Illuminations of the Mysterious Kingdom

In the Gospel of Mark, the Parable of the Sower is immediately followed by three short parables. The exegete must decide whether they should be interpreted as stand-alone stories or as parabolic illuminations of the Sower. Robert Capon chooses the latter route. But before jumping into the parables, note two characteristics of seeds:

  1. Seeds are disproportionately small compared to what they eventually produce.
  2. Once covered with soil seeds disappear from sight and quickly become indiscoverable, for they become something else.

Now onto the parables. First up: the Parable of the Lamp:

And he said to them: “Does the lamp arrive that it may be placed under the dry-goods basket or under the bed? Not that it may be placed on the lamp­stand? For there is nothing that is hidden except that it might be made manifest, nor that has become concealed except that it might come out into plain sight. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen.” (Mk 4:21-23)

In what way does the Lamp illuminate the Kingdom? Probably best to simply quote Capon:

The Lamp is the Good News of the sowing of the Word who is the all-sufficient cause of the kingdom; but unless that Lamp is set squarely on the lamp&sh;stand of a relentlessly paradoxical interpretation of the kingdom, its light simply will not be seen. All the easier, more plausible interpreta­tions—those that try to expound the kingdom as parochial, or nonmysteri­ous, or merely virtual—are just so many bushel baskets or beds that can only hide the Lamp’s light. And if I add to that my habitual ringing in of John when­ever possible, an even fuller meaning of the passage becomes clear: Jesus himself is the Lamp. The incarnate Word—the Light that, coming into the world, lightens every human being—cannot be recognized as the Light he is except on the lampstand of a properly paradoxical, lefthanded interpre­ta­tion of his person and work. Stand him on anything else, and you see not just one more dim bulb like the rest of us; you see no saving Light at all. (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 76)

Recall that Capon interprets Jesus as the Word sown from the beginning. In him the Kingdom is mysteriously, hiddenly but actually present—in other words, paradoxically present—in the world. “The seed, and therefore the Word, is fully in action in and of itself at every step of the story. Everything necessary for its perfect work is is in the works from the start” (p. 69). But if Jesus is the Lamp, why is he not obviously and brilliantly visible as God incarnate to everyone? Because his power, suggests Capon, is manifested in weakness. He labels it “left-handed power”:

Unlike the power of the right hand (which, interestingly enough, is gov­erned by the logical, plausibility-loving left hemisphere of the brain), left-handed power is guided by the more intuitive, open, and imaginative right side of the brain. Left-handed power, in other words, is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weak­ness, interven­tion that seems indistinguishable from noninter­ven­tion. More than that, it is guaranteed to stop no determined evildoers whatsoever. It might, of course, touch and soften their hearts. But then again, it might not. It certainly didn’t for Jesus; and if you decide to use it, you should be quite clear that it probably won’t for you either. (p. 19)

If we are looking for a political Messiah who will set all things right, we are going to be disappointed. Jesus doesn’t check the boxes for a warrior-king  Instead of promising to vanquish our enemies, he tells us to pray for them; instead of telling us to stock up our arsenal in preparation for the great revolution, he tells us to turn the other cheek; instead of establishing the theocratic empire we are looking for, he tells us that his Kingdom is not of this world. The point of Christ’s parabolic teaching is to introduce us to his paradoxical identity and power. The stories challenge us to think beyond our inherited worldviews. “For he who has, to him it will be given; and he who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him” (Mk 4:25).

Second up: the Parable of the Growing Seed:

And he said, “Such is the Kingdom of God: just as a man might cast the seed upon the earth, And might sleep and arise night and day, and the seed sprouts and increases while he does not observe. The earth bears fruit of itself, first a shoot, then an ear, then the full grain within the ear. But, when the fruit permits, he immediately extends the scythe, because the harvest has come.” (Mk 4:26-29)

It’s all so ordinary, isn’t it?  The farmer sows his seed and then goes about his ordinary life. The plant is initially hidden from view, but eventually it breaks through the soil and con­tin­ues to grow until it reaches term. What’s the farmer doing throughout all of this? Not much at all, it appears. The miracle of life is beyond his competence: “The earth bears fruit of itself.” So while the farmer waits for the harvest, he gets on with the other necessities of life—getting out of bed in the morning, fixing breakfast, going about his chores, fixing supper, sitting down to watch TV with a cold brew, then back to bed, day in, day out.

And that . . . is what Jesus is proclaiming in the parable of the Growing Seed. The kingdom itself, he insists, is the very thing that is sown. And in the rest of the parable, he drives home, with a clarity matched almost nowhere else, the absolute sovereignty of that kingdom over the earth it wills to make its home. There are no references at all here to the dangers that hos­til­ity might pose for it; nor are there even any references to the detrimental or beneficial effects of the various responses that human beings might make to it. Instead, Jesus ignores these matters entirely. As Jesus depicts it, once the man in the para­ble has sown the seed, he does nothing more than mind his own and not the seed’s business.

