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:
- Seeds are disproportionately small compared to what they eventually produce.
- 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.