Today we celebrate the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), where Jesus reveals his divine nature to three of his disciples. This event, which in our church we celebrate with the colour white, falls after a period of ‘ordinary time’ in the church calendar, which we celebrate with green, and Lent, which we observe with purple. This celebration is thus well placed as a link between a period of ordinary growth in the church and period of intensive penitence and critical self-reflection.
Furthermore, the transfiguration is located in our church calendar almost exactly at the midpoint between Christmas (two months and two days ago) and Easter Sunday (10 days less than two months from now). Each of these events – the birth of Christ, the transfiguration of Christ and the resurrection of Christ – are moments of God’s self-reflection, or epiphanies. God shows God’s self for who God is, in these key moments in the life of Christ.
Christmas focuses on the incarnation of God the Son in the form of the human Jesus. It is God’s emptying of God’s self – the kenosis – in which God immerses God’s self into human life and comes to live among us as one of us. It is also a story of the birth of a child – of hope, of new life, of a baby. The Christmas self-revelation emphasises the light and life of God in our midst.
The transfiguration shows us that Jesus is more than ‘just’ a teacher, more than ‘just’ a healer or miracle worker. He is revealed in all his divine splendour, as the Son of God, even more, as God the Son. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Jesus. Most of the time it is hidden from sight. But in the transfiguration, Jesus kind-of drops his human skin and reveals his divine nature to Peter, James and John. The transfiguration self-revelation emphasises the power and divine majesty of God in our midst.
Easter focuses on the discipline and love of Jesus for his Father, and for humanity, leading him to walk a path that he knows will lead to his humiliation, suffering and ultimately, his death. He knows this is a path of suffering, but he also knows that it is a path towards the salvation of all of humanity. Jesus’ Easter resurrection is God’s self-revelation of profound and reckless love for humanity.
These revelations of God’s self – of who the triune God truly is – as our focus as we enter Lent. God is the child that brings life and light. God is the divine being, filled with power and majesty. And God is our saviour, filled with love and compassion. It is into this God, this Christ, that we immerse ourselves during the coming period of Lent.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next Sunday, we start a new church year, beginning with Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into the world. But the Feast of Christ the King is the culmination of everything we have done over the past year, and climaxes with a celebration of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
In both the first and second testaments, there are passages that describe Jesus as King and God the Father as King: Moses can see only the back of God, not God’s face in Exodus 33, Daniel see one like the Son of Man in Daniel 7, and Isaiah sees God (but does not describe God; only the seraphim) in Isaiah 6. In all cases, God is powerful, magnificent and awesome, beyond words. They went out of their minds at their experience of the greatness of God. We get similar hints of this in the second testament with Christ: Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigure before them, and are overwhelmed by Christ in his glory (Matthew 17, Mark 9 & Luke 9). Hebrews 1 tells us Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. And Revelation 1 describes John’s vision of Christ, including blazing eyes, feet like burning bronze and a double edged sword coming out of his mouth! John tells us that he feel at Jesus’ feet as though dead!
Our limited human minds cannot begin to comprehend or even see the full glory and magnificence of God as King.
And yet, in both testaments, God reveals God’s self most fully, not in such demonstrations of power, as much as in God’s love and concern for and solidarity with those who are vulnerable.
For example, both Psalms 146 and 147 present the magnificence of God, e.g., “He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them”; “The Lord reigns forever”; “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” and “He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast?”
But interwoven with these references to the power of God the King, we get verses like the following: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” in Psalm 146, while in Psalm 147: “The Lord gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord sustains the humble.”
The power and awesomeness of God is most fully revealed in God’s tender-heartedness, his compassion, his concern for the marginalised, his solidarity with the oppressed, and so on. And the most complete and full revelation of the heart of God is in the person of Christ, who is (as we read in Hebrews) the exact representation of God the Father. We think of Jesus, healing, touching, listening, seeing, walking, helping, weeping – all of these reveal the heart of Christ the King.
