A woman and a man were walking down a busy, noisy city sidewalk when the woman suddenly stopped and said: “Did you hear that songbird singing?” The man said: “Are you crazy, who could hear a songbird singing with the sound of jackhammers, car horns, and people yelling all around us?” She looked around at the people walking passed them and nobody seemed to notice. She replied: “But I heard it clearly.” Then she reached in her purse, took out a handful of coins and dropped them on the pavement. Immediately, the passersby all stopped, got on their knees, and began picking up the coins. The woman turned to the man and said: “We hear what we learn to hear.”
And that brings us to the parables we have as this Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Mark 4. I’ve heard numerous sermons on these two parables over the years. I’ve read many commentaries about what they mean. I have to conclude that most get it wrong. I did, too, for the longest time. After all, “we hear what we learn to hear.” Since most of us we’re raised in an American culture that worships the almighty self, we learn to hear things through that filter. When hearing something new, we filter it through our cultural shaping, which is individualistic and self-oriented. We can’t hear the proverbial songbird singing, because all we hear is the sound of coins clinking on the pavement.
So, when we read the Parable of the Growing Seed or the Parable of the Mustard Seed, we tend to place ourselves at the center of both parables. In the Growing Seed, it’s the seed of faith growing in us, which eventually grows into a full grain at the harvest (our resurrection). In the Mustard Seed, it’s smallest of all seeds growing in us, but even though it’s small, eventually it becomes a substantial tree by the time we’re resurrected. Notice how the self is at the center of both parables. The problem is: That’s not what Jesus says. Inconvenient that. Read both and you’ll hopefully hear what he’s saying.
Jesus says the seed is God’s Kingdom growing and not the seed of faith in us. In both parables, humanity isn’t in control. Yes, in the Growing Seed the sower scatters, but then she takes a nap, heads to the gym, does her business’ books, and then picks up the kids at carpool. All the while God’s Kingdom is growing, but she “knows not how” (4:27). And in the Mustard Seed, God’s Kingdom is this seed, which defies appearances and grows beyond expectations. We had no role in it becoming the “greatest of all shrubs.” We’re merely the blessed knuckleheads that get to nap in its shade (4:32).
But our culture has taught us that we should have a more prominent role. Don’t we have to toil, sweat, and from our cleverness and productivity produce the harvest of the Kingdom? It must depend on us because it’s all about us, isn’t it? Sure, go ahead and believe that. Yet, that’s not what Jesus says of the Kingdom, whose harvest comes about by God’s grace and not our mistaken merit, no matter how clever or productive we are. Our role is simply one of “praise and thanksgiving” as the Eucharist tells us. We’re the blessed knuckleheads that get invited into the shade of God’s restful grace. And there are lots of other knuckleheads out there who’d be amazed to learn that there’s a God who’d bring about such grace. Let’s show them what that looks like.