by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man throws seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how he does not know.” Mark 4, 26-34
Back in the days of Jesus, it would seem that farmers had little knowledge of agricultural science. They ploughed the land, scattered the seed by hand and hoped the rains would come to water the land. Since then, agricultural science has made great advances. However, modern-day farmers, like their counterparts of ancient times, still have to put their faith in weather patterns, trusting that the rains will arrive in due course. We talk about faith as a virtue. In fact, definitions and explanations of faith can be found in all kinds of theology books and dictionaries. In the context of today’s gospel reading, we could describe faith as the ability to see the potential in the smallest of things and the courage, patience and perseverance to allow or even to help that potential to emerge.
However, I want to suggest that this parable of the kingdom of God, with which today’s gospel reading opens, is a little more complex than appears on the surface. To begin with, this parable is to be found only in Mark’s Gospel. Secondly, there are one or two linguistic oddities. We normally use the expression “day and night”, but the expression here is “Night and day”. In the Jewish mind, a new day begins with sunset. In our thinking, it starts with sunrise. And verses 27 and 28 look as though they are saying the same thing twice. Verse 27 concludes with the statement that the sower of the seed, presumably the farmer, has no idea of how the seed sprouts and grows: “Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know.” One would thing that any farmer would know how the seeds he plants come to grow. And then verse 28 draws our attention away from the sower’s sense of mystery to give us a statement that is central to the structure of the parable: “Of its own accord, the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” The clear message is that the God who created the earth and the plants and the seeds is the one who causes the growth of the seed, and the one who also brings about the growth and establishment of the kingdom. The growth of the seed, according to the parable, happens without any input from the sower.
So, the central message and meaning of this parable is that God’s kingdom, God’s rule of mercy, justice and compassion, is initiated by God, and will come into being, whether or not our efforts support its growth or oppose it. The parable gives no attention to the sower’s working the soil or nurturing the growing plants. It does the very opposite, pointing out that the sower sows and then waits. The process of growth goes on, with no effort on the part of the sower. God’s kingdom will come for sure and certain. It is up to all of us to wait in patience, but also in faith and hope, convinced that God’s purposes will come to fulfilment in God’s good time.
This resonates with the advice that James offers in his letter to the Christian community: “Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the coming of the Lord. Think of a farmer: how patiently he waits for the precious fruit of the ground until it has had the autumn rains and the spring rains! You, too, must be patient and not lose heart (James 5, 7-8).
How then do we make sense of the line in the Lord’s prayer, which we probably pray every single day: “Your kingdom come”? If we understand this parable, we have to conclude that God’s kingdom will come because that’s what God wants for us and our world. Even a brief look at our world would seem to suggest that God’s kingdom is a long way from being realised. However, our praying “your kingdom come” is a prayer that God’s kingdom will come to life in us. Coming to life in us is the first step of its coming to life in our world.
The second parable in today’s gospel is that of the mustard seed. Jesus uses the parable of the mustard seed to illustrate how God can bring forth greatness from even the tiniest of beginnings. Both parables are metaphors for how we live our lives. Whatever “seeds” of goodness, kindness and compassion we possess are meant to be sown with faith and confidence in our God, who will use them to sprout and flourish into a harvest of which we may not even have dreamed. The seeds we plant will contribute towards the establishment of the kingdom of God.
While Jesus used the parable of the mustard seed to teach how, in God’s providence, surprising results can come from very small beginnings, other lessons can be drawn from plants like mustard trees. In places like the State of California, both Sahara and Spanish mustard plants were introduced and have now reached pest proportions. The plants extract from the soil nutrients that are much needed for commercial crops. Legend has it that the seeds for Spanish mustard were scattered across California by the European Franciscan missionary, Junipero Serra. European missionaries have sometimes been responsible for bringing “mixed blessings” to some cultures into which they have supposedly brought the Gospel. There have been times when indigenous peoples have been forced or pressured to adopt Christianity. Disease and slavery have sometimes accompanied missionaries.
When we look at the history of our own cultures and the actions of so-called “civilised society”, we can see good and evil, light and darkness woven together. Even the very best of intentions can lead to unintended, damaging and destructive consequences. And we know that the same kind of ambivalence, ambiguity and paradox exists also in nature. Bushfires often destroy lives, homes and crops as they regenerate the land on which they burn.
Expanses of yellow-flowered mustard plants in bloom are beautiful to the eye. Yet the seed, carried on the wind, invades fields and crops, and grows with wild unpredictability. Still, it’s the metaphor of the mustard seed that Jesus chooses to describe the coming and growth of the kingdom of God. Perhaps Jesus is saying that God’s reality will, like the mustard seed, eventually burst unharnessed across the world. When we pray “Your kingdom come”, we had better be aware of what exactly it is for which we are praying.
All this invites me to reflect on how my life, my actions and my world have, at their very core, possibilities for good and evil, kindness and pettiness, beauty and repulsiveness. Our lives are closely connected to paradox. Maybe, at the very heart of God’s kingdom, of God’s rule is to be found the same kind of paradoxical tension. Is that, I find myself asking, why Jesus relied on puzzling parables to explain the kingdom of God? Having to live with contradictions in my own life is uncomfortable. Knowing that who I am and what I do have potential for good and evil, for light and dark, can be unsettling. However, it can also help me to live with humility.