Today’s Gospel reading consists of two parables that use agricultural metaphors to describe “the kingdom of God.” It is important to note that the phrase “the kingdom of God” is itself a metaphor. We have in this Gospel reading, therefore, two metaphors for another metaphor. Let’s begin with what Jesus said and then, work our way to what Jesus meant.
On the simplest level, the level of Jesus’ audience, the parables described common experiences. Most people knew that crops grew from seeds, but no one understood how this growth occurred. The parables about the harvest and the mustard seed describe accurately the utter lack of scientific knowledge in the ancient world. The first parable even admits that the farmer in the story “knows not how” the seed grows into a plant that yields a crop. (Mk. 4:27)
These two parables, then, narrate an action that would have been amazing, if not miraculous, to the hearers. The amazing, and slightly miraculous, action was the incomprehensible transformation of something small (seeds) into something large (a harvest, a shrub). These parables did not describe organic, incremental growth as we understand it. People in the ancient world had no grasp of how plants grew; rather, they observed the radical discontinuity between a plant’s beginnings and its final products.
These two narratives about radical transformation give us an important clue about the meaning of the primary metaphor: the kingdom of God. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is something that results from radical transformation. As it is the result of an amazing, if not miraculous, transformation, the “kingdom” preached by Jesus is obviously not a political regime, or geographical region, or a supernatural realm. Rather, the “kingdom,” because it is “of God,” is a metaphor for the exercise of Divine power in human history.
The two parables describe the radical transformation of seeds into food crops. The “kingdom of God,” therefore, represents the radical transformation of something small and humble into a significant and lasting effect on the human population (in the way a food crop has a significant and lasting effect on a population). The kingdom of God, according to Jesus, is an outpouring of Divine power that effects a radical transformation of human society in two, related ways.
The outpouring of Divine power promised in Jesus’ preaching would eventually form a distinct community of believers committed to practicing Jesus’ teachings and spreading those teachings throughout the world. This outpouring of Divine power would have a concomitant effect in the lives of his followers: at the same time that his teaching was transforming human society, it would transform individual lives.
The cumulative message of these two parables of “the kingdom” was one of consolation and encouragement. At this point in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples had yet to understand Jesus adequately. Obviously, they had placed some trust in him and held some hope for a positive outcome from his ministry, but they were unable to foresee how their hopes would be realized eventually. These parables offered them consolation and encouragement that the sacrifices they had made in order to follow Jesus would be justified. In the second reading, Paul echoed this message when he wrote, “We are always courageous . . . for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:6,7) The message of consolation and encouragement is still pertinent for Jesus’ disciples today.
It is not only the case that our contemporary society can be unfriendly toward those who espouse religious faith; it is also lamentably true that our society is unwelcoming even to a commitment to justice and peace. Hardly a day passes when there isn’t a major news story about an attempt to deny an atrocity. A religious faith is not necessary in order to recognize the injustices perpetrated against the Jews by Nazism, the mass killings during the Balkan wars, discrimination against the poor and people of color, and the like; nonetheless, there remain those who deny that these horrific events took place. The depravities committed on a smaller scale in localized crimes and injustices are less far-reaching than these above but no less discouraging and dehumanizing. The promise of radical transformation effected by the kingdom of God provides welcome solace and encouragement.
St. Paul said, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7) If the only truth about human existence was the truth that can be seen, there would be little cause for hope. Thankfully, there is reason to hope for the coming of the kingdom of God; there is hope and consolation in the promise that God will transform us and our world. We make a claim to trust in this promise each time we recite the “Our Father.” Today, when we pray, let’s make an effort to believe that God’s kingdom will come and that we will have sufficient faith to recognize its arrival.