Taking Root Downward: The Church Regrounded

 There is a further connection.  The Sower Parable alludes to Isaiah’s later apocalyptic version of his love song, which speaks of Yahweh’s “declaration of war on the thorns”:
On that day, sing of the pleasant vineyard!  I Yahweh am its keeper; every moment I water it for fear its leaves should fall; Night and day I watch over it.  I am angry no longer.  If thorns and briars come I will declare war on them, I will burn them all.  But if they would shelter under my protection, let them make their peace with me (Is 27:2-5).
Prophets scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp believes that this oracle is related to Isaiah 5:1-7 “as commentary to text.”  Do the “choking thorns” of the Sower Parable (Mk 4:7) allude to this song (see also Is 34:13)?  In favor of this connection would be the fact that Mk 4:19 identifies thorns with the anxieties of affluence.  This resonates with the fact that in Isaiah’s vineyard song, the punchline is a sharp critique of the rich (Is 5:7ff). 
This connection is made even more explicit in the apocryphal but early (ca 100 C.E.) Christian midrash which conflates the Parable with the story of the rich man’s rejection of discipleship:
And from the third mountain, which has thorns and thistles, are such believers as these.  Of them are those who are rich and are mixed up with many affairs of business, for the thistles are the rich, and the thorns are those who are mixed up with various affairs of business.  These then who are engaged in many and various businesses do not cleave to the servants of God but are choked by their work and go astray…For just as it is difficult to walk with naked feet among thistles, so it is also “difficult” for such people “to enter into the kingdom of God” (Similitudes of Hermes, 9.20:1-3).
Both Isaiah’s love songs and Jesus’ parables, then, affirm the people’s identification with the land, while at the same time using the vineyard as metaphor for an oppressive agrarian political economy. 
The “Great Economy,” then, is envisioned not as some otherworldly place and time, but as the reclamation of the very soil upon which Palestinian farmers toil.  The liberation of the people depends utterly upon the liberation of the land itself.  This was certainly brought home to me recently as we visited Palestinian farmers who are struggling to survive on marginal land, doggedly tending centuries-old terraced hillsides in spite of the harassment, displacement and “terracide” they face from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. 
There is a certain politically constraining character to this biblical discourse of the land.  Jesus’ Sower Parable and its counsel to patience strikes a very different tone than the urgent, militant Parable of the Strong Man which occurs just a few verses earlier—the first parable in the gospel narrative, and the “master metaphor” for Jesus’ mission in Mark (3:25-27).  Jesus seems to understand how a commitment to revolutionary ends can deteriorate into short-sighted and destructive means.  Indeed, modern history demonstrates how often radical analysis and action is subverted by the Promethean delusion that dissenters must erase the past, raze the present and build a new house from the ground up!  The problem is, untold horrors have been justified in uprisings aiming to “smash the system,” from the widespread violence of Ukrainian anarchists during the Russian Revolution to the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields in Cambodia to contemporary terrorist bombings small and large. 
In the teaching of Jesus, the enthusiasm of would-be revolutionary architects of a New Order is tempered by the image of cultivation: The Great Economy is seeded through patient sowing, mysterious growth and the wise farmer’s ability to discern the time of harvest (Mk 4:26-29).  While we must defect from the “House” (the Strong Man Parable), we can never finally defect from land, the universal foundation of all human life.  Indeed, this wisdom underlies the entire narrative of biblical radicalism.  When in Exodus, the people are promised a homeland; when in exile, a return (Is 40:1ff; 65:21ff).  The biblical story begins with the myth of a garden-home on the land which is lost (Gen 2-3), and concludes with the myth of that garden-home’s restoration (Rev 22:1f).  Only by “taking root downward,” claims Isaiah, “can the surviving remnant… again bear fruit upward” (Is 37:31).