Jesus tells parables to kick start our brains into thinking in a new direction. This is never more evident than it is in Mark’s Gospel, where just a few of those parables are recorded but where they also carry their most enigmatic punch.
The parables Jesus tells do not so much answer questions as raise them.
So, this first parable, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone were to scatter seed upon the ground and would sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself…”
This is what the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.
It happens by itself! It happens mysteriously.
Which prompts us, (or at least people like me,) to say, “Then what am I doing pounding my head against a wall as a Pastor then???”
Why am I up here preaching, and going to all these meetings, and fretting about stewardship and pink walls and art pieces if the Kingdom is supposed to grow all by itself?”
If the Kingdom is supposed to grow by itself, why isn’t this place busting at the seams with people?
There are two things that I think this parable has to say about that.
The first one is easy for us to get. The truth is, growth is a mystery. It does happen on its own.
I put a whole package of seeds in my planter box for parsley, anticipating a thick tangle of the herbs by now. What I have instead is a few sprigs here and there in the window box. Some seeds grew, some did not, and I know not why. The seeds all looked the same to me when I put them in the ground.
So, part one of what Jesus is saying in this parable is that the growth of the Kingdom of God is indeed a mystery, and really not ours to control.
That should jar you a bit.
We can’t force seeds to grow.
We can’t force people to be good disciples either.
We can’t guarantee that everyone we meet will be followers of Jesus, no matter how much we plead with them, or how much we provide for them, or how much we nag at them, or how much we love on them or how much we want them to be faithful.
This is a painful thing to acknowledge.
Sometimes this hits very close to home. We have kids, we brought them to Sunday School, we did everything right, and yet they are not taking their place in the church. They have their own call, their own pathway, their own way of doing Kingdom of God.
Our great temptation is to go after them with everything we’ve got.
Our great temptation is to think that if we just have the right program, or the right building, if we just used the right kind of music in worship, the right brand of communion bread, maybe put in a full-service coffee bar with latte’s – people would come back, or stay around and grow.
But the truth is, Jesus says, the Kingdom grows by itself, and there is no sense losing sleep over who isn’t here.
That jars us a bit.
Instead, Jesus says, be ready for the harvest!
Watch and see what does grow, see it mature, and then be ready with the sickle when it is time to gather the grain!
We can’t determine in whom the Word of God might take root, but we can certainly gather up the harvest when they bear fruit! We can reap what they have to offer to the life and mission of this congregation and the Kingdom as it unfolds here. We can rejoice when they bear much fruit!
So part one of what this first parable has to say to us is that we can’t force anyone to grow into participating in the Kingdom. Don’t waste time and effort in trying to make someone “get it”, instead be ready to receive the ones who do! No matter how surprising the “who gets it” might end up being to you!
But there is a second parable in this Gospel lesson for today, and we should spend some time with it as well, because it also has something to say about our assumptions about the Kingdom of God.
The choice of a Mustard Seed and plant is a curious one for Jesus if the point he wanted to make was that the Kingdom was going to be impressive. There were better examples of impressive plants out there for him to use, quite frankly.
Jesus could have chosen the Fig Tree, which also has small seeds but that grows into something substantial and useful.
Jesus could have chosen the great Cedars of Lebanon if the point he wanted to make was that the Kingdom of God was to grow into something strong and sheltering and impressive.
But he chose the Mustard Seed, a shrub, a bush that is pernicious in the fields of the middle east, and not always a welcome plant.
Let me re-tell this parable in a way that I think will help you see what Jesus is doing.
“With what can we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like Ragweed, which, when scattered on the ground is the smallest of all 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.”
Ragweed! Pastor that’s awful stuff! It grows where you don’t want it to grow! It irritates the nose and eyes and makes the news nightly for the way it makes people miserable!
That’s the point. It is invasive. It is persistent. It is not terribly attractive. It is an irritant.
Mustard grows wild in Galilee. It pops up in cultivated fields, and it is as big a nuisance there as any weed you might like to compare it to here.
This is what Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to – intentionally!
In the Northland where I live, a few years ago there was a ragweed plant that took root in a highway median at Prairie View Lane and Barry Road. It grew there all summer long. I marveled at it.
It grew out of a crack in the pavement. Surrounded by blistering hot concrete and brick, no other vegetation around, dependent upon whatever water there was already under the pavement or that would trickle down through the cracks. It was a most improbable sight.
I watched it get taller and taller – and no one took notice of it, not even the workers on the road. It would have been a simple matter to slice it off, but they ignored it.
I watched as birds would jump underneath it for shade, for relief from the scorching heat, looking for insects. For them it was a place of refuge amidst the whir of traffic.
For me, and other allergy sufferers, it was just an irritant.
I wish I had taken a picture of it.
It was the perfect example of the Kingdom of God, taking root in the most unlikely of places, growing without apparent reason, providing a refuge for those few unlucky creatures that found themselves in a most in-hospitable place. It was a plant having an effect on others far outside the range of the place it occupied.
Is that what Jesus is telling us the Kingdom is like? If so, that requires some re-arrangement of our own expectations.
The Kingdom becomes a place that is never really as safe, or as permanent in this world as we might like it to be.
The branches are big enough to give you some cover sure, but not big enough to build nests in that will last year after year. It is not the nesting place of Eagles, perches from which power and majesty can be projected. It is the nesting place of those who want to stay out of the line of sight of such predators.
Those who come underneath it for shelter are still within easy reach of all the hazards of this world. You’re “on the ground” so to speak, and subject to the dangers of this world all the while you’re under this Kingdom.
Is this what Jesus is saying?
If so, we may have to re-arrange our thinking about this Kingdom into which God has called us
I thought the Kingdom was going to be a place that was safe.
Instead, it appears that perhaps it only offers a bit of shade, a bit of cover and respite in the midst of an always dangerous world.
I thought the Kingdom would be marked by success and security.
Instead, this parable makes me wonder if the Kingdom of God is instead a rather transient thing in this world?
Is the Kingdom of God something that will grow where ever it finds opportunity? Could it even be seen as a nuisance to those who do not seek or appreciate the shelter it gives?
I thought the Kingdom would be a grand and glorious thing, eventually taking over all the other realms of this world and of this life.
Instead, could it really be a weed?
Oh, weeds will take over if allowed to grow. They are marked by their persistence and hardiness, but not necessarily their beauty?
Is this what Jesus has in mind for the Kingdom of God? A Kingdom that takes over because it eventually chokes out competing growth?
Is the Kingdom of God really known best for its ability to grow in the toughest of conditions instead of looking for the best places to grow?
If so, what does this have to say to us?
I read these parable of Jesus and have to wonder if it wasn’t Jesus’ point to shatter all our cherished expectations about being a part of a Kingdom that looks like this world.
This is how it appears to be with God. In the birth of Jesus God shattered the expectations of a world looking for a savior in a military leader like David, and came instead as a baby born of a refugee family, forced to flee from threatening powers and rulers, doing his work on the fringes of society.
Could it be that God is shattering expectations still?
What cherished assumptions about the Kingdom will we have to give up in order for it to grow in us?
The Kingdom of God is like ragweed?
If it is, then may it infect and infest all my otherwise well-planned gardening.
May I not be too hasty with my hoe when God is scattering the seeds of the Kingdom in my life and in my community