A Non-Empire Run by a Non-King!

Posted: June 10, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 4:26-34

A Non-Empire Run by a Non-King!

The Lectionary designers are allowing our storyteller Mark to tell a story or two. The story or parable of scattered seed and the story or parable of the mustard seed. Or as Rex Hunt of who I am grateful for todays, inspiration, reminds us, the story of “Gradual growth, sleeper Sower, and Mischievous mustard.  (Reid 1999:61)

Like Rex I want to focus on just one of those parables today: Mischievous mustard. With the suggestion that all the stuff we have previously heard about this parable, suggests that there is a good chance many of us have heard that this is a story about contrast: tiny mustard seed grows into the greatest of all shrubs.

Botanically speaking “mustard does not grow to be the greatest of all shrubs, nor is it the smallest of all seeds; hyperbole is used to drive home the contrast.” (Reid 1999:68) On the other hand, wild mustard, a pesky weed, is almost impossible to eradicate once it has infested a paddock or vegetable garden. When you get it in your paddock, your paddock is ‘unclean’.

So, what might the storyteller be suggesting? Well! Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar suggest:
“Jesus’ audience would probably have expected God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small.” (Funk 1993:59)

And then this interesting point: “As the tradition was passed on, it fell under the influence… of the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor for a towering empire… In his use of this metaphor, Jesus is understanding the image for comic effect.” (Funk 1993: 484) Either way, Funk says, the parable “betrays an underlying sense of humour on Jesus’ part.” (Funk 1993:485)

Other scholars take a different tack.  According to Funk they conclude Jesus “deliberately chose the symbol of the weed and its seed to represent the poor, the toll collectors, and the sinners: they are pesky intrusions into the ordered garden of society.” (Funk 1993:60)

But Bruce Sanguin, (2015) takes an ‘evolutionary’ tact. Suggesting that ‘seed’ is one of Jesus’ favourite metaphors,

Sanguin suggests three interrelated dynamics: 

  • the growth of the seed describes how God’s grace works in the universe, from the inside out and within the impulse to become;
  • we ourselves are divine seeds – the same natural grace that animates seeds is working within us to bear fruit;
  • the very image of God is within us in potential form, just as an oak is within an acorn in potential form.

Here I think is support for my suggestion of an “Almost’ God, a potential, ‘a yet to be that is promise and call’ A God that does not exists but rather ‘Insists” as John D Caputo puts it.

“But when humans focus on exteriors (the husk and not the kernel) we fall into idolatry, confusing the true life within with the shell.” When we lock our understandings in a belief system, or a creedal and doctrinal form and we lock it away from the potential and promise. Then we try to capture grace in the same way and we miss the miracle that is a dynamic living God at work in the potential and the yet to be.

So, as Rex says; there we have it.  Some brief reflections and good guesses based on some scholarship, on this parable. A parable about a pesky weed that can take over everything. Which, when you step back and think about it a bit, “is a strange analogy of the empire of God…  It pokes fun at our expectations that an empire must be a mighty anything.” (Scott 2001:37, 39)

But that is what makes this story a parable. And the analogy is nearly as strange as the two camps represented by this story. The first camp: the Roman Empire. The second camp: the undesirables, the nuisances and nobodies.  (Crossan 1991:276-79)

And so, the story plot unfolds…

Chapter 1: ‘We are here for the duration,’ said pompous Rome. ‘Stay in your place and we will let you live. Misbehave and you will end up like all these blokes.’

Chapter 2: ‘We aren’t going away either,’ said the undesirables. ‘There is a new kingdom coming and it is already breaking through.’

Chapter 3: Remembering the original ‘Jesus’ people’ were not a gathered community, they – the undesirables – begin to organize.

And the collection of Easter stories was their way of saying: “This new kingdom is a non-empire run by a non-king.  Its, way is peace through justice, and justice through non-violence. Not that of empire with might, and violence in search of peace. Its royal court consists of poets and crazy minstrels who think the poor should be filled with good things.  The non-king’s army is a band of off-key resisters who keep getting in the way as they sing for peace. “Don’t look for this new upside-down world in heaven.  It is right here, right now, within and without us.  Anyone who is ever left out, despised, rejected, forgotten, spit on, looked over, stood up, washed up, or left behind is in the non-king’s cabinet” (John Shuck. ‘Easter for the Nonreligious. Shuck & Juve blog site, 2009).

Mark the storyteller asks: ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?’ Well, now we’veheard the story, there are a few other questions we need to ask:
Where is God’s reign to be found? With what kind of power is it established? Who brings it?
Who stands to gain by its coming? Whose power is threatened by it? (Reid 1999:69)

Those questions become even more interesting for us when we reflect on what has taken place in our world in recent times. In the promise of a post covid world in New Zealand there has been a focus on refugees and migrants and the economic needs of our industries “If we regard people seeking a new home only as economic necessities then we might choose to close our doors to them.  But if we regard them as human beings in need, deserving of being treated with dignity, compassion and respect, we will be able to tap more easily into that great spirit of generosity that moved our hearts so deeply during the mosque attacks.

Barbara Reid, rather eloquently, brings it all back home, so to speak when she says: “The reign of God does not have to be imported from far-away… nor does it come with an impressive power.  Rather, it is found in every back yard, erupting out of unpretentious ventures of faith by unimportant people – but which have potentially world-transforming power” (Reid 1999:69).

Unpretentious ventures and unimportant people… who spend their Saturdays preparing meals for the hungry, who repair homes for our poorest sisters and brothers, who care for broken, hurting, and diseased bodies, who calm troubled minds, who risk their lives to protect the vulnerable, and who boldly speak truth to power on behalf of healthcare and equal rights.  (Shuck & Juve blog site, 2009)

To be sure, many parables can leave us frustrated. They are not neat parcels with answers inside.  Just like this one, which says: Take your choice.  Reign of God equals mighty cedar or pungent weed!

Meanwhile, Lloyd Geering’s comment of a few years ago is helpfully suggestive: “The Jesus most relevant to us is he who provided no ready-made answers but by his tantalizing stories prompted people to work out their own most appropriate answers to the problems of life.  That is why the parables… will be remembered long after the historic confessions and creeds have been forgotten.” (Geering 2002:145)

So equally important for us, is this additional persistent question: can we have faith with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the parables? The big question that persists for the church still remains. Can the 21st century congregation can live out such a 21st century gospel.


Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. MacMillan Press, 1993.
Geering, L. G. Christianity Without God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Reid, B. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Mark. Year B. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 1999.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Toronto. Evans & Sanguin, 2015.


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