Growing the Kingdom
All their lives the two young brothers had lived in the city behind great stone walls and never saw field nor meadow. But one day they decided to pay a visit to the country.
As they went walking along the road, they saw a farmer at his plowing. They watched him and were puzzled.
“Why on earth is he doing that!” they wondered. “He turns up the earth and leaves deep furrows in it. Why should someone take a smooth piece of land covered with nice green grass and dig it up?”
Later they watched the farmer sowing grains of wheat along the furrows.
“That man must be crazy!” they exclaimed. “He takes good wheat and throws it into the dirt.” “I don’t like the country!” said one in disgust. “Only crazy people live here.” So, he returned to the city.
His brother who remained in the country saw a change take place only several weeks later. The plowed field began to sprout tender green shoots, even more beautiful and fresher than before. This discovery excited him very much. So, he wrote to his brother in the city to come at once and see for himself the wonderful change.
His brother came and was delighted with what he saw. As time passed, they watched the sproutings grow into golden heads of wheat. Now they both understood the purpose of the farmer’s work.
When the wheat became ripe the farmer brought his scythe and began to cut it down. At this the impatient one of the two brothers exclaimed: “The farmer is crazy! He’s insane! How hard he worked all these months to produce this lovely wheat, and now with his own hands he is cutting it down! I’m disgusted with such an idiot and I’m going back to the city!”
His brother, the patient one, held his peace and remained in the country. He watched the farmer gather the wheat into his granary. He saw him skillfully separate the grain from the chaff. He was filled with wonder when he found that the farmer had harvested a hundred-fold of the seed that he had sowed. Then he understood that there was logic in everything that the farmer had done.[i]
The passages for today challenge us to look beyond surface appearances and worldly assumptions for deeper meaning and new ways of seeing.
Chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel comprises a major sermon of Jesus in which “He began to teach them many things in parables …” (Mk. 4:2). In today’s reading, Jesus portrays God’s Kingdom through the imagery of two parables about seeds.
The parable of the self-growing seed (Mk. 4:26-29), found only in Mark, describes the growth of the Kingdom as a Divine mystery, not dependent on human effort. The farmer who plants the seed actually does nothing to bring about its growth. He sleeps at night and rises in the morning to see what has come forth — until, seemingly without effort or explanation, the grain is ripe in due time. He then takes his sickle to harvest the crop (cf Joel 3:13).
The seeds of the Kingdom that have been planted through the ministry of Jesus will produce a crop that it will be up to the disciples to reap. It is God who gives the growth (cf 1 Cor. 3:6-9), and they must be ready to bring in the harvest. Thus, discipleship requires being prepared to follow the way of Jesus, which brings new life to the world.
This parable not only describes the growth of the Kingdom; it serves as an announcement that the Kingdom, like the harvest, has in fact arrived. The seeds that were planted long ago have been fulfilled in Jesus. The power of Jesus himself will ultimately be manifested, even if it is now hidden like the process of the growth of the seeds. The second parable (vv. 30-32; cf. Mt. 13:31-32; Lk. 13:19) shows how great things come from small and seemingly unpromising beginnings. A mustard seed is so small that it is barely visible (it looks like ground black pepper); yet the mustard plant grows to heights of six feet or more and spreads quickly, taking over large areas (it’s the Israeli version of kudzu). Again, we cannot explain how the Kingdom, like the mustard seed, is able to expand far beyond its original size (Mt. 17: 20; Lk. 17:6). We can only say it is God’s work.
By proclaiming that God’s Kingdom is like a mustard seed, Jesus is declaring his confidence that the work he has begun will grow and sustain life. In fact, the shrub grows so large that “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (v. 32). The Kingdom is not only large, it is also life giving and protective. There is an ironic twist here as well. Great, lofty trees such as the cedar often symbolized powerful nations (cf Ezek.17:22-23; Dan. 4:20-22); but here the common mustard plant — hardy and invasive — represents the Kingdom of God.
So, what does this mean for us on this mid-June summer morning? I believe it’s this – everything centers on the abiding presence of God in every aspect of our lives. Just like the farmer who can do nothing but watch his crop grow from seed to ripe grain because the grain grows from God’s working through the natural forces to make the transformation possible. The farmer may irrigate his field and apply fertilize on it, but the growth process is out of his control. So, too, with God’s Kingdom. While we may work at bearing witness to the good news of God in Christ, and care for our brothers and sisters, especially the marginalized, the inner work of the Kingdom belongs to God, not us. In other words, the Kingdom’s growth is the result of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. We are invited to watch in awe and wonder.
[i] From A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, Nathan Ausubel, ed. (N. Y.: Crown Publishers, 1950)