Our Gospel reading for today (John 18: 33-37) has Jesus talking with Pontius Pilate about Jesus as King. Jesus is persistently unwilling to refer to himself as a ‘king’ – twice he his pushed by Pilate: are you a king? And both times Jesus declines to answer directly. He is willing, though, to acknowledge that he has a kingdom (not of this world and from another place). I think he makes this concession, because a ‘kingdom’ emphasises the people who live in the kingdom more than the king of the kingdom. He is comfortable to speak about his people, the citizens his of kingdom, but not about his stature as ‘king’.
And in the end he says to Pilate, “You say I am a king”, in other words, you’re saying, not me. But, “in fact, the reasons I was born and came into the world [was not so much to be humanity’s king, but] to testify to the truth.” And what is truth? (as Pilate mockingly and cynically asks) The Truth is that God is, at the core and essence of God’s being, love. That is the ultimate truth of the Gospels and of God’s self revelation to humankind. That God is concerned for us and stands with us and fights for us and protects us and love us. This is Christ the King.
James and John come to Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35-45). Such an audacious question! One can just imagine Jesus counting to ten. And perhaps looking at them and reminding himself that he really loves them. His response is so calm and measured: “What do you want me to do for you?”
Jesus responds to two main flaws in these two disciples: ignorance and ambition.
First, they are ignorant. Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking” – in other words, “You are ignorant in what you ask.” The disciples want to share in drinking the cup that Jesus will drink and in his baptism, without understanding that this is the cup of suffering in Gethsemane and the baptism is his death on the cross. They really have no idea what they are asking for, yet they are so caught up in their eagerness or self-importance, that they cannot see it.
We get something similar in Job 38:1-3, which we also read today. Job has been pitching for a confrontation with God for some chapters – he believes God is deeply mistaken in treating him so badly and wants to set the record straight. In the opening verses of chapter 38, God finally speaks to Job: “Who is this that obscures my plans with ignorant words?” (or “words without knowledge). “Brace yourself like a man [like a human, rather than like a God]; I will question you , and you shall answer me.” God then spends two chapters asking Job if he can do all the many things that God has done. In chapter 40:1-7, Job recognises his ignorance and says, “How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.” Yet, God is not done with him and goes at him for another two chapters.
The disciples, like Job, forget that they are human, not God; that their knowledge and capacity for understanding is limited, unlike God’s; and that they are therefore comparatively ignorant. Being ignorant is not a sin! We are just human, after all, and do not know everything. We cannot see across time and and space like God can. We cannot imagine multiple universes existing concurrently like God can. But there is a problem when we forget that we are just humans and fundamentally ignorant.
In addition to being ignorant, James and John are ambitious – overly ambitious. They want to sit on Jesus’ left and right when he comes into his glory, that is, when he sits on his throne in heaven. Jesus quickly puts them in their place, saying “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” If it is not Jesus to grant – Jesus, who is the Son of God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity – how much more is not for the disciples to ask. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” [by God the Father, we should assume].
He then goes on to speak to all the disciples about positions of power and authority. These are not fundamentally wrong or bad. Power is not intrinsically bad. However, he notes that there are some who lord their power over others, who exercise authority over others. These are people who want others to know and feel that they are the ones with power, while others are powerless and helpless. This is autocratic, oppressive and abusive power. This is the corruption of power. So Jesus says to the disciples, “Not so with you! Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” And he goes further to point out that even he himself – God the Son who he is – did not come to be served, but rather to serve and to die for us.
We learn about this also in Hebrews 5:7-10, where the writer emphasises that Jesus is obedient to his Father, and through that obedience, even to death, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Jesus is the epitome of ultimate power that is sacrificed for the common good, even at his own expense. This is the inverse of ambition. Again, power is not wrong – Jesus was ultimately powerful. But power used for personal ambition is corrupt and harmful. It is not the way of Christ.
Jesus (like his Father) is always willing to engage us with whatever questions, frustrations, angers, accusations we have for God. In none of the passages we read today, do we we Jesus or God spurning anyone. However, we are also well advised to recognise our ignorance and lack of understanding, in comparison with God’s infinite understanding; and to see to serve rather than to have power. In so doing, we get closer to God, more aligned to God, more immersed into the way of Christ. This is the path to salvation. This is the path to Christ.
