There is something in these kingdom parables about seeds and sowing that immediately makes good sense to us. We all know the ways in which great things can spring from small beginnings: the single word or touch that becomes a celebrated romance, the small lie that leads into a life of deception, a chance meeting of like-minded people that leads to a significant political or social movement. In almost every language and culture there is a proverb or saying with
the same meaning: in English it is “great oaks from little acorns grow;” in Chinese and Arabic, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The Bible itself is full of stories that make the same point: the tiny band of slaves becomes a great people, the young shepherd boy grows up to be a mighty king. If sometimes the significance of Jesus’ words is subtle and complex, here in these verses from St. Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ meaning seems clear and sensible and uncomplicated.
The parables of Jesus that were most precious to the earliest Christian communities were those that seemed to defy common sense rather than affirm it. A stranger on a dangerous road should keep on walking, not stop to help an injured man. A shepherd who has lost one of his hundred sheep should take special care of the 99, not go chasing after the single lost animal. A father should be making his prodigal son pay for the error of his ways, not throwing a party. It is the “sting” of Jesus’ parables, their unexpected twist of logic, that makes them so penetrating and challenging. But these “seed parables” seem to be in a different category; they seem to be a matter of proverbial common sense.
To those in a crisis situation, however, common sense is sometimes more difficult to accept than irrational visions. And to the community of faith that St. Mark was addressing – afflicted and persecuted; divided and anxious – the difficulty was acute. They were ready to believe that the kingdom of God would be one to turn things upside down, defy logic, that the kingdom of God would be one in which the last would be first and the first last, in which the poor and the mourners and the meek would find places of honor while the rich and the powerful were turned away with nothing. Not only were they ready and willing to believe these things about the kingdom, they were staking their very lives on them.
But to believe that the kingdom was coming in the same slow, barely perceptible way that seeds sprout and plants grow, well this was simply impossible. He who was surely the long-promised Messiah had come at last. And if Jesus had come, shouldn’t the kingdom come as well – all at once, complete and perfect? To those waiting for the kingdom of God, Jesus’ “seed parables” do not make good sense at all. The kingdom should not come like the unhurried growing of a seed but like the exploding of a bomb.
But Jesus is saying that, once again, expectations of the kingdom have to be turned upside down. He is saying that there is a waiting time between the inauguration of the kingdom and its final consummation; a waiting time much like that between the seed and the shrub, the planting and the harvest. But if there is a necessary waiting time that separates the coming of Jesus and the full establishment of the reign of God, then how are we to live in it? How do we act in the time between the announcement and the event, the seed and the harvest? What kind of discipleship is called for if we accept that the seed has been sown and the kingdom is growing secretly and will become a great harvest, a mighty bush?
The seed parables tell us not to take ourselves too seriously. The kingdom that is coming is God’s kingdom, it will come in God’s good time and according to its own natural patterns of growth. Like the man who sows, we are called to recognize that the kingdom’s coming doesn’t depend on us but on the will and purpose of God. And to see that much of the kingdom’s growth is in secret, in ways we cannot perceive, but that even so, the harvest is assured. But this must not lead to complacency or indifference. For the same parables that warn us about taking ourselves too seriously, also warn us to take ourselves seriously enough! Our small human acts of love, compassion and hope, when they are the fruits of our own sense of being grafted into the kingdom of God in Christ, can have profound and far-reaching effects. In these terms the life of Jesus himself was a parable. To all appearances it was a small, failed life: healing a child here, speaking with compassion to a woman there, eating a meal with a tax collector, telling a story. But because these acts, this life, was so firmly grafted into the kingdom, its ultimate significance is beyond imagining. In an important way, the work that God does in bringing the kingdom is as the author of 1 John says; “Dear friends, we are God’s children now; what we shall later be has not yet come to light.” But the goal is not completely unknown, for he adds, “We know that when it comes to light we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Then the mustard seed will have become a giant shrub, and the grain will be ready for harvest .
- What kind of seeds do I plant in myself every day? Seeds of deception or seeds of the Kingdom?
- What kind of seeds do I plant that help grow the Kingdom of God? How about the kingdom of evil? How about my own kingdom?