Lectionary for June 16, 2024
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 15:34–16:13; Psalm 20;
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

One of my favorite dad hacks when I need to interrupt problematic behavior in my kids is to short-circuit their expectations. If someone isn’t listening very well, I’ll raise my voice and shout, “Hey!” When three sets of little eyes turn to look at me, expecting to be reprimanded, I’ll tell them, “You boys are a delight to your mom and me.” Or I give them an animal fact: “You guys are the bees’ knees, but did you know that bees don’t actually have knees?” The kids laugh, the situation is defused and then we can go on with our days. Confounding expectations is a powerful tool for teaching and disrupting problematic behavior. This week’s lectionary texts describe a few situations of confounding expectations.

King Saul won a great victory over the Amalekites—a particularly evil culture that first attacked the sick and slow refugees from Egypt who trailed behind the march (Deuteronomy 25:17) and then targeted Israelite women and children while the men were away (1 Samuel 30:1-2). But Saul disobeys God’s commands through Samuel because he, naturally, expects to share in the spoils of war. His expectations, however, are confounded when Samuel censures him for his disobedience.

In replacing Saul, God wants to teach Samuel a lesson about expectations. God could have easily told him to go directly and anoint David. Instead, God leaves the future king’s identity a mystery and merely instructs Samuel that God has chosen one of Jesse’s sons. Samuel expects one of the tall, strong sons to be king (1 Samuel 16:6-7) because their height resembles Saul’s (1 Samuel 9:2). But God confounds Samuel’s expectations and picks the youngest, presumably littlest, boy.

For those who want grand triumphs and victory parades, God confounds expectations.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus told two parables to intentionally confound expectations about the kingdom of God.

In the first parable, the kingdom is like a person who plants a seed and then goes to sleep. Here the kingdom is the planter, not the seed. The seed grows by itself (Mark 4:28) without the planter’s intervention. The planter’s next action is to recognize when the seed has borne fruit and to collect it for the use of the planter/kingdom. What does this mean? The kingdom of God can plant good in the world that can simply be left to develop on its own. The kingdom/planter doesn’t need to micromanage or be involved in every stage of development. Instead, the kingdom’s role in this place is to plant, rest and then be watchful for when fruit of the planted seeds is ready to be harvested. Does this hands-off approach to the work of the kingdom confound your expectations as much as it does mine?

The biggest confounding of expectations is found in the parable of the mustard seed. Everything about this parable is topsy-turvy. There were strict rules concerning the planting of mustard because it spreads so rapidly. The tiny seed produces a large bush that can take over a garden. And, once planted, it gives shelter to the “birds of the air.”

Jesus had just used birds undermining the work of sowers as a symbol of Satan about 300 words earlier in Mark 4:4, 15 (in some translations, Matthew 13:19 says “the wicked one” and Luke 8:5, 12 “the devil”). Here the kingdom of God is a seed that has such a profoundly good impact that even those on the side of evil benefit from it! God’s gracious work confounds expectations so much that, just as God causes the sun to rise on the evil and good and causes rain to fall for the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45), the kingdom of God provides rest and safety for the good and evil alike.

Jesus, by using the “birds of the air resting” is also confounding expectations about what the kingdom of God will be like. He referenced a well-known prophesy from Ezekiel 31:2-14 that mighty kingdoms and the tyrants who run them will be pulled down. The birds of the air rested in the mighty Assyrian cedar while it was standing (Ezekiel 31:6, and then again when it was brought low Ezekiel 31:13). The mustard seed becomes large in a garden complex but never grows to the haughty heights of the magnificent cedar. Jesus calls to mind Ezekiel’s warning to Pharoah—the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The kingdom of God will not be mighty and powerfully exalted in this age. Instead, it will stay humble and grow quickly. For those expecting God to provide military conquests like the empires of the world, Jesus’ words are the most confounding.

Jesus commends the ways of humility and non-anxious accompaniment. God’s chosen leaders never grow to impressive, mighty heights of fame. The kingdom doesn’t micromanage or stress. And the kingdom doesn’t discriminate who benefits from the humble spreading of good. For those who want grand triumphs and victory parades, God confounds expectations.

Cory Driver
Cory Driver is the director of L.I.F.E. (Leading the Integration of Faith and Entrepreneurship) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His book on wilderness spirituality, Life Unsettled, is available from Fortress Press.

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