The only thing I know about plants is that they tend to die when I get close to them. I understand little botany, and, in this case, that is a good thing. Like the people who first heard this Gospel, I stand in unmediated awe before the God who is the Lord of nature. Awe is a good teacher.
First, let us remember that this is a sign of the kingdom, not the church. The kingdom is the rule of God, which Jesus is bringing into the world. It is perfect harmony between God and humanity, among humans ourselves, and humanity and nature. This begins with Jesus and is already here, but will be completed only when he returns. The kingdom is a worldly event; the Lord will return to separate the faithful from the faithless and rule the earth.
No single image can exhaust the meaning of the kingdom; at best, we can have occasional insight into a portion of it. What can the seed tell us?
Seed is scattered on the ground. Mark notes what we see: a sprout of green sticking up out of the dirt, then a blade, then the ear and then the grain itself. He emphasizes that we do not know how it occurred, but we trust that God is the cause. So it is with the kingdom. The harmony that we are promised will come from the power of God. It is a divine work, not a human accomplishment. In God’s good time the harvest will be ready, the Lord will return, and his rule will be fully here.
We do not cause the growth, nor do we decide when the harvest is to be made, but we do cooperate. The Church is the sign and means of our cooperation with the coming of the kingdom. St Paul put this best in the 1st letter to the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Co 3:6–7)
This would be more immediately understandable to ancient farmers than to modern ones or city dwellers of any age. Even today as we have seen this year farmers are at the mercy of the weather but before tractors, hybrid seeds and other technological advances the farmer was even less secure.
The parables remind us that we are always dependent on God.
The second parable brings this out more clearly.
The mustard seed is neither the smallest of seeds, nor is it the largest of plants. Mark’s listeners would know this, but they would also know that the seed was small, the bush large and that it was a humble bush and not a majestic tree. Most of Mark’s listeners or readers would not be Jews, but Bible study was encouraged, and many would have known the line from today’s first reading from Ezekiel. ‘Under it every kind of bird will live in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind’.
Comparing the mighty rule of God to any seed, much less a tiny one, would have startled an ancient audience, and if we are honest startling to us as well. These people had intimate connection with the Roman Empire with its vast army and administrative might. They would have been more comfortable with an army of angels than with the mysterious power which we have come to call grace. We experience around us what St. John Paul II called “structures of Sin” ranging from the culture of death that throws away the unprofitable, the unborn and uneducated., to racism and the exaltation of the individual at the expense of community. These are all destructive of harmony and hinder the growth of the kingdom.
I would like a few angels to be sent to abortion clinics, colleges and most especially Congress, but we too receive instead the mysterious workings of God who refuses to use the power of the world. Let us look at the crucifix at the center of this and every Catholic Church. It is the most horrendous of deaths that not only kills but humiliates the victim, and yet it is the sign and means of ultimate victory. That is the pattern that Jesus reveals to us throughout his life and ministry and one into which these parables provide a deeper insight.
The second part of this parable reminds us of the extent of the Kingdom. It is call to all peoples. Birds of the air were an ancient sign of the multitude of peoples what we would now call nations, races and classes. In our first reading today, the LORD tells the Jews in captivity that although all they could see was devastation, they were being transplanted and that tender shoot from Israel would be brought back to life and all peoples would find shelter through Israel. This would be developed by other writers. But note that it is a cedar, a majestic tree. Jesus uses a bush instead to show that we should not take earthly ideas of power and security too seriously.
The kingdom judges the Church. Perfect harmony sheds a light on our fragile attempts to reflect the kingdom.
The parable illustrates that we often fail by excluding some of the birds of the sky. The kingdom demands that we include those people who we would prefer not be part of the Church. We can fool ourselves but not God.
Also, we need to remember that we are not a majestic cedar. Often, we can think that the church is at its best when it is most powerful in a worldly sense. A true insight into these parables will show the opposite.
As we return to the new normal, let the Kingdom judge what we do and for whom we do it. We have an opportunity to make a new beginning and bear unknown fruit. But if Black people cannot get fair market housing loans, essential workers are deported, and people are not welcomed to our Church, then the seed has been killed and the Kingdom betrayed.