Jesus said, “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. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Jesus’ parables are intended to intrigue us, to catch the imagination, to get people thinking, to draw out a response which when reflected on becomes a place where God interacts with us and changes us. There’s the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in open country and goes looking for the one that is lost. Can you imagine Jesus’ audience’s response: “The fool. Who will look after the 99?” …. “He should cut his losses and look after what he still has.” … “One in 99 isn’t that big a loss. Why risk the whole flock over one wayward sheep?”
And in that process of response Jesus’ listeners are hooked. They go away full of a story that will provoke discussion in the pub. Perhaps you can imagine the conversation: “What do you think he meant?” … “Perhaps he was just telling us a joke about shepherds – after all they are a dim-witted lot.” … “No, I’m convinced that he said something important …”
In our Mark 4, we hear Jesus telling two parables about the kingdom of God. Picture stories about growing plants. His listeners would know all about growing plants, as many of us do. So, we say, that in his parables, Jesus draws on his listeners own experiences to make his point. He uses stories to convey deep truths, usually referring to an aspect of life that people can identify with. And that is part of the truth. …
But if that was all of the truth then surely he would go on, in these stories, to apply the truth. A parable would be something like a fable, the moral would be underlined at the end of the story.
But that doesn’t happen here. … In fact it doesn=’t happen with many of Jesus’ parables. And here, Mark is at pains to emphasise that Jesus didn’t explain what he was talking about, except to his disciples. These parables are intended to have hidden meaning, to intrigue, to provoke questions. And Jesus choses not to answer them or explain what he is saying.
Perhaps, in this case, Jesus knew that having heard the story, the next time his listeners were out in the fields sowing their crops they would be reminded of his words. As the farmer scattered seed in his field maybe he would suddenly be brought up short, exclaiming “Ah, now I see, that’s what the kingdom of God is like.” Perhaps he would think about the planning that is involved in seed sowing – reviewing how his crops have fared in the past, choosing the right place and time for actually sowing the seeds, and his hopes for a healthy crop to sustain him later in the year. And then think, for God’s kingdom to grow, perhaps we need to make sure that it has the right conditions to grow – and what might these be? What can I do so that my hope in this kingdom is realised?
Perhaps when the farmer sowed his mustard seed he would look at it and notice for the first time just how small and insignificant it looked and remember again just how large a bush the seed would produce. Perhaps he or she might cotton on that the weakest and smallest of things can become something of importance.
Rather than being told the meaning, Jesus listeners would have discovered a meaning for themselves. And because they had made the discovery, it would stick. Perhaps ……….
As Christians, we pray for God’s kingdom to come. We do so every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We say that we desire to see a world which operates in line with God’s way of being; a place where his love is known by all and where all thoughts and words and deeds stem from this love. As with all prayer, we need to expect to be part of the answer, to have some part to play in the outworking of our desires. What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come? What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come in our place of worship? What does it mean for our community? What does it mean for the village, town or city in which we live?
I’m not going to suggest answers for you. I’m going, so to speak to take a leaf out Jesus’ book. I’m going to leave you with his parables. So, when you visit a Garden Centre, when you see the plant stalls on the Market, when you buy a packet of seeds or when you plant some seed. When you put mustard on the side of your plate. At any of these times, you might just find yourself being reminded of these parables – don’t dismiss them from your mind but allow yourself to hear them again and ponder what they mean for you and for us all. The question to ask is: “What on earth was Jesus getting at?”