tiny bit of love can have amazing results—like a mustard seed. Doing a bit of research this week I discovered that there is actually a plant that looks more like a bush which may actually be referenced here. A tiny seed does actually grow into something that provides shelter.
So pulling together these short parables we can begin to make sense of what the writer of Mark might be trying to tell us. We have this farmer going out and sowing seeds everywhere and not really paying attention to where they might land or whether they will have much chance of growing to a mature plant. Like the farmer, we are called to spread the love. We don’t know which seeds of love will grow and flourish. We don’t know where the love that we share might land. But it doesn’t matter. Our task is to plant the seed. Some of the love we scatter will find a place to grow. When it finds a place to grow and flourish, the roots will go deep and people will grow in that love. At certain times in our lives we will be scattering the love. At other times we will be that hard soil where nothing will grow. At other times we will be the soil that nourishes the seed.
We need that seed of love in our lives. We need to sow the seeds of love. We need to receive the seeds of love. We sow seeds and we wait with active hope for the kingdom of God among us.