Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
26[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
This passage is often confused with another parable about the mustard seed. Jesus also compares small amount of faith to a small mustard seed. In Matthews and and Luke’s gospel, our small mustard-seed-sized faith can move mountains. However, this particular parable has nothing to do with our faith and what we can do, but rather the kingdom of God. The parable is not about us. The parable is about God’s reign. With what can we compare the kingdom of God? How can we talk about God’s Administration? It’s like when you try to explain a new experience to someone who never been there, seen that, or tasted it. You start off by saying well how can I explain this to you…. It’s kinda like this… How can I talk about it in metaphorical terms so that you’ll start to wrap your brain around how this is going to work? This mustard seed isn’t about us – it’s about God’s kingdom, the way God operates in this world. But it’s like this….
And we so often want to make a parable into an allegory or a fable. We want to take those metaphors and try to turn it into a story with a nice neat meaning that teaches us something. We want things to line up for us – if the mustard seed is like God’s kingdom, then the birds are what? Are we birds in this story nesting and finding peace in the kingdom?
Or are we the farmer? Or is god the farmer? Is the world the soil where we scatter our seeds or are seeds being planted in our heart? The danger about doing that beside the obvious limits of metaphors – concerns the purpose of parables.
Fables and allegories are meant to teach, to instruct, and to edify, to illustrate a point and confirm common sense. Parables, on the other hand, are meant to overturn, to deconstruct, to cause frustration and, for those who stay with them, transformation. So how does this challenge our easy interpretation of what this might mean for us? What does it mean that this isn’t necessarily suppose to be a comforting thought about mustard seeds? Well think about what kind of weed this is….
As one theologian puts it:
“…Is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties.
Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses — if you could control it (The Historical Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan pp. 278-279).
Looked at this way, Jesus’ parable is a little darker, even ominous. Something that grows quietly and quickly and before you know it its gotten out of hand and you see it everywhere you look… when just a moment ago, there was nothing…. That’s whats the kingdom is like. You see a little bit, and pretty soon it’s all around and it’s all you see. Don’t turn your back on it. It may start small and unassuming, and it may not grow huge, but it will grow everywhere.
Jesus doesn’t use an amazingly large object to make the point. He uses the image of a bird nesting in the shade of a shrub. It is an image of expansive gentleness but not of overwhelming, unmissable glory. The kingdom of God is described not in grandiose terms but in terms of ordinary, quiet beauty as an inviting place to call home. A place created by god for shelter and care,
But do note, Birds eat seeds. They are not necessarily desirable creatures to have in your garden, just as the mustard weed is not very desirable. Gods kingdom brings us in contact with all sorts of undesirables that find a place for themselves but may make us a little nervous.
Things outside my control make me nervous. Most of us have a little of that, when we expect things to go one way and they go another. When the weeds grow everywhere seemingly overnight. And our pretty little corner of the kingdom is all messed up. The lines aren’t straight anymore and there’s cows in the corn. “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. Thats the other part of the parable that frustrates and challenges – not only does the kingdom grow wild, not only does it bring in some undesirable creatures, but this part of parable really showcases our limited perspective on it all.
Here’s the deal, we can plant seeds. We can go out and throw pieces of grace and mercy and justice into the world. We can be sent out for service and show small seeds of love to each other and to strangers. And the kingdom is revealed. Like seeds germinate and are transformed from a cold hard thing to a growing vibrant fruit bearing thing…. We are transformed and our world is transformed, a new creation as the old passes away. And we don’t know how. And we might not even see it or realize it, it might be growing and rooting underground while we stand around and stomp our feet and pour water on it and complain that the seeds were old.
But God knows how. ” the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
And the lord has accomplished it. The world is no longer the same because Jesus died on the cross and was raised Black is white, up is down, death leads to life. God reign is ever spreading, ever welcoming, ever infiltrating, in spite of us and because of us, the body of christ on earth, baptized into Christ’s death and raised to new life. To plant seeds and to bear fruit and to proclaim God’s reign among us and for us.