I spoke in chapel at Regents Park College on Friday, June 12, having been assigned the gospel and epistle lessons for the following Sunday. Here’s my best memory of what I said.
Mark 4 begins with a very familiar parable: “A sower went out to sow….” Most of us probably know this parable, and more than that we know with some certainty what it means. That’s because this parable, unlike most, is one that Jesus himself explains. In verses 10-20, he offers to his disciples a detailed explanation of what each element of the parable stands for. More than that, he promises that he will always tell them what his parables mean, even if he leaves the crowds baffled by the mystery.
So when we then move on to a series of four brief, enigmatic parables, we expect that we will again receive an explanation. These are parables about what is hidden becoming visible, what is earned becoming great beyond deserving, what is potential becoming actual, and what is small becoming great. Our reading today includes the last two of those four: the parable of a farmer sowing seed and reaping a crop many months later, and the parable of the tiny mustard seed growing into a large and fruitful plant. What is the power that produces these transformations?
Even on the literal level of the stories themselves, this is by no means obvious.
We may be tempted to think that the mystery of these parables is simply a result of the primitive ignorance of the first hearers, but this would be to over-estimate our own understanding. Even the most accomplished plant biologist cannot give an exhaustive explanation of the power that leads a seed to become a plant. And if we think for a moment, we know that this mystery remains in many subjects, not just botany, even for 21st century people full of arrogance about our scientific knowledge. Indeed, every academic in the room knows that our academic work is rooted precisely in this mystery, in our awareness of wonder about some area of life that may seem obvious and clear until we think about it deeply, but that – upon reflection – reveals itself to be anything but obvious. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, but so does every study. No matter how much we investigate and explore, we ultimately run up against the unknown, the confusing, the mysterious, the wonderful. And often our wonder is produced precisely by the sorts of transformations announced in these parables – the movement from invisibility to visibility, from darkness to light, from predictable to unexpected, from clearly caused to prodigally generous, from potentiality to actuality, from barrenness to fruitfulness, from smallness to greatness.
Which is why I say that even on a literal level, the power that Jesus is discussing is by no means obvious. And if that power is not obvious, how much less obvious is the Power to which the parables are pointing. For what great transformations are these small transformations analogies? And how mysterious must be the Power that could produce such transformations, so far beyond our every-day experience? Granted that we expect the Power to be divine in some way; there is still much here that remains unclear and that we would be grateful to have elucidated.
And so we wait for the explanation that we have been promised. Surely Jesus will make this all clear. But no. Although verses 33 and 34 at the end of our passage set us up to expect such an explanation from Jesus, no explanation is forthcoming.
Perhaps this is because this Power is beyond reason, beyond didactic explanation, perhaps beyond articulation. At the beginning of the Summa, Aquinas explains that in order to understand the Christian life we need a knowledge that is beyond reason, because the end toward which we are being drawn is God Himself, Who is beyond reason. He argues that we need a knowledge that is revealed to us, a knowledge that reason could never attain. And in his Centuries, Thomas Traherne argues that just as a magnet invisibly and mysteriously draws metal toward itself, so God mysteriously draws us. He says that we need parables and other indirect language to explore these “invisible ways of conveyance” by which God communicates His love to us. Perhaps in this case the parable cannot be reduced to a reasonable explanation.
And so Mark declines to provide such an explanation of these four parables. But he does not leave us hanging. He offers an explanation not via discourse but via events. The four parables are followed in the book of Mark by four works of power.
First, Jesus goes out onto the sea with his disciples, and when a great storm arises they find themselves in a watery chaos that reminds us of the watery chaos at the beginning of Genesis. The world is dissolving, and they expect to die. In the face of this chaos, Jesus reveals himself as the one with power even over the winds and the waves, the one with power to bring order out of chaos. He is the Creator, calling into existence a new creation, and the disciples are going through the waters of a baptismal death into a new life. This newness is seen in the subsequent three stories. A man who has been captured by demons, who has lost his humanity, who cannot even speak, is restored to his right mind and becomes a disciple of Jesus. A woman who is in a perpetual state of uncleanness and infertility is healed and restored to wholeness. And a dead child is brought back to life. The fullness of humanity is restored in these three stories. As our epistle lesson tells us, when anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.
Now I suppose that Jesus could have simply told the disciples this. He could have said: “These four parables about the mystery of natural transformation point to the far more wonderful transformation that comes when I as your Creator, your Lord, and your God take you into union with myself, set you free from the powers of sin and death, and give you a new birth into a living hope.” What would that possibly have meant to his disciples, here at the beginning of his ministry? How could they possibly have understood this? And so he shows them. He enacts the truth that they so desperately need to know. Aquinas says that our great need is revelation, and in these acts of power Jesus reveals himself beyond anything our reason could figure out for itself. Traherne says that our great need is love, and in these acts of power Jesus reveals himself as the One who cares deeply that we are perishing and who loves us enough to make us new.
How do we enter into this new life? Paul says that we walk by faith, and not by sight. We move beyond empirical investigation, beyond reasonable deduction, beyond what we can figure out on our own, to surrender not to some abstract power but to Jesus himself. Jesus, who is the great revelation of the love of God, has come to make us new. He is the One who moves us from hiddenness to glory, from works to grace, from barrenness to fertility, from death to life.
Over and over, we choose to walk by sight, and when we do we also choose death and barrenness. We must close our eyes to reason, and hear a parable instead. We must cease to be committed to an idea or an ideology and be committed to the person of Jesus instead.