But then comes one of the most startling statements in all of Scripture: ‘Automatē hē gē karpophorei,’ Jesus says; the earth (and all of it, mind you: good, bad, or indifferent) bears fruit of itself, automatically. Just put the kingdom into the world, he says in effect; put it into any kind of world—not only into a world of hotshot responders or spiritual pros, but into a world of sinners, deadbeats, and assorted other poor excuses for humanity (which, interestingly enough, is the only world available anyway)—and it will come up a perfect kingdom all by itself: “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” It takes its time about it, to be sure; but the time it takes is entirely its own, not anyone else’s. There is not a breath about crop failure, any more than there is about the depredations of the devil or the knuckle­head­ed­ness of humanity. There is only the proclamation of a catholic sowing that, mysteriously but effectively, results in a catholic growth toward a catholic harvest. (pp. 79-80)

The Kingdom will come because the Kingdom is already sown. What then are we to do until the eschatological harvest? Trust the word of the Word and by faith live in the life and power of the Eschaton.

Finally, the Parable of the Mustard Seed:

How may we depict the Kingdom of God, or by what parable may we present it? As a grain of mustard that, when sown upon the soil, is smaller than all the seeds on earth, And when it is sown it rises up and becomes larger than all the garden-herbs, and produces great branches, so that the birds of the sky are able to shelter under its shade. (Mark 4:31-32)

First note, Capon tells us, that the seed that is sown is the Kingdom itself, not some other reality, “not something that results from the sowing of a seed other than itself” (p. 98). The Kingdom begins tiny, nearly invisible, but in the end it becomes a mighty tree in which the birds are happy to visit.

The real point of the parable is the marvelous discrepancy between the hid­den­ness of the kingdom at its sowing and the lush, manifest exuberance of it in its final, totally successful fruition. “So you want me to tell you about the end of the story, do you?” Jesus seems to be saying. “Well, here it is; but without a word about evil to throw you into your usual eschatological tail­spin. All you get here is the peaceable kingdom: the sun shining in the sky, birds flying in and out of the shade, and all the little ones twittering away forever and ever. No elements of hostility to tempt you to think the kingdom won’t arrive unless you ride shotgun for it. And no elements of response to suggest it might need your cooperation in order to come out right—unless, of course, you consider larking around in the trees a proper response; in which case, that I’ll let you have.” (p. 99)

I am taken by the quiet sanguinity of these three parables. The light of Christ will be made manifest, divine providence will be consummated without our assistance, the Kingdom will come and will be more glorious than we can imagine.

(Go to “Parable of the Tares”)

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18 Responses to Illuminations of the Mysterious Kingdom

  1. G-tic says:

    “Left-handed power, in other words, is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weak­ness, interven­tion that seems indistinguishable from noninter­ven­tion.”

    One might be inclined to ask why anyone should presume that it does not, in fact, merely constitute weakness.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      A legitimate question and legitimate inference.

      So why believe that God’s power is perfected in weakness? For me, the most cogent answer is found in Pascha and the resurrection of Jesus.

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      • G-tic says:

        Power is, simply put, the ability to translate your will into reality. I have the power to type on this keyboard, but not, for instance, to sprout wings and fly to the moon. Weakness is simply a lack of ability to do that. Power cannot be found in, much less perfected in, weakness because they are the diametrical opposites. One may as well say that heat may be perfected in cold.

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        • Dub Mac says:

          “Power cannot be found in, much less perfected in, weakness because they are the diametrical opposites. One may as well say that heat may be perfected in cold.”

          Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood, but doesn’t this only hold if the claim is that a particular person’s power to do x is perfected in their weakness or inability to do x, with no outside intervention? If so, I’d think that’s irrelevant, because power could be found in weakness if God provides the power for the person in his/her weakness. I tend to think that’s just the picture of grace we have in the Scriptures: I recognize my weakness to live the life required of me, and therefore give up the futile attempt to do it in my own power, on my own terms, I submit to and obey God, and allow his power to flow through me like the vine into the branch and “perfect” my weakness.

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          • G-tic says:

            Why would you? If God made you, as you must claim, the only reason you could possibly lack the power to do something is because he designed you not to have it. That is, to use a biblical image, he’s playing the role of the Pharaoh demanding bricks without it straw.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          G-tic, if you are right, then the gospel ain’t true. Not much more can be said. The claim that power is perfected in weakness can only be confirmed at the Eschaton.

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          • G-tic says:

            The logical conclusion to that line of reasoning would be that the resurrection was a bad thing, because it demonstrated power rather than weakness. Staying dead would have demonstrated weakness. Indeed by this line of thinking the most powerful thing to do would be to do nothing, ever, and just let oneself get buffeted around by anyone and everyone else.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            G-tic, I think you misunderstand the purpose of this blog. I have no interest in debating non-Christians, atheists, skeptics, or whatever. There are plenty of other places for such debates.

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          • G-tic says:

            As you wish, then.

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          • G says:

            Hello,

            could a christian try to salvage G-tic’s intuition about weakness and power by saying that G-tic is right about what weakness is but what Fr. Al meant by the word ‘weakness’ was something more akin to what we mean by the word ‘vulnerability’ rather than what we ordinarily mean by ‘weakness’?

