Sun, Jun 17, 2018

The kingdom of God is...


"Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

how does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells,

and pretty maids all in a row".


On the surface... 

this nursery rhyme seems to be about a woman tending a garden.

But, according to a number of scholars, that's not the case.

Some claim that it's actually a religious allegory:

the reference to Mary is to Catholicism;

the silver bells refer to the sanctuary bells;

the cockleshells to the badges worn by pilgrims to the shrine of St James in Spain;

and the pretty maids to nuns. 

But those who advocate this line of interpretation disagree as to whether it's lamenting the demise of Catholicism...

or advocating its persecution.

According to another theory, the rhyme refers to Mary, Queen of Scots:

"How does your garden grow" refers to her control of her realm;

"silver bells" refer to Catholic bells;

while "cockleshells" is insinuating that her husband was not faithful to her.

Another theory suggests that it refers to Mary, Queen of England--

otherwise known as "Bloody Mary".

The reference to, "how does your garden grow", is  mocking her barrenness;

"quite contrary" refers to her attempt to reinstate Catholicism;

and "pretty maids in a row" may refer to her burnings and executions of Protestants.

A variation of that theory suggests that the "garden" refers to her graveyard... 

which she grew by filling it with protestant martyrs...

the "silver bells and cockleshells" represent instruments of torture;

and the "maids" refer to the guillotine... 

which was colloquially nicknamed "The Maiden".


Even seemingly simple stories can have complex and contested meanings.

And that's certainly true with the Parables in the Gospels.

Even within the Gospels themselves, there are references or allusions to hidden meanings.

Meanwhile scholars are prone to speak of the "polyvalent meaning" of the Parables--

that is, suggesting that parables have more than one meaning or interpretation.

Or it can be that scholars simple disagree about what a parable means.

The first parable in this morning's reading from Mark's Gospel is a case in point.

It's a seemingly simple story:

A man scatters seeds on the ground and then goes about his ordinary life.

Meanwhile, the seeds grow... 

and, when ripe, the man harvests the grain.

And this, we're told, is what the Kingdom of God--

the extension of God's justice, mercy and love...

the fulfilment of God's intention for creation--

is like.


Some scholars point out that the man does nothing--

apart from sowing and harvesting.

There's no reference, even, to him ploughing the ground.

There's no mention of any work of tending the crop.

And yet, within the context of ancient peasant agricultural practices...

we wouldn't expect that.

At best, they practiced some crop rotation and fallowing of land...

but they didn't routinely fertilise...

and they didn't irrigate.

Such practices were, in part, also reinforced by their worldview.

As I have pointed out before, theirs was a world that lacked a sense of impersonal causality--

nothing "just happened".

Someone, usually God, was responsible for everything that took place.

The statements that the man does not know how the seed grows into a plant...

and "the earth produces of itself"--

which is actually a misleading translation...

because the sense is, rather, "without visible cause"--

both these statements attest to the belief that the growth was directly the result of God's activity.


according to some scholars-- 

this parable is pointing out that the Kingdom of God is not something that we accomplish.

It's not up to us.

We neither realise it by our actions...

nor can we hinder it.

The coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God is God's doing.

The problem is, such an interpretation relies upon identifying us--

the hearers--

with the man in the parable.

And yet, unlike some parables, this one does not begin...

"The Kingdom of God is like a man who...".

The introduction to this parable strongly suggests that the comparison is with the whole story.

It precludes any attempt to move in an allegorical direction.

And yet, there are also deeper problems with that line of interpretation--

that the kingdom is God's doing.

That interpretation lends itself to political domestication.

In other words, it encourages passivity and it tacitly condones injustice.

Such an interpretation is also predicated on the theistic notion of an interventionist God--

that is, the idea that God is directly active in our world;

and it's also predicated on a concept of what's called the "God of the Gaps"--

the idea that God is the explanation for that which we cannot explain.

Such conceptions of God are highly problematic...

and very difficult to maintain... 

in the face of our ever-expanding knowledge and experience of the world.


So, if we eschew such concepts of God...

and if we avoid allegorising the parable...

then what are we left with?


Perhaps the clue is still in the statement about the sower that, "he does not know how".

The intricacies of plant biology were unknown to the ancients.

How a plant grew from a seed was, quite simply, a mystery.

Add to that, within the constraints of first century agricultural practice...

with peasants scattering seed on poor and poorly prepared soil...

with no fertilising or irrigation...

and in semi-arid conditions, where droughts were common...

it was, perhaps, a miracle that there was any harvest at all.

And, maybe, in a sense, that's the point.

Every act of sowing in antiquity was an act of faith.

Even more than for farmers today, they were at the mercy of the elements.

They had no control of the process--

a process which, in the end, they didn't really understand.

So, perhaps, this parable is simply pointing out that we are not in control of our world;

and we are certainly not in control of the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God--

the extension of God's justice, mercy and love...

the fulfilment of God's intention for creation-- 

can happen in surprising ways.

It can take place where we don't necessarily expect it...

among people we wouldn't necessarily expect...

in ways that we wouldn't necessarily expect.

The Kingdom cannot be controlled...

and it isn't always obvious.

How we understand God's work in the world...

how we understand the will of God--

God's intention for humanity and the whole creation--

can and must change.

We can never presume that we have grasped the full or final sense of it.

While that may not be an idea that was ever intended in this parable...

it's one that we need to affirm out of it...

in light of our growing knowledge and experience.

As the New Testament scholar, Arland Hultgren puts it:

"At best, persons can align themselves with the future of God as they see it, but knowing that they must not confuse their convictions with the absolute will of God".


This parable, then, invites us to embrace the mystery of God...

and of the mystery God's purposes for creation.

And it invites us to do that to the best of our knowledge...

and to the best of our ability. 

Maybe, in the end...

the appropriate response is actually summed up by the saying usually attributed to St Augustine:

"Pray as if everything depended on God... 

work as if everything depended on you".


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