This is the third in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Last week, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Today, we consider the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church.
Last week I emphasised that the people are the church, not the clergy, and that even without clergy, a church is still a church; while a minister without a congregation is really not a church. I wish to reiterate one of the things I said last week: there is no mediator between God and people: You have direct access to God. Priests, ministers, clergy to not mediate between you and God. As Paul write, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Clergy, therefore, are just one part of the body of Christ, performing their roles as equals with everyone else. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, regarding a congregation that had split over those who preferred Paul and those who preferred Apollos. Paul makes it clear that neither of them are really very important: “7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything (referring to himself – Paul, and Apollos), but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. … 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9 & 16).
But, lest we think we can get rid of all our clergy, the Second Testament is full of references to clergy, under various names, such as apostles, oversees, deacons and elders. These are all people who are called, set apart and placed in positions of leadership, for example: Paul writes, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). An overseer, which is what Timothy was, is a kind of clergy person. Elsewhere Paul writes, “This, then, is how you ought to regard us [apostles]: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Here again, Paul refers to clergy (apostles). But notice it is as servants of Christ, not leaders. Yes, also as those entrusted with the mysteries of God. Clearly, clergy are part of the Christian Church.
The expectations of these clergy is high. Dauntingly high! See some of the expectations that Paul and Peter have of those in Christian leadership:
1 Corinthians 4:2 “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
1 Timothy 3:2-13 An overseer is to be above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, sober, gentle, peace-loving, not money-loving, a stable family, a mature Christian, good reputation among non-Christians, hold to the truths of the faith, a clear conscience, etc.
1 Peter 5:1-3 Elders (could be clergy and/or lay leaders) are to be shepherds of God’s flock, watching over them, doing so willingly (not because they are obliged to), not pursuing dishonest gain (integrity in the workplace), eager to serve (no mention of leading), not dominating the people, being a worthy example for others.
(Peter’s focus on shepherding, which Jesus picks up when he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’, causes me to like the term ‘pastor’ and the ‘pastoral’ role. I try to think of my role in the church as shepherding.)
These expectations honestly daunt me. In truth, these are expectations of all Christians. But there is far less wriggle-room for clergy. We are expected to deeply embody these values and to set an example of Christ to those we minister to.
To be sure, the Bible contains numerous examples of bad leadership from clergy, and we see and hear God’s judgment against them. I regularly read Ezekiel 34, to remind myself that God is not playing around when it comes to God’s expectations of church leaders. Here is just an extract from this chapter:
God says, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves [on their flock]. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-10)
Let us admit that most of us have had experience of church leaders who failed us in their pastoral responsibilities; who have not lived up to these expectations. And let us admit also how their actions may have harmed the church and us as individuals. This is the sad reality of the church – pastors do fail us.
To be sure, God will judge the shepherds, elders, overseers, apostles, deacons and priests when they (when we, when I) fail to live up to God’s expectations. We go into the ministry knowing this, with fear and trembling.
But we ourselves should recognise the humanity of clergy, avoid judging and strive to forgive when we’re let down. We can’t hold on to resentment. We need to learn to forgive, to let go, to move on. Else we get stuck in a vicious cycle of anger and hurt, that keeps us trapped and unable to experience God’s love and healing.
As I take up today the role of Rector of St Stephens, Lyttelton, I wish to articulate my commitment to you as your pastor. I will certainly fail at times and let you down, but this is what I will strive for during my time among you. And I invite you to (kindly) pull me aside and point out those times where I fail. I will do my best to hear, learn, repent and do better:
I will strive always to be kind, compassionate, inclusive and loving.
I will listen, be open-minded, hold to a people-driven church, be responsive and flexible to your needs.
I will endeavour to be fair, impartial and consistent, and also honest and direct.
I will ask God to help me be consistently Christ-centred, Word-based and Spirit-led.
