Year B: Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seed Grows of Itself

Mark 4: 26-34

 He said, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”

He said, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How is your understanding of “The Kingdom of God” changing as you grow in faith?
  2. In what ways have you “scattered seed” or benefitted from the harvest of seed planted by others?
  3. In your faith journey, how are you moving from focusing on outcomes and individual development (or harvesting), to (sowing seeds), the ability to serve as shade or comfort for others?
  4. Have you had any “aha” moments that have led to a permanent change in consciousness (how you see things) recently? Tell the story.
  5. How does faith and trust in God help you to live with mystery rather than always needing answers ? Explain

Biblical Context

Mark 4: 26-34
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Pelagius, a fifth-century monk who was accused of teaching that people didn’t need grace to be saved — must have considered this parable highly insulting to dignified “self-actualizers” like himself. (Those psychological terms weren’t part of his Latin vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand the attitude.) Problems with this teaching of Jesus neither started nor stopped with Pelagius and friends.

The problem with this parable is that it assaults our egoism, a bloated distorted sense of self-worth that closes our eyes to the fact that everything we have and are is a gift of God. According to the Italian Jesuit Scripture scholar Silvano Fausti, this parable reflects Jesus’ own understanding that while his message and ministry, even the very reign of God he preached, seemed to be headed to the tomb, he knew that God was at work in ways he did not understand. He had planted the seeds he had been given. The rest was up to his Father. According to Jesus, the growth of the reign of God is as imperceptible as the hidden development of a seed in the ground. Fausti says that belief in this truth is an expression of genuine monotheism, implying that when we stop thinking of ourselves as gods, we will trust that only God can bring about the kingdom. We may plant seeds but we must resist the temptation to think we know how to make them grow.

Jesus follows this parable with one about a mustard seed. Just when disciples might feel that nothing is happening, that they have fallen for the impossible dream, Jesus promises that God’s reign is not only mysterious and beyond human control, but as prodigious as a weed. The Hebrew Scriptures never talk about a mustard seed, which suggests that Jesus may have been reinterpreting something like the parable of today’s first reading. The reading from Ezekiel 17 compared the chosen people to a shoot taken from the greatest of foreign trees and replanted by God in Israel. Seeing the kingdom of God start as a mustard seed is a far humbler image. Nevertheless, the minuscule mustard seed’s growth is astounding or, as farmers would tell you, uncontrollable.

 A Wildly Fruitful Plan

By Mary M. McGlone, CSJ

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is going to challenge us with two puzzling parables.  He created these early in his ministry to summarize his teachings about the coming of the kingdom of God. The first is not good news for autonomous activists, loner cowboys or determined do-it-yourselfers. This is the only parable in the Gospel of Mark that neither Matthew nor Luke copied into their own Gospels. Apparently, it was unpopular from the get-go.

Jesus’ parable about the farmer who gets to sleep late even seems to subvert the first commandment God gave humanity: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This parable tells us that in the kingdom of God, after people scatter the seed, there is nothing more they can or should do until the earth yields the harvest. Any farmers who have survived a few seasons will take issue with that. There’s very little that’s laid-back about agriculture. Tending the land is a full-time occupation from the day of planting until the harvest has been gathered and then some. Jesus knew that well.

Jesus also knew that he was called to make present the reign of God but that his preaching in word and deed had quickly won him mortal enemies who had the power to carry out their malevolent intentions. His words were intended to plant seeds and remove weeds. His way of welcoming others, his healing activities, his way of seeking out the poor and outcast were offered like water on thirsty ground. But his work didn’t seem to be producing a harvest.

Whether it was his own question about the effect of his efforts or his disciples’ impatience for results that led him to weave this parable, it presents a challenging proposal for his disciples throughout time. When we look at it carefully, Jesus was not telling his disciples to sit back and do nothing. But he was telling them that the object of their hope and the results of their work were beyond their control.

Unlike a five-year business plan with regular reviews and measurements of progress, God’s grace cannot be plotted out or even harnessed the way a sail captures the wind. Trying to force the growth of grace is as futile as yanking on a plant to make it grow faster or trying to raise ourselves above the ground by pulling up on our own hair. If Jesus’ success with the religious authorities of his day is any example, there’s not even a sure-fire formula for creating an atmosphere congenial to God’s reigning. It’s out of our hands.

This leaves committed disciples in the paradoxical position of desiring to do everything possible to bring God and neighbor together, knowing all the while that they are ultimately powerless. Ironically, that is exactly where Jesus wants his disciples. It puts them where they belong, behind him, following his lead as he trusts in the Father.

That is the message of the second parable — the crazy saying about the mustard seed. Jesus was telling his followers that although they couldn’t do anything to establish the kingdom, God had a wildly fruitful plan already in operation. Jesus explained that they couldn’t see or understand it but that was because the kingdom of God is as unmanageable and prolific as a weed. All they had to do was trust. To some that is a major problem; to others it is a promise.

The kingdom of God will be a problem to everyone who wants to maintain control — be it of their own spiritual growth, their family, friends, community or the world.      On the other hand, the very unruliness of God’s reign sounds like a boundless promise of continual surprises to people who realize that even their wildest dreams are paltry compared to what God has in mind.

Perhaps, what Jesus was saying to his disciples with these parables was, “I know what’s happening now doesn’t look like what you’re expecting. That’s because you suffer from a congenital disability in the realm of hope. If you will abandon your carefully planned little scenarios and stop clinging to your self-limiting autonomy, you can be really free, and you will get a glimpse of what God is carrying out while your attention has been fixated elsewhere.”

One of the greatest challenges the Gospels give us is to drop our expectations so that we can be open to God’s possibilities. St. Paul tells us that God’s plan is infinitely greater than we can imagine. In the end, trusting God’s plan and timetable may ask more of us than all the things we might think we should or could do to make God’s kingdom come.