Welcome back to Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey. My two and a half year old grandson has been singing ‘Oats and beans and barley grow’ all around the town, so this reflection is timely for at least one of her readers! And it is the feast of Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine communities, including Minster. Happy Feast day, Sisters!
Jesus also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come.’
(Mark 4:26-29, translation: The New Jerusalem Bible),
Whenever I read the parable of the seed growing by itself (given in full above) I send up a silent cheer to the Lord, praising him joyfully. It is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament. But the Holy Spirit tends to give even favourite texts a new twist every time I read them. A few days ago, as I read these lines from Mark’s gospel for my lectio divina, I realised that I needed to explore the context within which Jesus first tells this parable and not treat it as though it stood alone, unconnected to the story told by the preceding passages.
The first thing I realised, then, when I looked back at texts from chapter three of Mark is that the time-frame is quite early in the public ministry of Jesus, but already there are thorny problems for him (see Mark 3:21f.). Some of Jesus’ own relatives seem determined to treat him as if he were a child. This might be amusing (don’t we all go through this at some point when we are young adults and our immediate family hasn’t quite caught on?) but for the fact that this kind of treatment of Jesus gravely undermines his authority with his audience. Moreover, the relatives ‘set out to take charge of him, convinced that he is out of his mind’. In other words, they make a scene. How embarrassing for Jesus (he is at least thirty years old now) – and, yes, how infuriating (or it would be to me). And, to make it worse, it’s almost impossible to manage this kind of situation without looking bad. Either Jesus must submit to their infantilising treatment and go off with them meekly – like a big baby (unthinkable), or he must work out some way to try to insist on his adult status – and his sanity – without being disrespectful to them. What a hopeless –and very human – mess, I think to myself.
But before Jesus has even had a chance to begin, before anyone’s had a chance to turn around, the scribes get in the act and decide to pick a fight with Jesus. They choose this moment viciously to accuse him of using Satan’s own power to cast out devils (see Mark 3:22f.). Regardless, however, of the distress he may be feeling with regard to his relatives, Jesus rises to the scribes’ challenge and handles their accusation calmly, with consummate logic and courtesy, pointing out reasonably, but without a hint of arrogance or sarcasm, the absurdity of the very idea of Satan casting out Satan. “Take note, you relatives who think Jesus is out of his mind,” I crow silently: “Jesus’ mind is not only radiantly sane but eminently rational. He needs no one to take charge of him. He is able to take care of himself.” And so, for the moment, the scribes and the relatives seem to be silenced. But we know – and Jesus would have known – that his troubles were only beginning.
This is where I begin to be aware of Jesus in a different way. He feels closer, somehow. I become, as I read and pray, much more conscious of Jesus as a feeling being. I notice that in the scriptural texts following this scene with the scribes, Jesus seems to be particularly wistful, even a little bit vulnerable, as he teaches another group of people. He seems to see that their desire to listen to him contrasts poignantly with the hostile attitudes he’s been encountering all day. He tenderly invites them to be his sister, his brother, his mother. I pause here. Jesus is capable of being wounded by rejection. I knew this before, but I know it in a new way now. This then becomes the moment that flows into Jesus’ beautiful parables about hearing the word. ‘The sower goes out to sow,’ he begins.
Let’s slow down for a bit and think. We have just accompanied Jesus through two difficult encounters: his relatives first, who think he is mad, and then the scribes, who think he is possessed. And now he sees us, sees that there are people who deeply want to listen to him.
He welcomes us. We come forward to sit near him. We are an intimate group, small enough that all of us can all see him. We are glad that when he begins to teach we will hear him easily, we will see his face and his eyes, watch the play of his features as he speaks his words of life to us with gentleness and love. We want to be his brother and sister and mother. We look at him with affection and smile, waiting for him to begin. Let’s see what he will say to us. He has a message for each person. And now I invite you to read Mark 4:1-9 and to keep this at heart until tomorrow. This passage prepares the way for the parable I have quoted at the beginning of this post.
I hope you will return tomorrow as we continue our reflection.