Sunday, June 6, 2021

Scattered Spores and Mystery Yields

Below is a rough translation and way too many preliminary notes regarding Mark 4:26-34, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B. These two parables and the comments about parabolic discourse in general follow the Parable of the Sower and Jesus’ curious words about the use of parables in 4:11-12. 
At the bottom of this post is a Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon, based on the Scripture in I Samuel 16:1-13. Feel free to use, ignore, or adapt as you wish. 

26 Καὶ ἔλεγεν, Οὕτως ἐστὶν  βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς ἄνθρωπος βάλῃ τὸν 
σπόρον ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς 
And he was saying, “In this manner the reign of God is as if a person would throw the spore on the earth 
ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain  1b) to teach 
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
βάλῃ: AASubj 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls  1a) to scatter, to throw, cast into  
1. A key interpretive question for this verse is what to do with the Οὕτως. Οὕτως can be “thus,” or “in this manner,” or “in this way,” etc. In that sense, the Οὕτως seems to point backward and forward, connecting what has been said with what is going to be said, rather than just beginning a new thought. The KJV tries to honor the Οὕτως  saying, “So is the Kingdom of God ….” The ESV, NIV and NRSV seem to ignore Οὕτως, as if Jesus is beginning a whole new thought
2. I think it is helpful to see the Οὕτως as connecting what follows to what has just been said. I see two connections. 
First, vv. 11 and 33-34 frame our pericope as a parable discourse, with insider and outsider degrees of understanding. In vv. 11, Jesus says to those who were gathered around him and the twelve, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.” Likewise, vv.33-34 conclude this section with, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” Much ink has been spilled on the earth already about the meaning of parables. The chief point for Mark, I think, is that parables are not simple illustrations that make the teachings clear. They are obfuscating stories that Jesus those who follow Jesus’ teachings will understand. 
Second, the Οὕτως connects the parable of the scattered spores to the parable of the sower. 
3. Curiously, the word typically translated ‘seed’ here is σπόρος (sporos), not σπέρμα (sperma). I don’t know if 1stcentury writers had quite the specificity as current botanists when it comes to these terms, but if the difference between ‘seed’ and ‘spore’ is important, this is a nice place to read about it: Vv.26-27 are the only 2 times Mark uses the word sporos. 
4. Incidentally, the “Parable of the Sower” never mentions a word for ‘seed’ (although some translations insert it); and the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” actually uses kokkoi(grain), which it identifies as the smallest of the ‘seeds.’ 
5. This man ‘throws’ (βάλλω) the seed on the earth. βάλλω is a very common term, the primary meaning of which seems to be random, rather than throwing at a specific target. Mark does not say that the man ‘sows’ (σπείρω), using the verb in the Parable of the Sower. Given the term ‘spores’ and the verb ‘throws,’ as well as the man not knowing how the plants grow (in v.27), this might be inadvertent, the result of getting rid of something unwanted that – unbeknownst to the person who threw it out – has spores on it that germinate and grow. 

27καὶ καθεύδῃ καὶ ἐγείρηται νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν, καὶ  σπόρος βλαστᾷ καὶ 
μηκύνηται ὡς οὐκ οἶδεν αὐτός.
and would fall asleep and be raised up night and day, and the spore would sprout and would grow as if he has not known. 
καθεύδῃ: PASubj 3s, καθεύδω, 1) to fall asleep, drop off to sleep
ἐγείρηται: PPSubj 3s, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake
βλαστᾷ: PASubj 3s, βλαστάνω, 1) to sprout, bud, put forth new leaves  2) to produce
μηκύνηται : PMSubj 3s, μηκύνω grow up,to make long, in NT middle, to lengthen one's self, that is to say, grow up, spoken of plants.
οἶδεν: PerfAI 3s, εἴδω, ἴδω, an obsolete form of the present tense, the place of which is supplied by ὁράω. The tenses coming from εἴδω and retained by usage form two families, of which one signifies to see, the other to know.
1. The word-by-word translation here is very wooden and awkward. It does, however, posit the downward upward motion of the man’s falling into and rising from sleep with the spores sprouting and growing, apart from the man’s awareness. 
2. The word ὡς (as if) is an issue in this verse, just like in the last verse. It appears again in v.31. ὡς can be translated in a variety of ways. The interpretive question here is whether it is used consistently or varied in this pericope. Most translations have it: “as if” in v.26; “how” in v.27; and “like” in v.31. I wonder if Mark is using it consistently, and I will try translating it that way, although it seems awkward at times. 
The point: If we translate ὡς “as if” (instead of “how”), it modifies the man’s ignorance. It is not that he doesn’t know ‘how’ the spores grew; it could be that he does not know that what he threw to the ground was loaded with spores, that it germinated, and that it was growing while he was going about doing his normal business of sleeping and rising. 
The options here strike me these ways:
If we translate ὡς as ‘how’ (per NIV, NRSV) then after the man throws the spore, he lets nature run its course without any idea how it works, just that it works and he will harvest in due season. 
If we translate ὡς as ‘as if,’ then the man is actually surprised by the whole appearance of anything to harvest at all. Still, he is able to put the sickle to it and harvest it. 
Either way, the harvesting is a far cry from the kind of agricultural engineering that we often associate with good farming. (So was the sower in the first parable, who threw stuff on every sort of ground without regard to its fertility.) 
3. Whatever it is that the man does not know, the fact that he does not know puts him in good company. Most of those hearing the parables of Jesus don’t know what he is talking about either. 

