Jesus did much of his public preaching and teaching in rural Galilee. So it’s no surprise so many of his images and parables are agricultural in inspiration. That may make obvious sense, but it also may make them hard for most of us in contemporary society, whose background is non-agricultural, whose background is completely urban, to relate to. To me as a non-gardener, gardening seems incredibly complex, physically demanding, and just generally difficult. Wy would anyone want to do it? To me as a non-farmer, farming also seems if anything even more complex and difficult. And, of course, real farming really is hard work. Only non-farmers romanticize farming! But the parables we just heard [Mark 4:26-32] focus less on the human work involved and more on a more mysterious and silent part of the process. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is as if someone scattered seed on the land and over time watched it sprout and grow and yield fruit for the harvest. If that first parable focuses on the mysterious, silent, and patient process by which the seed once originally sown sprouts and grows on its own, the second parable contrasts the full fruition of God’s kingdom with its seemingly modest and maybe even inauspicious beginnings.
Obviously, a lot of what we do in life involves effort, even strenuous effort at times. Yet we all know that sometimes there is only just so much which work and effort can accomplish. However ambitious and elaborate our plans, sometimes all we can actually do is plant some seed, so to speak, and then wait patiently to see what happens. If that is true enough in ordinary life and in our ordinary activities, how much more true is it in the mission of the Church? Much of what we do in Church life and in ministry is like that, planting seeds so to speak, sometimes in lots of different ways, and then waiting – patiently and hopefully – to see what happens.
Yet even in the first parable about the seed growing of its own accord, the farmer does do his part. There is activity on the farmer’s part, just as there is activity on the Church’s part - on our part - in the coming of God’s kingdom. The farmer makes his contribution, as God expects all of us to do. But, in both cases, the crucial action is God’s action – action, which occurs mysteriously and may mainly seem hidden.
When I was a student, I remember being surprised to discover that the first of these parables is unique to the Gospel of Mark, and is not included (as most of Mark’s other material is) in either Matthew or Luke. That seemed strange to me then and still seems so now, although all these years later I have no more or better insight as to why that should be. But, however obscure this parable, however easy it may be for us to overlook, I think this remains a really powerful parable. It speaks to something many modern people in particular seem to worry about – God’s silence, his apparent absence from the world. The point of the parable (or so it seems to me) is to acknowledge God’s silence - but also to exclude our misunderstanding or misinterpreting that silence as being due to inactivity on God’s part. Silent God may well be, but absent he is not.
Both parables are about the wonderful way the kingdom of God grows – unstoppably mysteriously in the first parable, unstoppably successfully in the second. So, despite whatever other human narratives it may be competing with for our attention, the narrative story-line of the kingdom of God is unstoppable mystery and unstoppable success.
Echoing Ezekiel’s prophecy of making the withered tree bloom [Ezekiel 17:22-24], Jesus’ parable illustrates the unstoppable mystery and unstoppable success of God’s kingdom in the mustard seed’s growth into such a great plant that all the birds of the sky can find space for themselves in its large branches. What an amazing aspiration! What an appropriate image for what the church is called to be in our time and place - what we, as Church, are called to be in our conflicted, fragmented, strife-torn world!
Our culture encourages us to be busy all the time and to be efficient, accomplishing a lot in our busy work – often at considerable cost to our health, to our happiness, to family, and to community. But, just as the farmer in the parable scatters seed on faith, with no certain knowledge of how it will grow, the Church has to sow the seed of God’s word in the world, not knowing how or when our efforts will find fulfillment but confident about the coming of God’s kingdom in our lives and in our world – the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, that we say we pray for in every Mass.
Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 17, 2018.