I’ve shared many times how I attempt to be a gardener. I openly admit that I am a great accidental gardener. Whenever I garden with intent and expectation it is a big flop. I end up with a really low yield. But if I just randomly plant without much expectation or hope things blossom. And of course I have great success with volunteer plants that pop up due to my neglect in dead heading the previous year’s growth. I don’t even know how I ended up with strawberry plants, parsley, or dill in my backyard garden. It appears that the minute I try to plan a harvest, reading all the books of companion plants and seed spacing those plants fail…majorly! I suspect that this has something to do with how I build up expectations. I expect plants that I’ve planned out to do well while I don’t expect plants I haven’t planned to succeed. Expectations can be like that, plans can be like that, life can be like that.
Today Jesus delivers two brief parables about growth to describe the kingdom of God. We know that Jesus liked to use parables as teaching tools. It says so, at the end of our passage. Mark is clear that there are numerous other parables that Jesus shared that the author did not record. Not only that, Mark states that sometimes Jesus didn’t explain the intricacies or lessons of the parables except to his disciples in private. This fact, that we don’t always get explanations, used to really irk me. But I’m currently reading a textbook in preparation for a summer course I will be taking entitled “The Surprising Wisdom of the Parables” and author Amy-Jill Levine says, “The Gospel writers, in their wisdom, left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them. Each reader will hear a distinct message and may find that the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time…Reducing parables to a single meaning destroys their aesthetic as well as ethical potential. ” Levine also argues that one of the reasons Jesus spoke in parables is because they helped with auditory memory. We remember a good story far better than an intriguing lecture. Jesus used the parables so that people would remember his preaching. Something for a contemporary preacher to think about!
In the first parable Jesus compares the kingdom of God to seed being scatter on the ground that sprouts and grows while the gardener is asleep. I can appreciate this kind of gardening. I don’t know how my volunteer strawberry plants got in my garden but I’m currently reaping the benefit. To my knowledge, I had nothing to do with those plants getting to where they are now. That speaks a lot to my understanding of grace. There is nothing I have done to deserve the grace of God- in fact, if anything, I don’t deserve it, yet it is still offered. Yes, the gardener scatters the seed but the gardener does not have control over the growth. Yet, the gardener will be the one who gets to enjoy the harvest. There is really a sense of lack of control when it comes to the kingdom. We don’t control it, God does.
As much as I like to be in control of all aspects of my life- I have to acknowledge that there is much I do not have control over. The farmer scatters the seed but it is not the farmer who makes it grow, the farmer doesn’t even fully understand how it grows. Sure, we have a lot of wisdom and knowledge, science and experience that can teach us how something can grow but ultimately we are not in control. Jesus is stating that when it comes to the kingdom of God, the power and nature and will of God, we are not in control. Since God is the one who is in control of the kingdom then there is also mystery to it’s growth.
Jesus then builds on this theme of growth with a follow up parable that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed- a small seed that becomes the greatest of all shrubs. First of all, a mustard seed isn’t all that small nor is a mustard plant, all that great of a shrub, and mustard is my least favourite condiment. As a kid I hated it so much that I would tell people I was allergic. But there is wisdom in this parable as well and for all the times I have read and studied this parable, for the first time I realized it’s not just about the seed that grows into a shrub. The parable ends with, “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” I couldn’t believe it, as an amateur birder, how could I have never thought about the symbolism of the birds in this parable. Levine points out that when commentators do focus on the birds, the modern take is to connect the birds to gentile nations. If God’s kingdom is symbolized as a small seed that grows into large shrub and the birds represent all the people who will flock to the kingdom, than God’s kingdom includes an array of birds! Or, another take is that the birds also represent the kingdom, because in most translations it is not “birds of the air” as we heard it in the NRSV but rather “birds of heaven” that make their nests in the shade. Levine says, “[This parable is about] the ability of God’s creatures- feathered or flesh- to survive, to make do with whatever is available.”
These two parables insist that the full manifestation of the reign of God will blossom gradually, unavoidably, unexpectedly, in all kinds of conditions, culminating in a state of completion. Jesus is stating that growth is inevitable. That no matter how scattered we humans become in our actions and distractions, the growing conditions will be ripe for God’s kingdom to come. We can plant all kinds of seeds and we may never know or come to realize what growth happened in our lifetime but we can be assured that God’s kingdom will come. I can bet that many of the saints of old, the people who influenced the church and us, had no idea that we would be providing ministry on line. Both parables teach me that we should never be daunted by the small things, never ashamed of modest beginnings, not be discouraged when things seem to be taking a long time to grow- because we are not the ones who control the final destiny or the ultimate growth.
It is our job to scatter that seed but also to reap the harvest. We must see where the soil is ready for growth AND we must not be afraid to take our sickles and harvest when things are ready. Otherwise, we run the risk of having the fruit spoil. Ok- maybe these growth and plant metaphors are getting out of hand so I will say it bluntly. If we have funds or land or resources or ministries that are ready to be harvested- ready to be used to benefit the kingdom of God or manifest the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, then it is our imperative to harvest those things. Building up funds for a rainy day serves no one. Only having our ministries available to inner circles is not reaping the harvest. Having a property that is underused is misuse of the harvest. It is true that we do not know what growth will take place, that’s out of our control, but we can have the confidence that God is in control. And whether our expectations of growth are met or not, whether we planned the planting perfectly or discover volunteer plants in places we didn’t expect, the growth of the kingdom happens, gradually, unavoidably, unexpectedly, in all kinds of growing conditions. Amen