The Gospel and a Mermaid

By Sarah Cornwell

A Reading from the Gospel of Mark 4:1-20

1 Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. 2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20 And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”


In today’s reading, Jesus begins to teach using parables. Jesus understood what we often forget: stories are not trivial. Good stories create good inner soil in which the seed of the gospel truth can be planted. Bad stories, in contrast, fill us with rocks and sand so that the way of truth cannot take root and grow.

Take, for instance, two different versions of “The Little Mermaid.” In Hans Christian Anderson’s original story, the little mermaid’s ultimate desire is for an immortal soul, and she undergoes great physical pain and self-sacrifice in its pursuit, and yet fails. She is offered a longer earthly life if she kills the man she loves, but she refuses. Still, she is granted grace. She does not die, but her spirit lives on performing good works for mankind that, after a time, she may be given a soul and welcomed into eternal joy.

Then there is the Disney version. Here, the mermaid’s desire is earthly happiness, unattainable only because of the narrow, parochial views of her father and community. She makes a deal with a sea witch — putting her life at risk, yes, but ultimately putting the lives of others at greater risk — and would ultimately perish were it not for the self-sacrifice of her father, her friends, and her future husband. In the end, she is simply given everything she wants, having risked much and learned nothing.

Which of these stories might prepare a soul’s soil better for the gospel to take deep root?

We choose the stories that we consume, from books, to podcasts, to movies and TV. We consume them, digest them, and make them a part of us as surely as we consume and digest food and drink. Many of us are blessed with an abundance of choices. We must choose wisely for ourselves and our children to ensure that the inner soil we cultivate is rich, so that the seed of truth and the hope of grace may take root and thrive.

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman, ballet teacher, and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have six children and they live in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer

Today we pray for:

St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, River Hills, Wis.
L’Eglise Anglicane du Rwanda


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