He also 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. (Mark 4:26-34 – NRSVCE)
The parable of the mustard see is also found in Matthew 13.31–32 and Luke 13.18–19.
We have grown used to hearing this and other parables. Familiarity can breed contempt. It is helpful if we look more closely, as if for the first time. Comparing the kingdom to “seed scattered on the ground” is surely an unlikely comparison? One scholar writes: “A more banal comparison could not be imagined. The kingdom of God should be likened to something grand and glorious: to shimmering mountain peaks, crimson sunsets, the opulence of potentates, the lusty glory of a gladiator. But Jesus likens it to seeds. The paradox of the gospel—indeed, the scandal of the Incarnation—is disguised in such commonplaces. The God whom Jesus introduces will not be kept at celestial arm’s length. Jesus does not tell us how high and lofty God is but how very near and present he is, and how the routines of planting and harvesting are mundane clues to the nature and plan of God.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, W B Eerdmans, 2002, 142.)
The seed has its own inner dynamic, it will “sprout and grow”. The farmer simply waits on this process, surrenders as it were. He does not know how it happens. The farmer’s role is facilitative. The growth comes as gift: “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”
This gives us perspective particularly on how leadership is to be exercised in the kingdom.
For example there is a particularly enlightening contrast between the lessons of these parables and the perceptions amongst the disciples concerning leadership. Jesus heard them arguing about who is going to be the greatest in the kingdom – see Mark 9:33-37. On another occasion, James and John approach Jesus and ask for the privilege of sitting “one on your right and one on your left” – see 10:36-37. (It is perhaps noteworthy that this last example is the only occasion in which Mark mentions the sons of Zebedee apart from the Twelve (see1:19–20; 3:19) or from Peter (see 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33). In particular, Peter and James and John seem to go together. Was this an attempt to out-flank Peter? Is it indicative of a power struggle in the post-resurrection community?) Jesus’ response in both situations is blunt: “Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’.” (Mark 10:42-45)
What is it about the ordinary that we are inclined to resist? What is it about the extraordinary that tends to attract us? What is going on when we are bored? What is the fascination of the exotic and fantasies?
Perhaps the extraordinary takes us outside of and away from ourselves whereas the ordinary leaves us with ourselves? And we find that uncomfortable.
Perhaps the ordinary reminds us of death? Even invites us to die to ….. what?
Jesus’ parables invite us to stop, look and listen. He is in effect saying what you seeks – what you really want – is right there, under your nose?
“God speaks to every individual through what happens to them moment by moment…. The events of each moment are stamped with the will of God… we find all that is necessary in the present moment. If we have abandoned ourselves to God, there is only one rule for us: the duty of the present moment.” (Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, Image, 1975, 10.)
“A present-day master said of his students, in their presence, that they seemed to like him, and that occasionally they would set out to do something ‘great’ for him that would really please him. He could see it coming on in the far-away look in their eyes which were glued to the ‘great things’. He did not damp their enthusiasm outright as they had to learn the consequences; but he resigned himself to a period of trouble. Their minds away on the great, they would forget the ordinary things such as opening or shutting the temple gates, and they burnt the rice, spoilt the vegetables, and so on. After some days when all were beginning to feel the strain and to suffer from indigestion, he would tell them that if they really wanted to please him, would they please abandon the ‘great thing’ they were going to do for him, and just do the ordinary things they had to do as well as they could; nothing would please him better.” (Irmgard Schloegl, The Wisdom of the Zen Masters, New Directions, 1976, 23-24.)