            This line of thought may then open for one the possibility to say:

            (1) that Christ is not weak in G-tic’s sense of the word but that, during the anguish (and the fear?) of the Gethsemane, Christ’s freely chooses to be vulnerable (to be open to the possibility of being harmed, suffering and dying) in order to keep undergoing His (gradual?) process of identification with the sinners and through that save them and

            (2) that given a person A, A can be considered to be more powerful in a scenario in which in order to achieve what is truly good for A (or to more aptly love A’s beloved), A is willing to go through sufference and death rather than in a scenario in which A is not willing to do so out of fear (because, one could think, fear itself, if rational, is the sign of an underlying actual weakness – in G-tic’s sense of the word – that the rational agent that we are considering is aware of).

            Hence, if one were to take (2) to be correct, one would consider Christ to be more powerful in the case He chose to be vulnerable in order to save us, rather than in the case He chose to not be so.

            Finally, this way of understanding weakness would seem to me to be quite compatible with Fr. Al’s idea that power is perfected in or through it

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        • Jack H says:

          Well, if we’re going to go by your straight forward construal here, even if you could grow wings, I don’t think they would help you get to the moon.

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          • G says:

            Hi Jack,

            sorry but I didn’t get the point.
            I mean, if your worry is that my construal is excessively straighforward and you think this is the case because it is somewhat artificial, I do not see where you find it artificial (maybe in the way I understand weakness? But notice that I proposed to add vulnerability as another sense that the word ‘weakness’ might have, not the only one and not the one we commonly use).

            In case of some misunderstanding, my apologies

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      • G says:

        If this were to work for the kenotic process in the Gethsemane, then I think that one could generalize this particular explanation to all of Christ’s life (in case one thought that all of Christ’s life were be considered to be kenotic and not only the period of the Passion)

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        • brian says:

          Kenosis is an elemental aspect of triune life simply, apart from Incarnation. Bulgakov surmises the kenotic presence of the Spirit as already working the universal transformation of Creation. G-tic is using language univocally and with no awareness of the theology of agapeic gift or the metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo. All that will necessarily be outside the scope of the typical perspective held by positivists. Argument at this level founders on diverse metaphysical presuppositions and semantic confusions. Even were one to fight through all that to some kind of common understanding, revelation is not apprehended as the result of dialectical argument. While one can conceivably clear the way of intellectual objections, apologetics rarely gets beyond a surface level rational intelligence. Conversion happens at a depth no one is going to reach by argument alone.

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          • G says:

            “Kenosis is an elemental aspect of triune life simply, apart from Incarnation. Bulgakov surmises the kenotic presence of the Spirit as already working the universal transformation of Creation.”

            Sorry for the poverty of expression, but… Nice!

            About conversion and dialectics I tend to agree, but what do you think about an approach that takes dialectics (if not practiced as a battle against an adversary) as still possibly helpful in a spiritual path, in particular when practiced to clarify messy and complex ideas so as to redirect (and only re-direct, not direct) our attention on what really matters and make us more fully appreciate it?

            P. S. : I don’t mean to imply that dialectics would be the only way to get to that result, but only that, in the ideal scenario one does not practice it to “demolish and convert” one’s own opponents to one’s own beliefs, it can be somewhat spiritually helpful both for the believer and non-believer

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  2. G says:

    Hello,

    I will ask a question without having any kind of competence whatsoever on these topics (so in case I say something stupid or that is already known, sorry in advance! 🙂 ).
    Does Capon have anything to say on whether we should take the figure of the sower in the Parable of the Growing Seed to be the same sower in the Parable of the Sower? The reason why I ask this question is that it seems strange to me that the Son which is the Good Shepard would in some sense lose sight of His sheeps, that He was that sower that “might sleep and arise night and day, and the seed sprouts and increases while he does not observe”.

    Moreover, in case my “objection” to this reading of the parable had any weight whatsoever, could it be the case that a plausible alternative reading of the Parable of the Growing Seed is the one that takes (1) each seed to stand for a human (or non-human) person and (2) each seed to be identical to the sower?

    On the one hand, it seems to me, this alternative reading, besides solving the previous difficulty, has the advantage of connecting more straightforwardly the passage of the parable I quoted with a passage that sounds very similar to it, which is (Matt. 6:3, KJV) “let not thy
    left hand know what thy right hand doeth”. On the other hand, on the assumption that Capon’s reading of the Parable of the Sower is correct, it would propose a “nice” parallelism between the two parables. In fact, even though the sower and the seed would not stand for the same things in the two parables, they would be still identical in each case (if we assume that the Father and the Son are identical).

    Many thanks in advance,
    G

    P. S. : and my deep thanks, Father Al, for deciding not to shut down the blog for yet another year!

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    • Jack H says:

      Ah, hell. My mistake G. I meant that as a response to G-tic.

      I just found it passing odd that he would post such things on this site and especially this article. I suspected that there is something more there than meets the eye. I figured he was looking for genuine answers, and was trying to show how his question was a bit snarky. Because I think there is a legitimate question there, as long as he is asking the right questions and with a charitable intent.

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have added a short discussion of the Parable of the Mustard Seed. I had planned to include it in another article, but …

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