This particular parable, so simple a picture and yet so full of meaning, only appears in Mark’s Gospel. It tries, in a couple of sentences, to explain what something really quite complex (the Kingdom of God) is all about, in words which Jesus’ hearers who lived lives closely connected to the soil would be able to relate to. At times Jesus could really make the people scratch their heads and wonder what on earth he was going on about. But not here, I think. All they had to do was close their eyes and picture the scene in their minds.
Frequently, we say these words: 'Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ and I wonder how much we understand by that phrase? That’s the trouble with saying the same words week after week for all of our Christian lives – sometimes the words come out without the understanding behind them, they’re almost empty of meaning.
Jesus loved to use picture language that people could relate to and what better than the example of the growth of a seed into grain ripe for harvest? Nature was all around the people of Jesus’ day, and living where we are we can almost say the same, because we don’t have to travel far to see the cycle of nature from seed sowing to harvest.
And what does it tell us? Firstly, that the seed has within it the secret of life and growth, and the farmer doesn’t really need to understand this before he sows. He’s not creating something, because all the potential for life is contained within the seed. The farmer can help by looking after the land and creating good conditions for growth, we can tinker genetically with the breeding of the seed, but at the end of the day we have little control over whether the seed will germinate and grow once it is in the soil and watered by the rain – that’s the miracle of nature.
It’s not we who can in some way create a Kingdom of God. It is already there, waiting to be entered into. We can create conditions upon earth where it is given the opportunity to grow more speedily and more fully, and we can also hinder it by our actions or inaction, but in the same way that it is the creative power of God behind the miracle contained within a seed, so it is with his Kingdom.
Have you actually watched a seed grow? Have you seen it actually grow taller as you watch? I guess not, and yet no doubt you’ve sown seed one day, seen nothing happen for a while and a few days later gone back and seen the first leaves pushing through the soil. Give it another day or two and there’s real evidence of growth in that row of lettuce or whatever (slugs permitting!). A few weeks later and you are eating the leaves. Nature’s growth is often imperceptible. Watch a plant every day and you’ll be lucky to see evidence of growth; we only notice growth when we’ve been away for a while and come back to look. It could be argued that the same is true of the growth of God’s Kingdom.
Generations of Christians have prayed those words about the kingdom in the Lord’s Prayer over the centuries. Have their prayers simply been ignored? Were all those words said empty, without meaning? Of course not! History tells us that despite the terrible atrocities that have been committed and the injustices that have been endured by people over the centuries and even now, we live in a world that is far removed from that of our forefathers. It might not yet be perfect, but it is better.
The story is told of Elizabeth Fry who went to Newgate Prison in 1817. She found in the women’s quarters around 300 women and masses of children living, cooking and eating on the floor. The only attendants were an old man and his son. They crowded, half naked and begging for money which they spent on drink in a bar in the prison itself. She found a boy of nine waiting to be hanged for poking a stick through a window and stealing paints valued at twopence.
I don’t think conditions like that would be tolerated in this country these days, and maybe we would be justified in saying that the reason is that God’s Kingdom is slowly and imperceptibly becoming established, as humankind begins to think of others as well as self, and indeed starts to think that all might be born equal in worth. Think about the tireless work of those opposed to our country’s involvement with the slave trade, which had a massive impact at the time, but only after a long period of time when fellow human beings were considered to be as valuable as a pack horse and openly traded for gain.
We might not notice the difference from one day to the next, but when we look at the bigger picture then we can perhaps acknowledge the fact the work of God goes on day to day, quietly, unceasingly, sometimes hindered, sometimes helped by our actions. But just as there is an inevitability behind the cycle of nature which starts with a seed and ends with a harvest, so it is with God’s purposes. A tender shoot can force its way through a tarmac pavement over a period of time. How does it do it? By constantly growing in order to achieve its purpose – fruitfulness and harvest.
And it’s this inevitability, the ultimate harvest which is the great Christian message of the Gospel. The seed is sown, it grows and eventually fruits. As the hymn tells us ‘God is working his purpose out.’ And at the harvest the good fruit, the ripened grain is separated from the weeds and tares, which are put aside and destroyed. Harvest and judgment go together!
Christians are called to be good gardeners, who sow the seed but who also have the patience to wait for the harvest, whenever it might come – in our lifetime or in the future, as Paul acknowledged. We might want action now, just as we want to see our flower seeds grow and blossom within a season, but God calls us to be patient gardeners, to work to his timescale, not ours.
Every act of love and service that we offer, every comforting or encouraging word, each time we share something of our faith with others is like a seed sown – we don’t know what effect they will have in the immediate days, but they are like the watering and feeding that we do in our own gardens, they encourage growth, promote fruitfulness and hasten the harvest in our lives and others. “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground...”
Have you been practicing your gardening skills recently?
*Reproduced, with permission, from the website faithandworship.com