Mark 4:30-34

The Mystery Of The Kingdom (5) – Believing The Unbelievable

The following parable may have shared similar overtones to the one preceding it.

Mark 4:30-32 – The Mustard Seed

30 He also said, “How can we describe the Kingdom of God?  
What can we say it is like?
31 Like a grain of mustard?  
When it is sown in the earth,
it is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth,
32 yet, once it is sown, it grows up
and becomes the biggest of vegetables.  
It stretches out its large branches,
and the birds of the air are able to find shelter in its shade.”

The word translated as vegetable can also means “garden herb”.  In fact mustard seed hardly grows into even a vegetable.  The suggestion that the birds of the air would find shelter in its shade was outrageous, as outrageous as anticipating a hundredfold harvest from a grain crop.

Perhaps Jesus was intending to state that the present insignificance of the community of disciples belied its eventual extent, but in that case he would have used the more obvious symbol of acorn and oak tree or elm seed and mature tree.

He was saying something more, pointedly challenging the hearer.  This was a parable.  It was not a metaphor, illustrating the nature of the Kingdom.  Rather it sought to catch the hearer off-guard, to bewilder, and hopefully to invite a closer look into mystery.  

As with the preceding parable, perhaps the sting of the story may have been in the tail, which in this case echoed prophecies of both Ezekiel and Daniel (and would have been easily recognised by Jesus’ hearers). In both instances trees whose branches provided shelter for the nesting birds referred to the imperial powers of Babylon and Egypt.  In both instances the prophets foretold their eventual ruin. 

Tree Imagery in the Hebrew Scriptures

Ezekiel. With particular relevance for our consideration, the prophet Ezekiel had spoken of the (oppressive) Kingdom of Egypt using the imagery of a tree:


So it towered high
above all the trees of the field;
its boughs grew large
and its branches long,
from abundant water in its shoots.
All the birds of the air
made their nests in its boughs;.... (Ezekiel 31:5-6)

Yet, its fate was destruction:

... On the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen, 
and its boughs lie broken in all the watercourses of the land .... (Ezekiel 31:12)

Daniel. In similar vein the Book of Daniel had spoken to the (oppressive) king of Babylon, using imagery reflecting that of Ezekiel:

The tree that you saw, which grew great and strong, ...
... and in whose branches the birds of the air had nests— 
it is you, O king! You have grown great and strong...  (Daniel 4:20,21-22)

But the order came from God:

... ‘Cut down the tree and destroy it...”  (Daniel 4:23)

And the prophet revealed to the king  

You shall be driven away from human society, 
and your dwelling shall be with the wild animals.  (Daniel 4:25)

In place of these oppressive regimes God had spoken through Ezekiel of faithful Israel:

On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.  (Ezekiel 17:23)

In the light of this imagery, the parable of Jesus could well have made the point that the community of disciples would indeed be the match of the imperial power of Rome, despite the community’s present powerlessness and insignificance.  

Yet the parable clearly made the point also that the two “Kingdoms” would not meet on some level playing field. The Christian community would not measure up in military might against imperial Rome.  It would not seek to conquer with power of arms but the power exercised by Jesus himself, the power of truth, integrity and love.  

There was a clear note of defiance in the imagery chosen by Jesus.

The parable spoke about the nature of the Kingdom.  Its message would be relevant not just for Jesus’ immediate disciples, or for the Markan community, but for Christians of all eras and places.  But as it proved difficult for Jesus’ contemporaries to see the truth of his reflections and to live accordingly, it has proved equally hard for Christians always and everywhere.  Mark would emphasise the struggle even of the disciples to get hold of and to take to heart the message of Jesus.  Ears that fail to hear, eyes that fail to see, were not the exclusive problem of Pharisees, scribes or disciples.  They would be the problem constantly confronting humanity.

Mark 4:33-34 – Differential Treatment

Mark concluded his assembly of parables with a brief comment, adding the information that to his disciples Jesus spoke clearly of his fears and of his dreams.  He could speak clearly to them because the parables had achieved their purpose with them, sustaining their interest and prompting their deeper reflection.

33 He spoke to them with lots of comparisons like that,
to the extent that they could understand.
34 He said nothing to them other than by way of parable.  
But when they were alone,
he explained everything to his disciples.


Next >> Mark 4:35-41