I will use the gifts God the Spirit has given me – leadership, teaching and pastoring – to guide, equip and support you. We are a clergy-supported church.
And I will try hard not to get in God’s way. God forbid that I become a stumbling block to the work God wants to do among us!
And so I invite you all us to work together in partnership to build God’s kingdom in and through St Stephens.
We focus on stewardship for one month of each year – the month of September. It is the time when we reflect on everything that God has given us – which is everything, every single thing – and how we use this in God’s service. Stewardship has its roots in the creation story in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
After God had created humanity – male and female – in God’s image in Genesis 1, God immediately said to them, “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen 1:28). And in the narrative in Genesis 2, God placed the man God had created in “the Garden of Eden, to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15).
In both narratives, the first thing God does after creating humanity is to entrust God’s creation to humankind, to rule over it in God’s stead (which is what a steward does) and to tend and care for it (which implies care and love). For us today, stewardship involves taking care of everything God has entrusted to us – our bodies, our relationships, our family, our finances, our possessions, our gifts (or talents or abilities), our time, our earth, our future – and using these to build God’s Kingdom.
Stewardship is not only an individual thing, but also a collective thing. We are called, as the Body of Christ, as a collective, to steward our church and to each participate in building the life of the local church as a place in which people can grow, receive support and healing, learn about God, contribute to those who are in need and fellowship together. Stewardship is thus as much about your church as it is about you.
The book of Nehemiah
The book of Nehemiah, which is largely written as a first-hand account by Nehemiah himself, provides us with a good foundation to stewardship.
Jerusalem had fallen and the people of Israel had been taken off into exile in the East, to Persia. The walls of the city had been destroyed, leaving the city vulnerable to anyone who wanted to take stuff. Nehemiah, whose name appropriately means “God comforts”, arranges with King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. He does three main things:
First, Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem. He ropes in everyone – the priests (or clergy) and all the people, working as families and neighbourhood (suburbs), to build up the walls. The walls serve to protect the city from foreign invaders, to create a safe sanctuary for those who dwell therein. People put their heart into the work, even putting their lives at risk, holding a spear or sword in one hand and a shovel in the other. Nehemiah writes in 4:6, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half it height, for the people worked with all their heart.” It reminds me of how the people of St Stephens, Lyttelton literally built the building themselves, as we recentlysaw in a video on St Stephens’ Day.
This kind of working to build the church is what stewardship involves for us, particularly if we are members of a church that has been broken down in some way. Churches are not perfect, and things can break. When they do, all the members of the church – clergy and laity – need to stand shoulder to shoulder, with a sword or a shovel, and work together to build up the church. After all, we are the church.
Second, Nehemiah takes care of the poor. In chapter 5, Nehemiah learns that some people (wealthy, elitist people) are taking advantage of the crisis by requiring poor community members buy back the land they used to own or charging them interest. Nehemiah writes, “When I hear their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials” (5:6-7). He called them together and instructed them to cancel the interest on loans and to return people’s property to them. They said, “We will give it back and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say”. Here we see those with more giving to those with less. We see people cultivating concern for those in need. We see a faith community forming, based on sharing and care.
This kind of working to build a church that takes care of its own is what stewardship involves for us. This is particularly so, if we have an economically diverse church, or if some are struggling with life’s challenges more than others. Caring for each other within the church is something Jesus emphasises over and over again – it is this love for one another that reveals to the world that we are Jesus’ disciples. It is at the heart of stewardship.
Third, Nehemiah gets the prophet Ezra to read the Law to the people (chapters 8-9). The people gather every day and the listened to the Law being read. In response to hearing the word, they repented of their sin. Their song, in chapter 9, verses 5-37, repeatedly starts with “You” – You alone are the Lord, You give life, You are the Lord God, You made a covenant, You have kept your promise, You saw the suffering, You send signs, You divided the sea, You led them, You came down, You made known, and on and on and on. They turn as a group, as a body of believers, towards God. They focus on God.
