Reading Mark 4: 26-34
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
I’ve been spending some time again with my old friend the Oxford English Dictionary. In my opinion at least, you can’t beat the thrill of a good definition. Well, maybe you can but a good definition is very satisfying.
The object of my search was the word ‘parable’. And the reason for it was that the two horticultural anecdotes in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel didn’t match up to the idea I had in my head of what a parable should be.
Mark tells us that they are parables but they’re certainly not parables in the manner of, say, the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a parable as follows: A (usually realistic) story or narrative told to convey a moral or spiritual lesson or insight.
Well, I suppose that technically speaking these two anecdotes are narratives, though they’re a trifle thin in that regard. In a way they’re little more than statements that plants actually grow.
But Mark calls them parables so that is what they must be and it’s certainly true that they do convey spiritual insight – in fact, at least two spiritual insights.
Both parables involve the mystery of the everyday and link it to the mystery of the Kingdom.
‘The seed would sprout and grow, he [the sower] does not know how’.
The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and yet, mysteriously, it grows into a mighty shrub where birds find shelter.
And both parables involve as it were an endgame:
In the one we have the harvest.
In the other we have the birds of the air enabled to make their nests in the branches of the great shrub.
Firstly then, a few words about mystery.
It’s possible to hide behind the word ‘mystery’ when you hold a belief that doesn’t actually make rational sense. Oh, it’s a mystery, we might say, as if that makes everything OK and we can switch off our thinking minds.
As the White Queen said to Alice: Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Well, perhaps you could close your eyes very tight and perhaps you could manage to believe a whole library of impossible things – but it’s not theologically advisable.
One of the traditional attributes of God has been omnipotence, being all-powerful. But even God has never been thought of as being able to do the logically impossible.
And just as God can’t do the impossible, neither are we under any obligation to believe the impossible.
So, the word mystery can be used in an unhelpful way but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t such a thing as authentic mystery.
The seed does indeed sprout and grow. The earth does indeed produce of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head and in the last analysis the finest botanists in the world don’t have the faintest idea why it should be so.
They may know what happens but they don’t know in any ultimate sense why it happens. It just does. Science is purely descriptive.
Everything about the world we live in is a genuine mystery – why it should exist at all and why, being existent, it should have the ability to be so complex and fruitful in its various transformations.
All existence is a mystery. The fact of our own personal existence is a mystery even to ourselves.
And then we have the other insight in these parables – that there is an endgame.
It’s a common belief these days that life, the universe and everything, the whole shebang, is from beginning to end entirely random and meaningless, without purpose or design – as Macbeth put it, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But that has always seemed to me a very strange thing to believe – at least since I acquired what I like to think of as a little maturity of judgement.
Let’s go back to the beginning. As we all know, the Big Bang happened a very long time ago.
Impossible of course but, if you’d been around a few seconds or even a few million years after the Big Bang, you could never ever have guessed then how immensely fruitful the universe would become.
How is it that what would have seemed a simple, unpromising and lifeless mixture of matter and empty space should have had such potentiality within it?
And yet here we are, beings capable of wonder and compassion, living and breathing on this unimaginable earth. That doesn’t seem random to me. To me that evolution seems pregnant with significance and purpose. The universe had potential built into it from the very start.
There’s a well-known 20th century theologian called Teilhard de Chardin. If you’ve heard of him, the name may well strike terror into your heart because, not only was he French, he had a very obscure style of writing.
But he’s mainly known for one relatively simple idea – what he called the Omega point, Omega being the last letter of the Greek alphabet.
Teilhard believed that the whole universe – over vast stretches of time – was in the process of fulfilling its immense potential, by which he meant that it was slowly yet inexorably being brought into union with the divine by the divine – but in cooperation with the universe, which means for instance beings like us.
We after all are the universe made conscious of itself.
That union is the purpose of Creation. That is the Omega point, the endgame.
As very small and limited parts of the whole we only know a tiny segment of what is going on.
They’ll always be a million things we don’t know or understand but we trust that an ultimate, active benevolence lies at the heart of things – though you don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t always look like it.
That’s the area where faith operates. Faith isn’t irrational or gullible. It bridges the gap between God’s boundlessness and our limitation, and it gives us the means by which we too can help build that kingdom among whose branches we, the birds of the air and all God’s creation can find a home.