by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,,, It is like a mustard seed…” Mark 4: 26-34

If there is one thing that becomes clear from the two parables in today’s gospel-reading, it is that Jesus was not a farmer. No farmer worth his salt would ever plant a crop without taking precautions to protect it from birds and predatory insects. A farmer would hardly ever plant a crop and leave it to grow all by itself. The point Jesus was surely making in the parable that opens today’s gospel reading is that nobody would ever be able to control the growth of the kingdom of God. Jesus himself was unable to control its growth, for he could not control the religious leaders who refused to listen to the message he was intent on proclaiming. I want to suggest that, paradoxically, he wanted to teach his disciples that they, too, would run into opposition from those from whom they least expected it to come.
Jesus was pointing out that, in the long run, nobody could come in and programme God. He himself had set about his mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. He had been provided with the seed to sow in order for the kingdom of God to grow and to flourish, but it was the God of surprises who would determine when that kingdom would actually become a reality. The second of today’s parables points to that fact that, on its advent, God’s kingdom of justice and freedom would grow as wildly and vigorously as a mustard bush. From tiny beginnings, God’s kingdom would come to flourish.
Jesus himself very quickly discovered that, despite his best efforts. which included his reaching out to the poor, the neglected, the disabled and the despised, it looked as though he was not about to reap a harvest. In instructing his disciples, then, he was really telling them that everything they would work and hope for as they went about their ministry would be utterly beyond their control. They would not be able to programme God! In other words, Jesus was instructing his disciples to embark on their mission and do their very best at proclaiming the message of God’s boundless love for the world but to accept that there was no way in which they could force anyone to embrace the message they proclaimed. Jesus himself had next to no success in bringing the religious authorities of his day to listen to him. All he could do was to encourage his disciples to put their trust in God, as he himself had done. The kingdom of God which he proclaimed and which they, in their turn, would proclaim was as unmanageable as the mustard seed, once it germinated, grew and spread. Once God’s kingdom sprouted and spread, it would be full of surprise and touch people’s lives in unexpected ways.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reinforced Jesus’ message when he stated: “Glory be to God whose power, working within us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…” (Ephesians 3: 20)
Our mission, as disciples of Jesus, is to invest ourselves, by the way we live, in pointing to the goodness and love of God for us and our world, but to hold lightly onto our own hopes and expectations, so that God’s possibilities are not suffocated.
The integral message of the parable of the mustard seed for each of us is to take ourselves less seriously than we might be inclined to. We are meant to be God’s instruments as, in imitation of Jesus, we dedicate ourselves to giving witness to the love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness of God. We, in our turn, in imitation of Jesus, are expected to plant the seeds we have been given. However, we have to trust that God is the one who will determine just how those seeds will grow, develop and produce fruit.
I still wonder why Jesus chose the mustard seed and its wild, uncontrollable growth as a metaphor for the spread of God’s kingdom. Mustard plants have a touch of beauty while, at the same time, are labelled as a noxious weed that interrupts the growth of crops, especially in the northern hemisphere. Maybe Jesus was well aware of the paradox that is present in our own lives. We know we are capable of good, but can also be a source of tension and struggle for those among whom we live and work. That realisation can help us to be more humble about who we are and what we are capable of achieving and producing to benefit those around us.
Today’s first reading from Ezekiel was meant as a word of comfort to a people who were in exile in Babylon. It was a promise that a people in exile could look forward to a future full of promise, when they could be as sturdy and reliable as solid cedar trees. By comparison, to be told by Jesus that they would be as prolific and as insignificant as a mustard bush, which was as worthless as a weed, would have been heard as a bit of a joke. But that’s the paradox of the kingdom of God, which was being heralded by God’s messiah, who had come to the world as a servant leader. Therein lies a challenge for each of us. We must ask ourselves if we are prepared to be seen as of little significance yet as instruments of God, ready to proclaim that God’s love is for all, irrespective of their social status or claim to fame. Our role as disciples of Jesus is to model the compassion, mercy, forgiveness and welcome of a God, who loves everyone equally. We don’t need status to do that or to be anything other than ordinary, decent human beings who have made room for God in our daily lives.