I met some friends at a casual restaurant a few weeks ago. I noticed that there were tablet computers on each table. I assumed that the computers were intended to provide entertainment for fidgety children. It wasn’t until the end of the meal that I learned the purpose of the tablets: they allowed patrons to pay their restaurant bills at the table. This might not seem to be a shocking innovation, but I was surprised by it nonetheless.
The two agricultural parables that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading were intended to express shock and surprise of the sort I experienced in that restaurant with my friends. People in the ancient world had no understanding of plant physiology and ontogeny. In their eyes, plant growth was an amazing miracle.
The parable of sowing and reaping grain, and the parable of the mustard seed, would have conjured thoughts in the minds of crowds of the seemingly miraculous way in which something very small (a seed), can become something large and significant (a food staple or a large shrub). Although we, with our scientific understanding of the world, might think of the organic growth of plants, our ancient ancestors would have understood these parables to be stories of miraculous results coming from modest beginnings. This was Jesus’ intent: to communicate metaphors about how an inauspicious beginning can produce a momentous result.
Many of the original witnesses responded favorably to Jesus’ preaching and healings. “Many,” in this context, means many of the relatively sparse population of Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ ministry actually touched very few people in comparison to the history of Israel and the boundaries of the Roman Empire. I’m sure this was a cause for concern on the part of his disciples. They wanted to believe that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God. (Mk. 8:29) They hoped for the establishment of God’s Reign on earth. (Mk. 1:14-16) They might have felt uneasy with the small beginnings of Jesus’ reform movement and with the modest results that they had witnessed. (Acts 1:6) These two parables were intended to reassure Jesus’ disciples by reminding them that redemption is God’s work rather than the result of human effort.
Jesus expected that the rather modest beginnings of his ministry would have lasting and ever-expanding effects. Isaiah expressed this same sentiment when he spoke on God’s behalf, “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55:11) As it happened, the mission to preach the Gospel after Jesus’ death extended its reach to the farthest corners of the Roman Empire within a few short decades. Today, that mission continues to grow and expand in those areas where the authentic teaching of Jesus is proclaimed.
Jesus used these parables to encourage his disciples to remain faithful to preaching the Gospel, even when they perceived modest results from their efforts. Can we put our trust in this encouraging word today? Can we trust that a modest and inauspicious beginning to our experience of faith will bear great fruit due to God’s gracious favor? Can we believe that our modest almsgiving to the poor can have a lasting effect in the world? Can we remain undisturbed in our faith when there appears to be so much evil and faithlessness in the world? Can we have the confidence expressed by Paul in today’s second reading? (2 Cor. 5:6-7)
I believe that it is possible to be satisfied with the halting beginnings of faith, the apparent minimal effect that the Gospel has on secular society, and our personal struggles with faith and morals. These are possible, but only when we embrace the humility with which Jesus lived and died. To the humble, inauspicious beginnings are more than sufficient. To the humble, the world is in need of compassion rather than in need of being fixed. To the humble, struggles are to be expected rather than avoided.
Jesus was quite willing to remain relatively unknown during his lifetime. He was not bothered by the modest beginnings of his mission to call people to a renewed faith in God. He did not shy away from the disgrace of the Cross. The effects of his humility are the effects of Grace we experience and hope to experience to a greater degree. We can experience these same effects in our lives, if we are willing to imitate Jesus’ example of humility.
If you are truly confident in God’s faithfulness, mercy, and compassion, there is no reason to be reluctant to live a humble life. If you fear that humble faith is insufficient to redeem the world or your own life, you have the necessary beginnings of humility: turn to God for the confidence to “walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:10)