One of my great pleasures as parish priest of four rural churches in Oxfordshire was to visit the Bowood Pre-School in the village of Coleshill each month to do some Bible story-telling with the three to four year old boys and girls. One of the perennial favourites amongst the children was the parable of the sower. So one day three years ago I took in my bowl of seeds, and my three flower pots: one with stony soil, one with weeds growing in it, and one with healthy growing wheat from one of the local farms. I asked the children what they were growing in their gardens, and they said with enthusiasm: tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries. It was lovely to see how delighted they were to see these plants growing, that would become their family’s food. But I was was slightly taken back when one little girl said with evident enthusiasm that she liked to see weeds grow – to which I replied with a watery smile that weeds were just flowers growing in the wrong place.
There are three parables of growth in Mark chapter 4: the parable of the sower and Jesus’ explanation of it, in verses 3 to 20; and this is followed, after the short related parable of the lamp under the bushel basket, by the parable of the growing seed in verses 26 to 29; and finally there is the parable of the mustard seed in verses 30 to 32. Our Gospel reading today focuses on the latter two of these parables of growth. Each of the three parables reflects on sowing, on growth and the harvest – as illustrations of the Kingdom of God.
Many of Jesus’ parables were drawn from everyday life in Palestine, and this gives these teaching stories a reality of context and detail. In the parable of the sower, we are told about stony ground and ground choked with weeds; and so we see the parable portraying sources of opposition to good and healthy growth. We read about the harvest, and think about the many seeds that have been planted; and so we learn of God’s Kingdom manifesting fruitfulness.
The parable of the sower emphasises that the growth of the Kingdom is a work of God, not a human achievement; and the two following parables that feature in today’s Gospel reading continue this theme: that it is God who gives the increase, and that it is in earthly humility that God chooses to manifest his glory. But whereas in the parable of the sower significant attention is also given to the resistance and obstruction encountered by the seed, the parable of the growing seed emphasises the power released through the scattering and sowing of the seed.
The sowing and the harvesting are seen as having a common identity, with God-given growth uniting the two. The reference to the harvest recalls the words of the prophet Joel 3.13, which speak of the judgement of the world in the fullness of time. So the emphasis in the parable in placed upon the sowing of the seed as the work of the Messiah that releases energy and power which lead to the sovereign purposes of God being achieved.
So what happens in the period between the sowing of the seed and the harvest ? The seed germinates and sprouts. It springs up and matures in a mysterious way that almost goes unnoticed. In Mark’s words the one who sows the need “does not know how”. This does not mean that the sower abandons his work, nor that he is uninterested in what is taking place. But it means that the seed must be allowed its appointed course, as the process of growth and ripening advances towards the harvest. Significant elements in the parable are the certainty of the harvest and the germinal power of the seed as the pledge and promise of its coming to maturity. So the parable emphasises not only the harvest but also the seed, and its action within the soil, and its growth. In a similar way, the proclamation of the gospel both promises God’s Kingdom and helps to make it manifest.
Turning to the parable of the mustard seed, we find a contrast between the smallest of the seeds and the tallest of the shrubs, into which the seed grows. So there is not much reflection in this parable on the actual growth of the seed, but instead on the beginning and the end result. Though insignificant in its beginning, the mature result provides strength and protection for those who come within its shade, especially the birds who make their nests there.
The mustard seed which is described in this parable is thought to be the black mustard, which was extensively cultivated, and from Biblical times was the source of mustard-seed oil which has medicinal use. It is conspicuous around the Sea of Galilee, with its profusion of yellow flowers and seed-bearing fruits. Interestingly, it is an annual plant whose perpetuation depends on renewed sowing. It grows to eight to ten feet in height; and indeed birds are attracted both by its shade and its seeds.
The language of the parable, with its references to the birds nesting in the branches of trees, reflects Old Testament passages (cf. Psalm 104.12; 31.6; Daniel 4.12 – Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) which speak of trees of God’s planting as symbols of God’s mighty kingdom.
In Jewish folklore the mustard seed stood for for the smallest seed. But this apparently insignificant seed grows into a mighty plant. The mustard seed symbolises the word of God proclaimed by Christ; and this word possesses the power which will make all things new. And this connects with our Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians in which Paul says, in one of the most memorable verses in the New Testament: “ if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” The whole created order is therefore seen through the redemptive power and love of Christ.
Through the use of parables Jesus proclaimed the word of God in terms which related to the lived experience of those to whom he spoke, and he adapted these parables to the degree of understanding that he found in his listeners – hence Mark’s statement that Jesus “spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” Moreover, Jesus’ presentation and use of parables allowed time for reflection on the part of those who came to hear him, as they pondered the symbolic and thought-provoking stories that Jesus told them.
The use of parables shows the value of presenting the faith by way of stories. Often where things make the greatest impact on us is when we hear a story which resonates with our own life’s story. And so as we share our Christian faith and experience with others, may our own stories reflect the light of Christ and may they connect with the stories of the people who we encounter. And may the seed of God’s word within us, grow into plants that provide protection, hospitality and nourishment to others.