Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) (16 June 2024)

Gospel for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) (16 June 2024)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

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 – NRSV)

Introductory notes


“The parables are perhaps the most characteristic element in the teaching of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels. They have upon them, taken as a whole, the stamp of a highly individual mind, in spite of the re-handling they have inevitably suffered in the course of transmission. Their appeal to the imagination fixed them in the memory, and gave them a secure place in the tradition. Certainly there is no part of the Gospel record which has for the reader a clearer ring of authenticity” (C H Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, 1).

Notwithstanding 4:2 – “He began to teach them many things in parables” – and 4:34 – “he did not speak to them except in parables” – these two parables in today’s Gospel are the only explicit parables of the kingdom in Mark’s Gospel.

The second parable – the parable of the mustard seed – is also found in both Matthew 13:31–32 and Luke 13:18–19. Matthew and Luke frequently draw on Mark which is the earliest Gospel. Matthew and Luke also each have two other sources. They share the so-called “Q”. (“Q” is the first letter of the German word “Quelle” meaning “source”.) Matthew and Luke each have at least one other independent source.


The kingdom of God is as if: The interpretation is not obvious. Is the kingdom of God like the seed? The sower? The process of growth? Parables do not give straightforward interpretations as allegories tend to do. Parables invite the listener into a process, a journey of understanding and growth. Submitting to that process without pre-empting the outcome is essential to both the interpretation and the personal growth that can come from the encounter with the text.

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).

sleep and rise night and day etc: This phrase implies rhythm and routine. It also suggests submission to a larger order of things. And so “the seed would sprout and grow”. It is incomprehensible – “he does not know how”.

The earth produces of itself etc: There is an inherent rhythm and order in the seeds. It is manifest in the growing and the fruitfulness. It is gift. The person who sows the seed is participant, not master. He waits upon the earth, he does not lord it over the earth. And so, “when the grain is ripe” – not before – “he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He receives the harvest, he does not make it.

the mustard seed: This seed was proverbial for its smallness. The mustard plant grows along the Sea of Galilee to a height of two to six feet. It is a hardy plant and tends to take over gardens where it is planted. To say that it grows to be “greater than all the shrubs” is somewhat of an exaggeration.

Reflection: The kingdom of God – gift and task

In today’s Gospel – Mark 4:26-34 – we have two parables of growth accompanied by the following note: “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”. With that note, Mark closes one door and opens another. The door to Jesus’ understanding of these two parables is shut. We will never know how Jesus explained them. But the door is left open for us to wonder and explore the possibilities.

Let us wonder and explore the possibilities in the first of the two parables: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground . . .” One New Testament scholar writes: “(This) is one of Jesus’ loveliest parables: brief, concise, positively functional in its unadorned goal-directedness— and yet filled with a marvelous kind of hope” (Gerhard Lohfink, The Forty Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 1219-1220). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition).

Where is the emphasis in the story? The emphasis is not on the work of “scattering the seed on the ground”. Nor is it on the harvesting. The emphasis is rather on what is happening. This is emphasized, first of all, by the statement of fact: The person who has scattered the seed, goes about the business of daily living – they “would sleep and rise night and day”. Whilst they are busy about other things, “the seed would sprout and grow”. And this is a mystery: “he does not know how”. The next words are crucial: “The earth produces of itself . . .” Yes, those who scatter the seed perform an indispensable task, otherwise we would not be talking of the seed producing “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head”. There would be no harvest. But the essential work is done by “the earth”! It is pure gift. Whilst the scattering and harvesting might evoke a sense of satisfaction, what is happening in and from “the earth” should evoke humility and gratitude.

“The farmer’s rhythm of life and the ripening of the grain, stand in parallel and are meant to show that the process of growth is beyond the reach of any human interference. Only God is at work here, and no one can prevent God from working. … The point here is, first of all, that human beings cannot bring about the arrival of the reign of God; they cannot force it into existence — most certainly not by violence, as the Zealots thought. Human beings can only wait. God’s reign will be brought about by God, and God alone — and God will surely bring it. But above all the parable reveals God’s creative power and command over history. No one will prevent God from working and bringing salvation. The human response to that knowledge about God can only be a profound trust that relies on God” (Ibid).