He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ 30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.’ 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Translation: And he said, "In this manner, the kingdom of God is just as a man might throw seed upon the earth, and he might lie down to sleep and might be raised up night and day, and the seed might sprout and might grow up, in what way he does not know. The earth bears fruit automatically, first a blade, then an ear, then full wheat in the ear. But when the fruit is ripe, immediately he sends the sickle, because the harvest stands near."
And he said, "How might we compare the kingdom of God, or in what parable shall we place it? Just as a mustard seed, which when sown upon the earth is least of all the seeds, the ones upon the earth, and when it might be sown, it goes up and is born greatest of all the herbs and it makes great branches so that under its shade the birds of heaven are able to rest." And (with) many such parables he was speaking the word to them, just as they were being able to hear. But apart from parables, he did not speak to them, but privately to his own disciples.
Background and situation: Jesus has been talking about the mystery of the Kingdom of God (4:11). The "Kingdom of God," it should be noted, is not about going to heaven when you die. It is about living in the "reign of God" right now. It is about the establishment of "the way"--God's way--on earth.
In Mark, trials and difficulties are often associated with the Kingdom coming on earth. Nevertheless, it will increase and yield "thirty and sixty and a hundredfold" (4:9). From small beginnings--even secret beginnings (4:22)--the way of God will, inevitably and ultimately, "come to light" (4:22).
Parable of the growing seed: Jesus often used agricultural metaphors. This reflects both his rural upbringing and his ministry in the small towns and villages of Galilee.
In Mark's gospel, Jesus is never in a large town or city, except at the very end, of course, when he is killed in Jerusalem. In Mark, the largest town visited by Jesus was Capernaum, a fair-sized town, but much smaller than other cities in the region, such as Tiberias. Capernaum, however, was home to the largest harbor on the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus' very first disciples were fishermen.
Thus, it appears that the Jesus movement focused its appeal first to fishermen and farmers, a strategy which had much success. This is at least partly because of worsening economic conditions following upon the Roman conquest of the region. Under the Romans, taxation and debt had been the ruination of many a Galilean farm and many a Galilean fishing operation.
Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a man who "throws seed" upon the ground. The seed is sown with some force--bale, "thrown". Moreover, the seed is "upon the earth"--epi tes gace. The kingdom of God is not something alien to the earth, not something that comes, as a stranger, to the earth. The Kingdom is planted in the earth. It is part of it.
The earth takes it from there. Even when the man sleeps, "the earth bears fruit automatically"--automate. The process of the growth of the Kingdom is inevitable. Having sown the seed in the first place, the man may snooze and "be raised" every day. Still, though not obviously at first, the seed grows irresistibly. Mark gives a complete description by mentioning each major stage of growth.
When the wheat is ripe--Mark appears to be using "wheat" and "fruit" interchangeably--the man "sends the sickle because the harvest is near." (This is reminiscent of Joel 3:13: "Put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe.")
Despite its small and secret beginnings, the harvest is assured. Note that there is nothing in this story about chaff being thrown into fires or axes at the root of trees. Here, it is all sowing of seed, the inevitable growth of the plant, the development of fruit, and the reaping of harvest.
Parable of the mustard seed: Mark expands upon this theme in the parable of the mustard seed (4: 30-32). The mustard seed is identified as "the least of all the seeds"--mikroteron, where we get "micro." Yet, without any help, the mustard seed "grows up" and becomes "the greatest of all the herbs" (laxanon). This "greatest of all herbs" grows "great branches so that under its shade the birds of heaven are able to rest."
This is likely an allusion to two Old Testament texts, Ezekiel 17:23 and Ezekiel 31: 4-6. Ezekiel 17: "Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind." Ezekial 31: "It sent forth its streams to all the trees of the forest. So it towered high above all the trees of the forest; its boughs grew large and its branches long...All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs."
These are, most likely, negative allusions. Both Ezekiel 17 and 31 are talking about the kingdom of Egypt and its demise. Moreover, there are key differences between Ezekiel and Mark.
Note, for example, the contrast between the "lofty top of a cedar" in Ezekiel and the "mustard seed" which grows into the "greatest of all herbs" in Mark.
Note as well that the Ezekiel 17 lection also says, "I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree." The tree of Egypt's empire will be brought low.
In Ezekiel 31, the great tree was too "proud" of its height and greatness. Therefore, the Lord "cast it out." Its branches were "fallen," its boughs "broken." The birds came again to nest all right, but did so on its "fallen trunk."
Jesus, however, begins his story not with the mighty cedar, but rather the lowly mustard seed. The mustard plant was a common weed in the Israel of Jesus' time. It grew to, perhaps, 7-8 feet. The cedar, of course, is much taller. The kingdom, therefore, is not about something grand and big like a cedar--for Mark, the Roman Empire--but rather something ordinary and common like a mustard plant.
The mustard seed, incidentally, is not the smallest of all seeds, nor does the text say that it is. It is mikroteron, from mikros, which is the opposite of megas, or "great." Mikroteron should, therefore, be translated as "least," not "smallest." It is the "least of all seeds" because it is the seed which brings forth a common weed, one that is rather unimpressive and held in low account.
Yet, this seed will become the "greatest of all herbs." Greatest of all herbs? One might, if one were afflicted by hierarchical thinking, be rather disappointed that the growth of the kingdom results in the "greatest of all herbs." The Great Herb metaphor does not evoke the grandness and splendor we were expecting.
Triumphalism, however, is not the point. Herbs are noted not for their impressive or imposing size, but more for their aroma and for the flavor they add to what we take in as nourishment--not size, in other words, but spice.
The mustard plant will put forth "great branches," branches which appear to be noted more for their fullness than their sheer size. These "great branches" are so full they provide shade so that "the birds of heaven"--not "the birds of the air"--"are able to rest."
The word "able" is dunatai in Greek, which means "have ability" or "power." The birds are not able to rest in the tree of empire, which the Lord God rejects. They are able to rest in the alternative to the way of empire, which is the "reign of God."
The lection closes rather cryptically: "And (with) many such parables he was speaking the word to them, just as they were being able to hear. But apart from parables, he did not speak to them, but privately to his own disciples."
In his public speech, Jesus uses metaphor and story, while, in private, Mark says that Jesus was more direct. Was this to avoid saying something publicly for which he could be charged with treasonous speech? If he had said publicly what he said privately, would he have gotten into trouble with the authorities even sooner than he did?
The ultimate victory of the "reign of God" is sure, says Mark. It is proceeding "automatically," and inexorably, without any effort from us, or any endorsement by us. In the meantime, those who "follow"--"following" is a very important theme in Mark--do so by joining Jesus "on the way" by living out the "reign of God" on earth.
In Mark, that reign is lived out in the beloved community which is not organized hierarchically, but rather a radical reversal of hierarchy wherein the last are first and the first last. It is a beloved community which is on a spiritual journey exemplified by respecting the human dignity of all people, and especially the poor and downtrodden. It walks the way of the cross and not the way of glory.
Obrey Hendricks Jr. summarizes the story: "Jesus' practice of sowing good news to the poor and oppressed...was an integral part of his strategy to establish God's kingdom of justice, a strategy brought to fruition by his courageous death and the power of his resurrection, both of which affirmed for all time the truth and transformative might of his message when it is rightly understood and practiced." (The Politics of Jesus, p. 326)
To put it another way, the resurrection is God's stamp of approval--God's vindication--of the "way" exemplified by Jesus. This affirmation assures the followers of Jesus that his "way" is the true one, however counter-intuitive it might be to the way of this world. Hendricks:
That means sowing the seeds and the deeds of justice that will grow into the kind of world Jesus seeks for us, not demonizing those who oppose us or forcing our own perspectives on them like we are modern-day Crusaders. Christianity that is truly based upon the teachings of Jesus is a fellowship of faith, and true faith can never be coerced, only lovingly tended. When the seeds of God's kingdom are nourished by deeds of love and justice, gradually they will take root. The deeper their roots, the stronger the stem or trunk, and the higher the plants will grow. The higher their growth, the wider their reach and the greater the fruit they will bear. If lovingly nurtured, they will pervade the fields into which they are introduced, offering peace and shelter to all who need them. This is the only way that the kingdom of God's justice will transform the government of this world: through the sowing of seeds of truth, love, and mercy by consistent words and consistent deeds.
Image: The mustard seed, Nelly Bube