Good News from Mark
In last week’s blog essay we learned that Jesus called his followers thieves (of a certain kind). This week we read Jesus compare his disciples to a noxious and dangerous plant. What’s going on? Our latest discussion of Mark’s Gospel focused on 4.1-34. Here Mark tells us about Jesus’ teaching through parables, in what amounts to Jesus’ first sermon in this Gospel. There is a long history of yanking the teaching of Jesus (and much of the Bible altogether) out of its immediate socio-political, economic, cultural, and religious context, and “spiritualizing” it into pleasantries for dominant peoples. Of course, this is not true, biblical, Christian spirituality, but a way of making white, male, conventional, conservative, privileged, and powerful people comfortable (by “conservative” I only mean the standard thing as presented by conservatives themselves: someone who prefers the status quo, who wants to conserve what we have more than change it). We have been considering the texts as they may have been heard by those who first heard them. Accordingly, consider the parables of the sower and of the mustard seed.
The ancient Palestinian farmer of Jesus’ day could expect a good harvest to give a 1:7 yield. A tenfold harvest was a bumper crop. Since Jesus says that even though the sower’s effusive throwing of seed allows much of it to be “wasted” and that it will not grow to harvest, nonetheless, the seed that falls on fertile—receptive—soil will grow up to a hundredfold! The parable is meant not only to evoke the question, “What kind of soil am I?” But it tells us about the work of God and the promise and power of God’s kingdom. The parable’s harvest represents a dramatic shattering of the conventional relationship between the peasant and the landlord. After all, after such a harvest, a farmer could not only pay rent, tithes, and debts, but even purchase his own land and end his servitude. “The kingdom is like this,” Jesus says: it envisions the abolition of the oppressive relationships of production that determined the horizons of the Palestinian farmer’s social world. Such images strongly suggest that Mark is articulating an ideology and theology of the land, and the revolutionary hopes of those who work it.
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus gives us some elaboration, after the exhortation, “Pay attention to what you hear!” So, let’s pay attention. Verses 24 and 25 are a summary of a standard economic viewpoint and practice, accepted by many (most in our society). It is what economists call “the determinism of the marketplace.” The only way to survive in the system is to play the game by its (neoliberal, capitalist) rules. This is followed by a common claim that the system is never changing: the “haves” will get richer and the “have-nots” will get poorer. Jesus is warning against the view that such socio-economic stratification and injustice is acceptable and moral, let alone, divinely sanctioned.
Against the cynicism of the economic determination of the system, Jesus pits the revolutionary patience and hope of the kingdom/reign of God (4.26). The parable tells us that God’s judgment upon the powers and their system will come, and so give the lie to the counter-assertion of the “realists” that nothing will never change. In this sermon, Jesus has for the first time, articulated the least/greatest paradox that will emerge in his teaching again.
As noted above, the mustard seed was a noxious and dangerous plant. It threatened to take over wherever its seed was planted (like a Palestinian kudzu). It was described as having a “pungent taste and fiery effect.” The point was that the mustard plant was not generally
desirable. The plant, i.e.: the kingdom/reign/rule/dominion/order that Jesus was bringing was a threat to the existing garden or field of early Judaism and the Roman empire. If it was to take root, it would subvert, pollute, even overtake, existing gardens and fields—the visions, programs, conventions, and structures of Israel, Rome, and others as well— including our own.
This essay was assisted by Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus; Herman C. Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel; Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Because I mentioned neoliberalism: Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism; Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Never-Ending Nightmare: The Neoliberal Assault on Democracy; Wendy Brown: In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West; and theologically: Rodney Clapp, Naming Neoliberalism: Exposing the Spirit of Our Age; and Adam Kotsko, Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital.