One of my cousins, when he was a child, decided to grow watermelons. He enjoyed the taste of watermelon, and in his seven-year old’s mind, the obvious choice was to grow them in the back yard of his parents’ house. Everyone in the family eventually heard about his back yard watermelon farm, but not for the reason you might assume.
My cousin planted the watermelon seeds in the Spring, and watered them diligently. He was ecstatic when the seeds began to sprout; he told everyone about the huge crop of sweet fruit he was expecting. One by one, the sprouts grew a few inches, and then fell over onto the ground (watermelon plants grow horizontally along the ground because they are vines).
When my cousin saw the sprouts lean over onto the ground he assumed that they were dying, and he plucked them out of the earth. His older siblings laughed at him, told everyone in the family, but never explained to their brother that he was killing perfectly healthy plants. At age seven, he didn’t understand the intricacies of plant development, and couldn’t have been expected to do so. Evidently, his older siblings found the immediate possibility of ridicule to be sweeter than the eventual possibility of home-grown watermelons.
The two agrarian images used by Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel are based, in part, on a lack of knowledge about plants. Like my young cousin, people in the ancient world had no understanding of the process of plant growth. The parable tells about a man who planted seeds, and went about his daily activities waiting for the seeds to sprout. Jesus said that the seed eventually sprouted and grew, but the man did not know how it happened. (Mark 4:27)
The statement by Jesus is an accurate representation of the degree of knowledge that farmers had about plant growth: they knew that seeds sprouted when planted in the earth, but they had no understanding of how and why that happened. The common belief was that mature, dried seeds were dead, and that the earth gave them life, causing a plant to sprout up.
The second parable is similar to the first; it depicts the growth from a sprout to a mature plant as being a marvel and a miracle. Today, based on our knowledge of plant growth, we are probably tempted to interpret these parables as statements about the organic, incremental growth of the Reign of God. This notion, however, is an anachronism; the concept of incremental, organic growth did not exist in ancient Judea.
It is most likely that Jesus used these images to address a pressing religious issue of his time. These two parables about the miraculous nature of plant growth were probably intended to discourage Jesus’ disciples from sympathizing with the views of the Zealots. The Zealots were a group of Judeans who advocated the violent overthrow of the Roman Empire, and the restoration of a monarchy in Jerusalem.
In opposition to this viewpoint, Jesus said that the Reign of God would sprout, take root, grow and mature without human intervention; the Reign of God was God’s work, and not something that could be effected or hastened by violence. He said, “Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” (Mark 4:28) We live in a social, religious and cultural setting very different from that of Jesus’ lifetime, but the message is still pertinent: the Reign of God is God’s work, not ours.
There have always been, and will always be, those who relish the thought of violent cataclysm. The Zealots of Jesus’ time thought they could bring about the Reign of God in their lifetime by means of violence. There are people today who have similar views. They hope longingly for a violent end to the world or the nation or the church. They see natural disasters as acts of Divine judgment and human tragedy as deserved punishment for sin.
The various types of doom-lovers embrace the widest possible variety of religious, political and moral convictions, but they share one important characteristic: a lack of faith. Jesus said that the remedy for this lack of faith is to understand God’s presence and activity in the world as something that begins imperceptibly but “becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” (Mark 4:32) That is to say that, when one seeks diligently for it, the evidence of God’s activity in the world is clearly perceptible.
Our Bulletin editor put an article in this Sunday’s Bulletin entitled “Living the Church’s Ordinary Time.” The article suggests that one make an effort to focus on the good in one’s life (rather than the bad), and to remember the good things that God has done. These two suggestions mirror Jesus’ instruction about the Reign of God. According to Jesus, the actions of God in one’s life grow from modest beginnings to an unmistakeable presence. The task of believers is to notice God’s work rather than to hasten God’s work. The principal means of noticing God’s work is to cultivate gratitude.
The smallest beginning of God’s Reign in our lives is something for which we should be truly grateful. The little evidences of God’s love in our lives can completely change (for the better), the focus of our day. The ordinary experiences of grace and providence are the Reign of God dawning in us. These small beginnings lead to total transformation, the sort of miraculous transformation that happens when a seed sprouts and grows into a mature plant.
In our culture it is common to dream of miraculous transformation. The Florida Lottery banks on the desires of people who long for a new life. Fairy tales such as “Cinderella” offer images of radical transformation, as do the fairy tale vendors of cosmetic surgery. Amidst all of these dreams lies the real possibility of miraculous transformation. The seeds of new life are present already in our lives; they wait to be recognized and nourished by faith. The Reign of God, that is, God’s presence and action in our lives, grows in us of its own accord; it is our task, not to cause the coming of the Kingdom, but to notice its imperceptible beginnings and to be grateful for its transforming effects.