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.” (Mark 4.26-27)
The Whole Plant Thing
I’m highly amused by Miracle-Gro’s spring advertising campaign. If you’ve not seen the spots, they feature folks who’d love nothing better than being surrounded by thriving plants and flowers but have no gift for making that happen. As they confess their foibles, I laugh out loud, because all of them are me.
The commercials bring back so many failures: the gladiolas I planted along a row and then burned to a crisp by tying them to an iron fence; the lilac I set in the far corner of our backyard to obscure trash cans on the alley, only to love it to death; dozens of ferns I’ve drowned and who knows how many “hardy” houseplants I’ve killed. I can’t really say what I’m doing wrong when it comes to gardening. Is it too much, or not enough? Am I trying too hard, or should I try harder? At times I’ve been too obsessive and not given the plants a chance to make it on their own. But there have been other times when I’ve backed down and not done enough to keep them alive. The whole plant thing is a mystery to me. Which is why Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 4.26-34) gives me great consolation. There, Jesus talks about someone who scatters seed, watches it grow, but has no idea how it works. I have to laugh. This person is just like me!
That Extra Little Something
Of course, Jesus isn’t giving a horticulture lecture. Like so many of His lessons, this one begins with, “The kingdom of God is…” It’s another of Jesus’s attempts to penetrate the minds of His followers, to bring about their understanding of His message and mission. Across-the-board in the four gospels, Jesus is all about the kingdom of God (or, in Matthew, the kingdom of heaven). In Mark 1.15, He launches His ministry by proclaiming, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent, and believe the good news.” He then spends much of His time explaining what the kingdom of God is. Actually, He keeps clarifying His meaning by suggesting what the kingdom of God is like. It’s like a mustard seed, a child, yeast, hidden treasure, a great net, a merchant searching for fine pearls, and so on. In every scenario, Jesus presents or implies someone whose aspirations exceed his/her abilities. In order to grow seed or find treasure, something ephemeral must occur—that extra little something that entails trust and patience. At a point in the story, the hero has to let go and let whatever he or she hopes to accomplish happen. If the person believes it’s possible, then what she/he envisions will come about. That’s the good news. That’s the kingdom of God.
Jesus makes it sound easy, when He and we know it’s not. He likens God’s kingdom to a planter who scatters seed, goes to bed and wakes up day after day and watches the seed sprout and grow all by itself. Obviously, some tending is required. The ground has to be broken up to receive the seeds. Some watering and weeding will be needed. The planter has to be mindful that birds might gobble up the seed and pests might devour the seedlings, harsh weather might uproot them and poisons might filter into the soil. The key to the parable emerges in the planter’s acknowledgment he really doesn’t know how plants grow. He just lets it happen. And even though he knows what must be done to promote his plants’ growth, he really has no way of predicting what they’ll be. Some may flourish while others fade. They may yield a record crop; they may yield little. All of that is beyond his control. His task is nurturing their growth—not engineering it. To underscore this point, Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” (v31) Yet, seemingly against all odds, this tiny seed “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.” (v32) How that happens is anyone’s guess.
Mark goes on to tell us, “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.” (v33-34) Oh to be a fly on the wall when Jesus spelled things out! One imagines it going something like this. A disciple—Thomas, perhaps, as he’s usually the guy with the questions—says, “Okay. So we get the point about the planter and the mustard seed. What this has to do with God’s kingdom is where everything falls apart.” To which Jesus replies, “Once God’s kingdom is planted inside you, it takes on a life of its own. You don’t need to figure out the hows, whys, and wherefores. Just let it happen. If you do that, you’ll be amazed at what comes of your trust and patience.”
Heeding Christ’s words and following Christ’s example hands us kingdom seeds that we scatter across our lives. While we take care that they’re well nurtured and protected, we leave the mechanics of their growth alone. We don’t know how God’s kingdom takes root and sprouts within us, or how its tiny seeds fulminate into great shrubs. The mystery of this will never be revealed to us. All we need to know is it will happen. And all we need to do is let it happen. Miracle Grow is what God’s kingdom is all about.
We don’t have to figure out the mechanics for God’s kingdom to grow in us. We just have to let it happen.