28 αὐτομάτη  γῆ καρποφορεῖ, πρῶτον χόρτον, εἶτα στάχυν, εἶτα πλήρη[ς] 
σῖτον ἐν τῷ στάχυϊ.
Of its own accord the earth bears fruit, first blade, then ear, then full grain in the ear. 
 καρποφορεῖκαρποφορέω, 1) to bear fruit  2) to bear, bring forth, deeds  3) to bear fruit of one's self
1. The word αὐτομάτη, which can be transliterated as ‘automated’, emphasizes the man’s complete lack of engineering or even participation in this fruit-bearing. 
2. In all my years of listening to Church Growth experts, I don’t recall a single one saying, “The Reign of God is something that you sow inadvertently and it grows while you are busy going about your business and, in fact, the whole harvest is simply a big surprise and a gift.” No, our agricultural metaphors for the Reign of God are of the deliberate, technique-driven sort. 
3. Technically, a ‘spore’ would produce moss or fern or something without fruit, so the current use of the terms ‘spore’ v. ‘seed’ may not reflect the ancient use. 

29 ὅταν δὲ παραδοῖ  καρπός, εὐθὺς ἀποστέλλει τὸ δρέπανον, ὅτι 
παρέστηκεν  θερισμός. 
Yet when the fruit would yield, immediately he sends the sickle, because the harvest has come.” 
παραδοῖ: AASubj 3s, παραδίδωμι, 1) to give into the hands (of another)  2) to give over into (one's) power or use  
ἀποστέλλει : PAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  2) to send away, dismiss
παρέστηκεν: PerfAI 3s, παρίστημι, 1) to place beside or near  1a) to set at hand  1a1) to present  1a2) to proffer  1a3) to provide 
1. Now we get to the active participation. “Throwing” the spores may have been incidental or intentional. The man had nothing to do whatsoever with the growing, and in fact was ignorant of the whole process. But now, in the harvesting, he actively participates by “sending the sickle.” 
2. The verb παρίστημι (“has come” in the perfect tense here) literally means ‘to stand by.’ It is used several other times in Mark, always referring to people standing nearby. 
3. Circling back to the beginning of this parable: What does this parable illustrate, with the words “in this manner, the reign of God is like…”? 
- Perhaps it expands the parable of the sower that whether the seed is randomly profusely scattered or spores are inadvertently scattered, God gives the increase and it is abundant. 
- Perhaps it explains the more difficult and curious words of Jesus in v. 25, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” This guy may have accidentally sown these spores and viola! now he sends his laborers out to gather a harvest. He did not do anything intentional, yet he is enriched. 