And at the end of that chapter, they made a collective commitment: “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing…” (9:38). Among other things, they commit to stewardship: “We will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. … We will not neglect the house of our God” (10:37+39c).
This kind of engagement with the Word of God, and the response of penitence and commitment to dedicated giving, is what stewardship involves for us. We are asked to commit seriously to God, to make a solemn pledge to give of our time, our abilities and our finances to to the building up of God’s church and the work of God through the church.
What does this mean for us?
Even in the midst of Covid, with all the restrictions on our meeting, stewardship calls us to build our church. That means to come back to church, whether in-house or on-line. Too many have drifted away from church and from fellowshipping with others, even though church is available online. We must come back and practice again being church – whether inhouse or online. We must relate to each other, which we can do between services, by phone, WhatsApp and Facebook. And we must participate in praying for each other.
We must take care of those who are poor and vulnerable. A key way to do this is to give some of our financial resources to the church. A good church will use these resources to build out God’s work through the church, not to line the pockets of clergy. A good church will account for every cent that comes into the church, and demonstrate how the finances it receives are used to build the Kingdom of God.
We must immerse ourselves in the Word of God, through reading scripture, through listening to sermons and teachings, through prayer, through joining a mid-week group. In so doing, we root ourselves in Jesus, and begin to be transformed into his likeness.
I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to reflect carefully on stewardship over this coming month, and on our place within the church of Christ.
Our Gospel and New Testament readings today are nicely synchronised.
Mark 7:1-23 has Jesus telling us that we are not defiled by disregard of human customs nor by what we put into our bodies (though he is talking here about religious purity (see verses 1-8 for context), not about drugs, alcohol, sugar, etc.), but rather by what comes out of our hearts and mouths (sexual immorality, theft, envy, arrogance and so on). He emphasises that it is what comes out of our mouths that is important, not what we put into our mouths.
Jesus criticises the religious leaders of his time for for emphasising human norms of behaviour and forsaking the command of God. And what is the command of God? Simple. To love God and to love our neighbour. These are the most important things in life – more important than any other command. Human rules about how to behave, what to eat, how to eat and so on, are irrelevant when it comes to our standing before God. What is important is what is in our hearts and how this comes out in our attitudes, words and actions. What should be in our hearts and what should manifest in our lived lives is LOVE – love for God and love for others.
James seems to have remembered this teaching from Jesus and picks it up in his letter, James 1:19-27, where James says that we should be quick to listen to others and to the Word of God (these are the things we should quickly allow in) but that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger (speaking and anger are things we should be slow to put out).
Being quick to listen means to be open and receptive to people around us, to make time for them, to be interested in and concerned for them. Our default response to people should always be to slow down and listen, listen with care, listen carefully, and listen with love. And we should also be quick to listen to the word of God – to the scriptures – which he says is “planted in us” (v21) like a tree, that can take root and grow and produce fruit. And the fruit of this Word/tree is our attitudes, words and actions – these should emerge out of the Word that we have allowed to grow in us, out of the love of God in our hearts.
On the other hand, James cautions us that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. He is clearly speaking about our relationships with other people – in v27 he says that the religion that God wants (accepts as pure and faultless) is for us to to look after widows and orphans in distress (that is, to take care of those who are vulnerable) and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (that is, not to conform to human customs and worldly norms of behaviour).
James speaks particularly about the tongue, which he says we must “keep a tight reign on”, like a wild horse that is ready to bolt. He actually speaks at length about the dangers of the tongue in chapter 3, where he says, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” We have to watch (and yes, even censor) our words, because they are more powerful than we think – whether they are words of healing and restoration or words of criticism and judgement.
Rather, says James, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. This reminds me of how God is often described in the scriptures, as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (e.g., Psalm 86:15). We should be like God – quick to love and slow to anger.
There has been a shift in the world since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He and his followers shifted social norms about how we use words. Speaking out whatever we think about people, and saying it bluntly and without regard for kindness or niceness has become a new norm. The attitude of not self-censoring and saying whatever one wants has been valorised – made into a virtue. We think we have a right to say whatever we want and that any kind of consideration of how our words might impact someone else is just a form of bleeding-heart leftism, political correctness or a sinister censorship of our right to free thought.
