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),
Whenever I read the parable of the seed growing by itself (given in full above) I send up a silent cheer to the Lord, praising him joyfully. It is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament. But the Holy Spirit tends to give even favourite and much-read texts a new twist every time I read them. A few days ago, as I read these lines from Mark’s gospel for my lectio divina, I realised that I needed to explore the context within which Jesus first tells this parable and not treat it as though it stood alone, unconnected to the story told by the preceding gospel passages.
The first thing I realised, then, when I looked back at texts from chapter three of Mark is that the time-frame is quite early in the public ministry of Jesus, but already there are thorny problems for him (see Mk 3:21f.). Some of Jesus’ own relatives seem determined to treat him as if he were a child. This might be amusing (don’t we all go through this at some point when we are young adults and our immediate family hasn’t quite caught on?) but for the fact that this kind of treatment of Jesus gravely undermines his authority with his audience. Moreover, the relatives ‘set out to take charge of him, convinced that he is out of his mind’. In other words, they make a scene. How embarrassing for Jesus (he is at least thirty years old now) and, yes, how infuriating (or it would be to me). And, to make it worse, it’s almost impossible to manage this kind of situation without Jesus looking bad. Either Jesus must submit to their infantilising treatment and go off with them meekly—like a big baby (unthinkable), or he must work out some way to try to insist on his adult status—and his sanity—without being disrespectful to them. What a hopeless—and very human—mess, I think to myself.
But before Jesus has even had a chance to begin, before anyone’s had a chance to turn around, the scribes get in the act and decide to pick a fight with Jesus. They choose this moment viciously to accuse him of using Satan’s own power to cast out devils (see Mark 3:22f.). Regardless, however, of the distress he may be feeling with regard to his relatives, Jesus rises to the scribes’ challenge and handles their accusation calmly, with consummate logic and courtesy, pointing out reasonably, but without a hint of arrogance or sarcasm, the absurdity of the very idea of Satan casting out Satan. “Take note, you relatives who think Jesus is out of his mind,” I crow silently: “Jesus’ mind is not only radiantly sane but eminently first rate. He needs no one to take charge of him. He is able to take care of himself.” And so, for the moment, the scribes and the relatives seem to be silenced. But we know—and Jesus would have known—that his troubles were only beginning.
This is where I begin to be aware of Jesus in a different way. He feels closer, somehow. I become, as I read and pray, much more conscious of Jesus as a feeling being. I notice that in the scriptural texts following this scene with the scribes, Jesus seems to be particularly wistful, even a little bit vulnerable, as he teaches another group of people. He seems to see that their desire to listen to him contrasts poignantly with the hostile attitudes he’s been encountering all day. He tenderly invites them to be his sister, his brother, his mother. I pause here. Jesus is capable of being wounded by rejection. I knew this before, but I know it in a new way now. This then becomes the moment that flows into Jesus’ beautiful parables about hearing the word. ‘The sower goes out to sow,’ he begins.
Let’s slow down for a bit and think. We have just accompanied Jesus through two difficult encounters: his relatives first, who think he is mad, and then the scribes, who think he is possessed. And now he sees us, sees that there are people who deeply want to listen to him.
He welcomes us. We come forward to sit near him. We are an intimate group, small enough that all of us can all see him. We are glad that when he begins to teach we will hear him easily, we will see his face and his eyes, watch the play of his features as he speaks his words of life to us with gentleness and love. We want to be his brother and sister and mother. We look at him with affection and smile, waiting for him to begin. Let’s see what he will say to us. He has a message for each person. And now I invite you to read Mark 4:1-9 and to keep this at heart until tomorrow. This passage prepares the way for the parable I have quoted at the beginning of this post.
I hope you will pause here in your reading and think about this for a day, then come back to these reflections tomorrow as we continue.
We are heading toward a reflection on Mark 4: 26-29. Yesterday we looked at some of the preceding scripture passages in order to understand more about the context within which the beautiful parable of the seed growing by itself emerges. I ended yesterday’s meditation inviting my readers to spend a day with Mark 4: 1-9—the parable of the sower, sometimes called the parable of the soil. What light does this shed on Mark 4: 26-29?
In both passages, Jesus uses seeds as a metaphor, but the two passages are very different. In Mark 4:1-9, the emphasis is more on the soil and its capacity to receive the seed. If you recall, our reflection yesterday found Jesus on a bad day—he’d had run-ins both with the scribes and with his own relatives. It’s no accident, then, that Jesus talks about receptivity. – for he’d been struggling against incomprehension and closed-mindedness all day long. To illustrate his teaching he uses the metaphor of various types of unwelcoming soil.
And here I have a confession to make. The parable about the different types of soil—the rocky, the shallow, the thorny, and finally the good soil—makes me nervous. I can’t help it. I try to tell myself that Jesus was perhaps directing the parable against those who were hostile to him. I try to convince myself that although I am far from being perfect, I am certainly not hostile toward Jesus. But, it doesn’t help, because I also know that Jesus’ parables are always profoundly meaningful on many levels, and they all apply to all of us. That’s the trouble. I can easily see myself in this one. I am capable of being all of the different kinds of soil Jesus describes here: at times, hard and rocky (stubborn and hard-headed), other times, shallow (immature and given to sudden enthusiasms that don’t last), still other moments find me thorny (preoccupied by worry) and, yes, thanks to the grace of God, I know that I have been at times receptive to the seed of the word,and I am grateful for that grace. This parable is about me and should not be dismissed. And I hope, with God’s grace, to become the good soil all the time, or at least more of the time. But, the parable still makes me nervous. Whenever I read it, I wonder if I will ever really manage to become the person the Lord wants me to be, and to be good soil, rich, velvety and constantly nourishing for the seed of the Word.
And then, I read further in chapter four of Mark and I come upon the parable of the seed growing by itself. A truly wonderful thing about scripture is that scripture interprets itself. In other words, there is a unity between biblical texts; passages of scripture throw light on other passages of scripture—so if there is a section that seems to be difficult, count on it, there will be another part that provides the help we need. Mark 4:26 to 29 provides that help.
Let’s pause here for another day and spend it looking at Mark 4: 26 to 29. Perhaps you will find balm in that passage, too. Tomorrow we’ll talk about it.
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 reflections 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 about the seeds’ independent growth has a powerful message for them, and for all those who have wilfully hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching. The parable affirms, in the face of any suggestion to the contrary, that no amount of human, or even 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 another dimension to the passage from Mark 4: 1-9 about the different types of soil. Let’s think about that.
As I confessed earlier, 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 great 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, about us climbing to heaven by our own super-human muscle and olympic effort. Not at all. This parable is about the ‘muscle,’ the intrinsic power, the unstopability 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 that seems to be our heart, 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.