Mark – Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Tenants

Readings for this week September 23 – 27
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Day 1 – What is the Kingdom of God Like?

Silence, Stillness and Centering before God (2 minutes)

Scripture Reading – Mark 4:30-32

Jesus begins with a question, one that resonates very strongly with a question from a famous passage from the Hebrew bible. Jesus asks, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?” What is God’s kingdom like, what should we expect to see when it arrives? Many people had many different answers to this question, some based on scripture, some on hope, others on pure desperation borne of impatience, anger or hopelessness. The question Jesus asks echoes a similar question posed by the prophet Isaiah: To what will you liken God, to what will you compare him too (Isaiah 40:18). Isaiah was offering a fresh vision of God to the people of Israel, who had endured destruction and devastation, and were wondering if God was still capable of rescuing them, of restoring them to their former position, their former glory as his people. Isaiah’s answer was a resounding “Yes” – but they needed to see God afresh in order to be ready for the new ways in which he was going to move.

That’s what was happening with Jesus. God was doing something new and exciting in answer to the cries of his people, but it wasn’t happening the way people expected. A travelling preacher with a rag-tag bunch of followers, traipsing around the countryside in the rural backwaters of Galilee – how could the kingdom of God come about through such a seemingly inconspicuous start? The mustard seed is the smallest seed at the beginning, but it produces the largest shrub. So too with the kingdom of God. That’s the way God chooses to work: from small beginnings.

Question to Consider
How have you seen the kingdom come from small beginnings in your life, in your community?

Prayer
Lord God, help me see you and your kingdom with fresh eyes so that I can join with you wherever I am, and wherever you move. Amen.

Conclude with Silence (2 minutes)


Day 2 – A Kingdom for All

Silence, Stillness and Centering before God (2 minutes)

Scripture Reading – Mark 4:32-34

The reference to the birds coming to make their nests in the branches of the fully grown mustard plant is another echo of a well-known image from the Hebrew Scriptures. Not only does it illustrate the size of the plant – so large birds can build their nests in it – but it also draws attention to the ways in which kingdoms are described in terms of trees in the Old Testament. In books like Ezekiel and Daniel the picture of a tree with spreading branches is used as an image of a great kingdom, growing so that nearby people can come and shelter and seek protection beneath its branches. The coming of the birds to nest represents the coming of all peoples – the Gentiles included – and the gathering of all the nations to Jerusalem, just as prophesied by Isaiah (66:18-21).

There’s a little bit of a sting in the tale here though, one that Jesus was trying to get his audience to understand. Despite current circumstances, the future is not in the hands of the Gentiles and their pagan kingdoms – but neither is the future Israel’s alone. The future is God’s, and the kingdom that is coming is his, no one else’s. The present state of affairs – persecution, oppression, exile, hopelessness – would soon give way to the coming of God’s kingdom in all power and glory; the destruction of the evil, pagan nations surrounding Israel; and the gathering of all the faithful – no matter who – in God’s protective embrace. Yes there would be rescue and restoration – but now for all who want it and seek God in search of it.

Question to Consider
Why might some of Jesus’ hearers not be thrilled at what he was saying?

Prayer
Heavenly Father, your kingdom is for all who want to enter. May I be a welcoming ambassador to everyone who seeks you – as well as those yet to know you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Conclude with Silence (2 minutes)


Day 3 – Another Echo from Isaiah

Silence, Stillness and Centering before God (2 minutes)

Scripture Reading – Mark 12:1

Isaiah again! But we should be used to this by now. Right from the beginning of the gospel (the second verse) Mark has shown an affinity for the prophet Isaiah. The parable of the mustard seed further illustrated this and now, with the parable of the tenants and the vineyard, Mark again shows us how Jesus uses the kingdom imagery of Isaiah as a launching pad for a scathing attack on the leaders of Israel and the way they have responded to God’s message in the past – and how they will again. In Isaiah chapter five we find a poem describing God planting a vineyard, watching over it, tending it in the hopes that it will produce a good crop – and yet the end result is a bad crop: wild grapes have invaded and grown instead of the bountiful crop God was wanting. So the vineyard will be taken down, animals will overrun it. Such is what happens to a people who continually refuse to take up the role God intends for them.