But no! This is completely out of alignment with the example and teaching of Christ and of his disciples! For Jesus, love and consideration for others is THE highest command (along with loving God) and checking what comes out of heart and mouths is clear in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7. James takes up Jesus’ teaching and unpacks it even more, with strong warnings about reining in (i.e. censoring) our tongues. Just read James 3 and see for yourself.
The path of the Christ-follower involves being full of love, quick to listen, slow to speak, abounding in love and desiring to build up others. Our words matter. This is the way of Christ.
Mark 4:26-29 provide a short parable about the Kingdom of God, a parable that has no similar parallel in any of the other Gospels, and that is sandwiched between two much more familiar parables about the kingdom – the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. It is worth spending a bit of time reflecting on this less-well-known parable:
Jesus also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like: a person scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether they sleep or get up, the seed sprouts and grows, though they do not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, they put the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
As we approach this parable, we must ask, “What does this story tell us about the Kingdom of God”, since Jesus uses parable almost exclusively in his teachings about many things, including the Kingdom. As Mark writes a few verses later, “Jesus did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:34).
A few interesting things to note about this brief parable:
The human character is referred to only as ‘a man’ or ‘a person’ and then simply as ‘he’. This suggests that the human is not an important character in this story.
The rich part of the story is what happens between the two actions of the person – between scattering the seed on the ground and harvesting it. Between these, the person does nothing. This focus of the story is this in-between space between human actions and in which God works.
While the human character is thin and peripheral, two other non-human characters have prominent roles, both of which are preceded with a definite article (the) instead of the ‘a’ used for the human:
“The seed sprouts and grows”. It is clear that the human does nothing to enable this. It is something the seed does on its own. This is what seeds do.
“The soil produces grain”. It is clear that the human again does nothing to enable this. It is done by the soil. Indeed, Jesus emphasises this by preceding the phrase with “all by itself” (αὐτομάτη / automatē) – the soil produces a crop of its own accord, through its own volition.
These activities of these two characters, who show agency and power, are a mystery to the human, who does “not know how” it happens.
Those who garden or farm will know that to produce good crops (or flowers, etc.) you need good soil. If you have good soil, you’ll have good produce. It’s all about the quality of the soil. Those who garden will also know that there is nothing you can do to make seeds grow – that is something they do themselves – all you can do is ensure conducive conditions for growth.
From this analysis of the parable, I suggest Jesus has three main lessons for us regarding our place and work in the Kingdom of God:
We must scatter spiritual or evangelical seeds. Our words and our actions must scatter Kingdom of God seeds around the world.
We must work to ensure that the soil into which we scatter the seeds is well composted and conducive for growth. We get the most detail from Jesus on this in Mark 4:1-20. We can do this by nourishing and nurturing the values of the Kingdom – justice, love, inclusivity, generosity, truthfulness, integrity, humility, service, sacrifice, etc.
We must trust God to do what God does, which is to make seeds grow and to produce a crop for harvest. This is in God’s domain. We cannot make seeds grow in another person; only the Spirit of God can do that.
Two of Jesus’ disciples come to him asking for positions of authority in heaven (Mark 10:35-45). It is really an immature and arrogant request. Understandably, Jesus responds quite firmly. In part he points out that in the world people are grasping for positions of power that they can lord over others, but then he says, “Not so with you!” He calls us to a different value system.
And then he continues to says that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If even Jesus – the Son of God – has come as a servant, how much more should we be servants. We are called to take on a servant mentality – as awful as that might sound – and to live out his role in the world – serving humanity.
We have a critical failure in South Africa of public service, from those employed by the State (who are called “public servants”, as described in the Batho Pele White Paper for Public Service). Far too many people who are employed as public servants (whether as general assistants, chief directors or ministers) have lost this focus – that they are employed to serve the public. But not just them – all of us! We Christians are all put here on earth to serve humanity, to serve the world. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.