Jesus tells the two short parables in Mark’s Gospel about the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed (4:26-34) after he has already shared the familiar kingdom of God parable of the Sower, (4:1-9, 14-20) with an explanation to his disciples and those close around him (4:10). Jesus is focused on helping his listeners to understand better the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is one of those ideas we find hard to grasp and difficult to describe to others. Jesus tells us people listen but don’t understand, they look but don’t see (4:12). I am also aware how many people make easy use of the phrase but don’t necessarily understand what Jesus is trying to tell us. We are familiar with the kingdom of God explanations and expectations among some Christians, including a sense of having to earn the kingdom and be deserving. In their story, apparently I need to stay on my toes to qualify.
The kingdom of God is often seen as something to be earned by merit, an exclusive club we can enter if we have right beliefs and theology, a club keeping other less desirables outside. Often, its seen as something outside this world so we don’t have to be accountable for what we do in the world now, as this world doesn’t matter once we’re inside God’s kingdom. We’re also particularly fond of the story reassuring us the Kingdom is enabled by our labours on God’s behalf for which we are rewarded, although as the thinking goes, some should be rewarded more than others because clearly they are better than others and more righteous.
Yet in this parable there is an astonishing truth lying in plain sight. Jesus tells us God is already present in the world, has already been active and is continually creating the kingdom. So many of us don’t truly believe God is ready and waiting for us to see God. God is already actively looking for us. The kingdom is present and at hand, but our inability to see and hear God at work in the world is sadly an indicator of our own feelings of self-doubt and lack of trust.
God is waiting, loving and inviting. God is ready to throw the party to welcome us home but mostly, we either miss the party altogether because we’re too busy with worldly matters and consumed with worldly success or we resent those already welcomed and turn our backs on God because we are angry God is so trusting, open and welcoming to those less worthy and less desirable. We spend more time searching out those who we think shouldn’t come in, than we do in sharing in God’s love for each one of us, totally and utterly forever.
We have not been commissioned to manipulate, dominate, control or coerce people to join God’s family, and we certainly have not been asked to used violence or scapegoating, judgement or fear. We do not control how or where the kingdom grows.
We do know our previous efforts at trying to control and manage the gospel to suit ourselves have been appalling. We need only to look at our shameful history as a Church where our determination was to be the church of colonizing empires while individually seeking to be seen as successful people, admired and righteous, to realise how dreadfully we have behaved.
I reflect on our terrible history of child abuse and protection of abusers; our endorsement of family and domestic violence entrenched within patriarchy, male headship and misogyny; and our continued oppression of our First Nations Peoples, our support for slavery and rejection of refugees to know we frequently get it terribly wrong. I am so grateful and on my knees with gladness and relief because God does not require us or depend on us to make God’s kingdom happen.
Here in these two parables, the kingdom of God is a story of God at work, creating, growing, harvesting and saving, loving and restoring. Yet night and day, sleeping and rising, watching and waiting, these are our actions for progressing God’s reign. The kingdom of God grows because of its inherent God-given nature, not because of our efforts.
In this parable of the Growing Seed (4:26-29), the church is in no position to define or achieve success for the kingdom. The church, you and I, we simply look for the fulfilment of what the kingdom receives as a field already sown. We can do nothing to hasten the coming of the kingdom for all people. Our role is to wait upon its arrival and be ready. Jesus shows us the kingdom is coming whether we know about it, accept it, understand it, fight and resist it or watch for it and help to create conditions for it to flourish. We have no capacity to set a timeframe or the rules.
Jesus reminds us:
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. (4:26-27)
It is God’s Spirit which brings the kingdom of God into view, not the farmer. These verses tell us God is powerfully creating and in control and we don’t need to worry or be concerned about its birth or emergence or presence. Rather, we are directly challenged by Jesus, to see Jesus clearly, and in becoming a member of God’s family, working for God’s justice, reconciliation and peace on earth as the seeds being sown.
The final judgement referred to by Jesus sees the culmination of the work of the people of God in the earth. God will be looking for signs of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7) just as we look for them too, and described by Jesus as:
‘First the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head’. (4:28)
Then when the grain is ripe, God will go in with the sickle as the harvest has come.
The other interesting idea Jesus offers us is in the next parable (4:30-32) where he suggests the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, putting forth large branches.
A mustard shrub can grow between 1.5 – 2.5 m tall. It thrives in arid and poor soil conditions, loving full sun. The shrubs have beautiful yellow flowers with small seeds. It is an unusual image for Jesus to choose when talking about the kingdom of God.
A mustard shrub is not what we would expect as a symbol of power and strength, but it is used intentionally to remind people how birds love the flowers, its brightness and colour attracting all who see them. You and I can’t miss it! It is glorious. The image of birds nesting among the branches highlights the idea of an unending, generous, hospitable welcome, inclusive of all.
The kingdom describe by Jesus has changed from the way Israel previously imagined it with the great and mighty cedar, giving way in the Gospels to a kingdom described by a Messiah identified by lowliness, meekness, humility and compassion. There is no fanfare, no great blaze of glory, power and might, but a kingdom coming secretly, differently and inclusively. It comes from something as small and insignificant as a mustard seed. This image would have been a great shock to those expecting God to come with glory and mighty power to conquer and overwhelm everything in God’s way.
What does it mean for us today to sew the mustard seeds of the Gospel in a kingdom already present? It means we are working with God in God’s seasons, knowing there is a time to till and prepare the ground, a time to scatter and sew, a time to water, to watch and wait, caring and protecting, in good times and bad, being faithful and expectant, without needing glory and honour, waiting on God’s time, by praying and being with the Spirit.
For when the mustard seed is sown, it grows and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, putting forth large branches filled with flowers, so birds can nest in its shade. When the kingdom of God is present, all are welcomed, all are sheltered with justice and peace, and there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, slave or free, men or women.
How good and wonderful is that? God’s kingdom is already here. You can’t miss it. Let us be welcomed by God into God’s kingdom of justice, peace and love and share the good news of God’s love and salvation.
The Lord be with you.