30 Καὶ ἔλεγεν, Πῶς ὁμοιώσωμεν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ,  ἐν τίνι αὐτὴν 
παραβολῇ θῶμεν; 
And he was saying, “How shall we liken the reign of God, or in what parable shall we place it? 
ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain  1b) to teach 
*ὁμοιώσωμεν : AASubj 1p, ὁμοιόω, 1) to be made like  2) to liken, compare  2a) illustrate by comparisons
*θῶμεν: AASubj 1p, τίθημι, 1) to set, put, place  1a) to place or lay  1b) to put down, lay down  1b1) to bend down  1b2) to lay off or aside, to wear or carry no longer  1b3) to lay by, lay aside money  1c) to set on (serve) something to eat or drink  1d) to set forth, something to be explained by discourse
* These are hortatory subjunctives
1. Now, we seem to be going back to the question that v.26 seems to be attempting to answer with the parable of the spores that grow unawares. What is the reign of God like, and why is Jesus couching it in these terms – not “How do we describe it,” but “In what parable shall we place it?” Is the assumption that the reign of God must be described via a parable? Or, is it a reality that cannot be disclosed in plain speech because it is ‘mysterious’ by its very nature (v. 11, μυστήριον)

31 ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως, ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, μικρότερον ὂν πάντων 
τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς,
As if a mustard grain, which when it would be sown into the earth, being smaller than all of the seeds in the earth, 
σπαρῇ: APSubj 3s, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed  2) metaph. of proverbial sayings 
ὂν: PAPart, nsn, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. To repeat an earlier observation, this is the only mention of “seed” in this chapter. 
2. It seems that most translations turn the participle ὂν into the simple verb ‘is.’ 

32 καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ, ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων καὶ 
ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους, ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ 
τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν. 
and when it would be sown, rises and becomes largest of all of the shrubs and produces large shoots, which it by its branches the birds of the heavens are enabled to nest. 
σπαρῇ: APSubj 3s, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed  2) metaph. of proverbial sayings 
ἀναβαίνει : PAI 3s, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up  1b) to rise, mount, be borne up, spring up
γίνεται : PMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 
ποιεῖ : PAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc. 
δύνασθαι : PMInf, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and  resources, or of a state of mind, or through favourable  circumstances, or by permission of law or custom
κατασκηνοῦν: PAInf, κατασκηνόω,1) to pitch one's tent, to fix one's abode, to dwell 
1. John Dominic Crossan is very informative on the mustard seed’s output, noting that it is not so ‘large’ as it is ‘invasive’ and with shoots that take over the surrounding area. 
2. If a dynamic of the Reign of God in the parable of the spores is that it is sown and grows apart from anyone’s intention or technique, the dynamic of this parable seems to be that it grows well beyond what anyone might have imagined possible. 
3. I wonder if Mark is writing during a time that the message of Christ is gaining popularity beyond what anyone might have expected from a marginal Jew who was killed as an enemy of the state and blasphemer. 

33 Καὶ τοιαύταις παραβολαῖς πολλαῖς ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον, καθὼς 
ἠδύναντο ἀκούειν: 
And in many such parables he was speaking to them the word, just as they were enabled to hear; 
ἐλάλει : IAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound  2) to speak  2a) to use the tongue or the faculty of speech  2b) to utter articulate sounds
ἠδύναντο : IMI 3p, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and  resources, or of a state of mind,
ἀκούειν: PAInf, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear 
1. The verb δύναμαιis usually ‘able’ or something like that. I have translated it here as ‘were enabled,’ because it is in the imperfect middle voice. I’m not sure if that is a solid choice, but it at least keeps me mindful that it is not simply the active voice. It also picks up on the lack of human control over the growth of the spores. Those who were able to hear did not do so simply by their own choice or effort. 

34 χωρὶς δὲ παραβολῆς οὐκ ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς, κατ' ἰδίαν δὲ τοῖς ἰδίοις μαθηταῖς 
ἐπέλυεν πάντα. 
Yet apart from parables he was not speaking to them, with privacy he explained all things to his disciples. 
ἐλάλει : IAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound  2) to speak  2a) to use the tongue or the faculty of speech  2b) to utter articulate sounds
ἐπέλυεν : IAI 3s, ἐπιλύω, 1) to unloose, untie  2) to clear (a controversy), decide, settle  3) to explain (what is obscure and hard to understand) 
1. I want the word ἴδιος to be about the sense of language, such as our words “idiom” or “idiomatic,” but at this stage is seems to have a larger meaning of anything which is particular, rather than general. For the disciples to be ἴδιος disciples would mean that they are disciples of Jesus– the lexicons say ἴδιος, at times, could replace a more common possessive pronoun. I have used ‘privacy’ to capture the first ἴδιος, because it distinguishes the particular disciples from the crowd in general. It seems that it was a later turn of language that makes “idiom” and “idiomatic” more about language that is specific to a certain people or region. 

And here is a liturgical resource.

