Jesus also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters 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. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come’.
(Mk 4:26-29, translation: The New Jerusalem Bible).
Maybe readers of these posts are wondering why I’ve taken such a round-about path to this beautiful parable of the seed growing by itself. It’s because as I pondered that parable this time it became for me like a vine with tendrils reaching in many directions. I found that it reaches back to that bad day Jesus had with the scribes and with his relatives (Mark 3:20-30). This parable has a powerful message for them – and for all those who have wilfully hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching. The passage about the seeds’ independent growth affirms, in the face of any suggestion to the contrary, that no amount of human – or demonic – obstruction will ultimately prevent the word of God from fulfilling its divine destiny in the wider world. God’s word will succeed, Jesus teaches in this parable. Oh, we remain free; there will be those who refuse to accept him, and he never uses force, but God’s word will ultimately achieve the end for which it entered the world in Jesus.
But there’s more. Not only does this parable reach back with a strong message for those who opposed Jesus. It also, as we said yesterday, reaches back to add a dimension to the passage from Mark 4: 1-9 about the different types of soil. Let’s think about that.
As I confessed in these posts, the parable of the different kinds of soil leaves me with an uneasy feeling. I am always reminded when I read it that I’m a flawed being, a sinner. I see again that as far as good soil is concerned, I am very a very patchy piece of earth, at best. Clearing out the stones and weeds and brambles will be a work in progress until I die. But, the good news is that I don’t think Jesus means the parable about the soil to be the last word on the subject of seeds and soil and the kingdom. It’s important to remember that no parable encompasses the mystery of the kingdom in its entirety. The different parables are like the different facets of a diamond, each one reflecting the light differently, each one contributing in a unique but partial way to the beauty of the whole. So, to my relief, I realise that the parable about the different kinds of soil actually needs the parable about the seed growing by itself in order to be understood.
And this makes me very happy. The parable about the seed growing by itself is a good one for times when we ourselves are feeling discouraged about our weaknesses and failures and sins. In this parable, the Lord is telling us that the kingdom is not about being perfect – about being good soil twenty-four/seven. In fact, it’s not all about us. It is about him, about his word. And secondly, it’s not about us achieving personal goodness all by ourselves for God, climbing to heaven by our own muscle and effort. Not at all. This parable is about the ‘muscle,’ the intrinsic power, the unstoppability of God’s word within us.
So, take heart. Take heart, too, if you are going through a period of deep loss and grief and it feels as though your heart has become completely barren. This parable is for you, too. The seed of the word has been scattered within you, and now it is doing what it does best: ‘night and day, while we sleep and while we are awake, the seed is sprouting and growing.’ You cannot see what the seed is doing below the surface of that bare, black soil, but Jesus assures us here that God’s life in us is progressing according to the creative and ever-active love of God. God’s seed is all-powerful and, as this parable suggests, not as fussy about soil as we might have feared. It will quietly get on with its growth – how, we do not know, says Jesus. And we don’t have to know. The parable promises, however, that there will come a time when we will discover the green shoots of the kingdom beginning to emerge from within our heart – a sign that even in our own seemingly barren and ever imperfect and weedy life, God’s seed will eventually produce ‘the full grain in the ear. And the harvest will come.’ This is reason to sing with gratitude. God’s life is in us. His seed is so powerful, so tenacious of life, so willing to be itself, so supremely able to be itself, that we needn’t worry.
We began this reflection by looking at some of Jesus’ own human difficulties: the misunderstanding of family and the intense hostility of the scribes. We had a glimpse into his humanity and saw him as a feeling being, searching for those who would sincerely respond to his loving teachings. We saw beautiful parables emerge from a man like us, with emotions capable of being hurt by rejection. And yet, he ends his teaching that day not with a message of despair, and certainly not of anger, but with a message of tenderness and profound encouragement for us. This is what Our Lord is like.