4. Unwanted Growth
Lately Brenda and I have been re-watching a BBC crime drama series entitled “New Tricks” (as in “you can’t teach old dogs…”). It is the ongoing story of the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad (UCOS), a fictional division of the London Metropolitan Police Service tasked with re-investigating unresolved cases. The UCOS team is made up of a Detective Inspector (the character named Sandra Pullman) and three retired (male) detectives who bring their experience and eccentricities to bear on some fascinating cases.
I enjoy the characters and their interactions. The cases are intelligent and creative, and each of the characters has a back story which has the flavor of an unsolved case about it as well. The program has the character of a “drama-dy” with lots of by-play among the characters, highlighting the backlog of dysfunction, misogyny, racism, and mental instability which moved the “old dogs” into retirement in the first place. Part of the subtext of the series is that even in the midst of this interpersonal mess, as a team they can produce remarkable results and actually grow as human beings.
Old dogs can learn new tricks, and it’s great fun watching.
I mention this series in connection with the gospel text because the series has this flavor of hidden things coming to the surface and secret things coming to light. Many of the cases UCOS takes on are unresolved because it is in the interest of perpetrators and/or the powerful to leave the cases, the victims, and their families in the dark rather than to deal with the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths that are typically part of these cases.
When something new is unearthed – sometimes a body or a document, sometimes new evidence or the potential for a DNA test (pretty new stuff twenty years ago), things change, and people get upset. It’s not unusual for the UCOS team to have to choose between the expediency of leaving things buried, and the desire to unearth the truth for the sake of justice.
Our text points, perhaps, to the reality that the emergence of the Kingdom from mystery into meaning, from darkness into light, will create discomfort and disturbance for the status quo. The seed of the Kingdom of God grows automatically and with astonishing productivity – if we don’t resist it. The Parable of the Sower is not about preparation but rather about resistance, about things that get in the way of the “natural” growth of the Kingdom among us. That explains the use of the Isaiah 6 quote in verse 12 and the warning in verses 24 and 25.
When we understand that the bursting forth of the Kingdom from the ground and into the open means trouble for some folks, we may get a clearer sense of how Mark, chapter 4, is finally structured. The relationship of “The Calming of the Storm” (Mark 4:35-41, next week’s gospel pericope) to the surrounding material is an open question.
Granted that the chapter and verse numbers are later additions, the question still remains. Is “The Calming of the Storm” the end of the seeds discourse or the beginning of the next section of the gospel? The answer to that question will tells us something about the discourse as well as about next week’s reading.
Timothy Milinovich argues that “The Calming of the Storm” is the conclusion to the preceding discourse. The Calming text is certainly a transition from one section of the gospel account to the next. However, Milinovich suggests, the connections with the preceding material are much stronger in narrative literary terms than with the succeeding material.
He notes that chapter four continues an “instruction/demonstration” pattern found in the first three chapters as well. He also points to over a dozen linguistic connections between the Seeds Discourse and the Calming miracle. Third, he points to parallels between the structure and emphasis of the Parable of the Sower and the Calming miracle. Thus, these two texts form the outer ring of the chiastic structure of Mark 4 and mutually interpret and reinforce one another.
“The purpose of the parables in Mark 4:1–34 is to express in narrative form the paradox of Christ’s Sonship and death on the cross as a saving activity for humanity,” Milinovich concludes. “It is the person of Christ, God’s Son, by whom God is present with his people, and through whom God effects his plan for salvation,” he continues. “The ministry of Christ already reveals this paradox for those who are willing to hear and see with faith and understanding,” including, Milinovich says, Mark’s community of believers under duress in Rome.
Now, what does story of the Calming miracle have to do with the preceding? Milinovich offers some detailed work that we may review next week. The point I want to make is somewhat different. I wonder if Mark is communicating to his audience that when the seed appears (when the mystery of the gospel is revealed), the faithful should expect storms rather than calm.
Just as the unearthing of new evidence was often disruptive in the stories told in “New Tricks,” so the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, challenges the status quo of power, position, privilege, and property in the first century and the twenty-first century. I wonder if Mark wants us to understand that the revelation of the mystery of the kingdom will cause problems rather than produce comfort.
This leads me to reflect on the things that arise “from the ground” that we in the dominant culture want to resist and suppress. For example, the bodies of 215 Indigenous children have been found on the grounds of a former boarding school. It has taken time and the wait has produced inestimable agony, I assume, on the part of those whose children were “lost.” Yet, the seed of truth lay in the ground awaiting the conditions that would allow it to spring forth.
I imagine there are a number of people who wish that this truth had remained buried in the ground. The harvest of justice for the victims will produce a harvest of consequences, I pray, for the perpetrators.
Another example. I am part of a group in our judicatory reading and studying Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism. He encourages us to explore and write out our personal, congregational, and institutional histories with race and ethnicity. I find that white people resist that idea for themselves and the organizations of which they are a part.
The purpose of such writing is to answer the question, “How did things get this way?” What has transpired historically that has produced all-white congregations on stolen land? Uncovering the real history of our lives, our places, and our communities – for white people – requires a number of reckonings with our past and how that plays out in current realities. Specifically, we must come face to face with the real and conscious decisions on the part of our forebears that have resulted in slavery, genocide, white supremacy, and all the ways we continue to benefit from the injustices produced.
Uncovering the past disrupts the present and challenges the status quo. That sounds like a storm to me.
We know that our communal histories as a nation and as church bodes hide unacknowledged stories of abuse and trauma that continue to shape how we act and react as such communities. Surfacing those stories is painful, and necessary, and filled with conflict and violence.
We can look at the Perpetrator Induced Trauma Syndrome and the multi-generational crimes of white supremacy and genocide that only now are really coming to light, as described by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah in their book, Unsettling Truths. We can research, examine, and acknowledge the economic inequities of colonial and imperial systems that continue to oppress much of the world’s population right here and right now. We can demand to learn the real truth behind the January 6 insurrection, where the blood of the victims cries out from the ground unheard.
The uncovering, the unearthing, the surfacing also applies to things happening among us now. In my own ELCA, the currents of justice and the counter-currents of white supremacy, homophobia, colonialism, imperialism, classism, and ageism clash in storms that often don’t get to the surface of general awareness. But it doesn’t take much reflection to see that our social statements and messages, however well-intentioned, rarely receive the policy support, the judicatory enforcement, and the financial backing required to make the statements more than performative gestures.
When things come up that have been long submerged, stuff is going to happen. When stuff happens, Jesus is right there in the boat with us.
More on that next week.
References and Resources
Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).
Schellenberg, R. (2009). Kingdom as Contaminant? The Role of Repertoire in the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(3), 527-543. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709811.
Snodgrass, Klyne. “A Hermeneutic of Hearing Informed by the Parables with Special Reference to Mark 4.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 14.1 (2004) 59-79.
Timothy Wenger. Luther’s Small Catechism.