Holy Scripture                    I Samuel 16:1-13             (Bible, OTpage 248)

Our Scripture reading is a story from Israel’s early history as a kingdom. For many years, God led the people through judges, but the people demanded a king. Despite God’s warning that kings would become tyrants, the people insisted, so God gave them King Saul. Like many kings, Saul started humbly, but became disobedient to God. So, Samuel sadly confronted Saul and declared that God had rejected him as king. Now we hear the next part of the story. Listen for the Word of God.    

[Read I Samuel 16:1-13]    

This ends the reading. Thanks be to God. 


Prayer of Confession                                                          

David, the runt of the litter, was the last person Samuel thought would be God’s chosen one. But, God has a way of seeing what we do not see and choosing those whom we dismiss. Please join in our Prayer of Confession and then in silence as we confess our distorted vision together.

God of wisdom: We confess that our vision is distorted. 

We are beguiled by cultural depictions of beauty. 

We are focused on status and image. 

We are blinded by habit and appetite. 

We see through a prism of popularity and power. 

But you see the heart, the true measure of others. 

And you call us to do the same. 

Forgive our distortions and enable us to see as you see: 

To see enemies as friends;

To see the poor as blessed; 

To see the alien as family; 

To see Christ in each other. 

   (Count 30, then say “Amen.”)

   (Count 30, then say “Amen.”) 


Words of Assurance                                                      

Friends, hear this good news! In Christ, God has forgiven our failings and claims us as beloved children. Through the Spirit, God is at work in us making all things new.

ONE: Believe in the good news of the gospel. 

ALL: In Jesus Christ, we have new life. 


  1. Always grateful for your insights and only regret I haven't mentioned it before.

  2. In your comment on v30, when you refer to "mysterious," do you think you are conflating the common modern sense of the word as "inexplicable" or "puzzling" with its original Greek sense of "insider knowledge?"

    1. Hi Henry,
      I may be conflating the two meanings, but I'm not seeing a significant difference between the contemporary use and the idea of "insider knowledge." To me, the use of "mystery," as opposed to other ways of characterizing something, implies that there is a reason, I just don't know it.
      Can you offer a better way to think about the NT use of 'mystery'?

  3. I find this parable an apt metaphor for my work as a university chaplain. Your careful and yet adventurous exegesis is most helpful in deepening my reflection on ministry.

  4. I'm a crass amateur at NT Greek, but note you translate 'anthropos' (v26) as 'man' - is that deliberate or could you go with 'person' or 'man or woman'? [With many thanks for your weekly insights which are incredibly helpful]

    1. Hi PB,
      Thanks for the nice comment. I always use expansive language about God and humanity when I write liturgy and sermons. I find that I usually do so when translating a text, unless the referent is clearly gendered already. In this case, I think I was just being lazy, so I thank you for pointing it out. I've modified it to 'person' because it makes no difference to the story whether this person is specifically gendered or not.
      Thanks. MD

  5. What would happen if we connected this reading to Mark 4:21-25? Mark, you allude to part of it with your note for vs 29. I don't know...I'm beginning to realize I've misunderstood vs 21-23 all this time....but I can't quite grasp what I'm missing. UGH i need help!

    1. If it's any consolation, Nicole, a member of my Text Study class - a retired religion professor and a Mark scholar for many years - walked in this morning and said, "Ah, today we get the Markan Muddle."

      Maybe here is a perspective: All of these references to seeds, spores, and grains falling into the ground and bringing life ... maybe they are preparing the disciples to hear the disclosures of c.8, 9, and 10 that Jesus "must" go to Jerusalem, be rejected and killed and on the third day rise again. It's how the Reign of God works. And those who scatter or sow have very little power over it once it hits the ground. In fact, I would argue that the earth itself is filled with God's resurrection power.
      Something like that.

    2. I'm still confounded by vs 24-25 and the implications for the passage for Sunday. It all feels like a dichotomy...the seed grows without any action on the man but vs24-25 challenges us to not forget our responsibility to be intentional with the Word we have been given...and that the more we are responsible the more we become responsible for?

  6. Love the Church Growth comment! I am compelled to think much happens in the Kingdom that is not of our planning....

    1. The whole meaning of word "providence" is trying to capture how much this is all in God's hands. One day I'll publish that essay on election and evangelism that's been konking around in my head for years.

  7. How about this for accidentally spreading spores:


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