That is the background to this parable. What Jesus adds to the story is the idea that God waits at a distance, patiently sending his messengers and prophets to Israel in the hope that the people will finally obey his command to obedience and become the people he longs for them to be. And when that fails, God sends someone more than a prophet, someone dear to him: his beloved son – knowing that even so, despite this auspicious messenger, the message will still be rejected and the messenger – the son – killed. Again, as the story is told, there is no happy ending here.

Questions to Consider
What is your first reaction to this parable? What stands out to you? Why?

Prayer
Almighty God, thank you for sending your son to us, even though you knew how we would receive him, how we would scorn him, how we would kill him. Thank you for loving us so much better than we deserve. Amen.

Conclude with Silence (2 minutes)


Day 4 – The Owner and the Tenants

Silence, Stillness and Centering before God (2 minutes)

Scripture Reading – Mark 12:2-8

This parable has a lot to say both about the vineyard owner and the tenants. Mark goes into great detail about the vineyard owner’s preparations for establishing the vineyard: he plants it, builds a fence around it, digs the pit to hold the winepress, and builds a watch tower. The owner is heavily involved and is shown taking considerable care in his preparations. When the tenants he leases the vineyard to refuse meet with his servants sent to collect his share of the produce – even after they have beaten and killed some of these servants – he sends his son, believing they would respect him. God hoped for the redemption of Israel and sent his own son to bring it about. That he was killed simply amplifies the tragedy.

Such a wise, careful, considerate, sacrificial owner contrasts starkly with the wicked, selfish, sinful, murderous tenants. And yet the tenants did not start out as they ended up. This parable also shows the corrupting power of sin and the slippery slope that unchecked human sinfulness always leads down. The tenants did not start out wanting to steal the vineyard from the owner: they only wanted to keep the vineyard’s harvest for themselves. They did not begin from a position of murderous intent: the first servant was merely beaten. Yet when the path they had started on required murder as the next step to gain what they wanted – even of the owner’s son – they did not hesitate. They wanted the harvest, yet ended up thrown out of the vineyard altogether. Sin is invidious and dynamic: it evolves, and when indulged in or tolerated, leads to utter destruction.

Question to Consider
What do the owner’s preparations tell us about God’s character and plans?

Prayer
Heavenly father, convict me when I start to stray. Reign me in, bring me up short when I start to play with sin. Give me the strength to resist. Amen.

Conclude with Silence (2 minutes)


Day 5 – Challenge and Invitation

Silence, Stillness and Centering before God (2 minutes)

Scripture Reading – Mark 12:9-12

One thing to notice about the parable is that at the end, the owner of the vineyard (God) still holds the initiative over what to do in response to what the tenants have done. Yes, they have tried to take the harvest of the vineyard for themselves; yes, they have beaten and killed several of the owner’s messengers; and yes, they have finally killed the owner’s own son. But the question in verse nine (“What will the owner now do?”) shows that the power to determine the end of the story still lies with the owner – with God.

This parable isn’t just about prediction. It is not simply a case of bringing the audience up to speed with where the story is, establishing where Jesus stands in the story, and then showing them what is about to happen to him. That is still part of what the parable illustrates, but there is also a challenge and an invitation in the parable too. Jesus is challenging his audience – which contains several chief priests and scribes – to ask themselves how God might respond to the dismal job they have made of stewarding and caring and leading the people of God. The parable is their warning. But also, Mark is inviting his readers to ponder how God might have – but didn’t – respond to the crucifixion of Jesus, and how God’s love and care for the vineyard, and all people, is illustrated by what did happen to Jesus and what happened after. The son was killed, but God’s love endured and triumphed even so. God’s love ensured that the vineyard was preserved and entrusted to all.

Questions to Consider
What is challenging you in this parable? What invitation does it hold for you?

Prayer
Loving Lord, in all that you have done in your dealings with us, you have shown grace, compassion, mercy and love – the hallmarks of who you are. May they be characteristics of what I show those around me. Amen.

Conclude with Silence (2 minutes)