by Robert Williamson Jr.
In Mark 4:26-34, Jesus tells two parables to help us understand what the kingdom of God is like. Like many of Jesus’s parables these stories at first seem simple—their meaning almost self-evident. Yet, as we dig deeper into the stories, we discover a vision of the kingdom of God that has radical implications for what it means to be the Church in the world today.
The Field that Grows Unaided (Mark 4:26-29)
The first parable tells the story of a person who sows a field, which produces a bountiful crop. Curiously, the story depicts the sower as incompetent. It describes a man “scatters seed on the ground,” using a Greek verb (ballo) that means to throw or to toss instead of the more technical term for sowing (speiro) that Mark uses elsewhere (for example, in the parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-9). The verb suggests that we should read the planter in our story as tossing out seed onto the ground without any real skill or method.
As the story continues, it becomes clear that the planter has no idea how the field grows. Jesus tells us that the planter “sleeps and rises, night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” The planter doesn’t fertilize or pull weeds or transport water from the stream. He simply goes to bed at night and wakes up in the morning, leaving the field to grow on its own.
Yet the seeds sprout and grow and become a plentiful harvest. Jesus emphasizes that “the earth produces of itself” (4:28). The seed grows of its own accord—not due to the efforts of the farmer. Rather, when the seed lands in the soil, its innate potential for life bursts forth into a plentiful harvest, which the planter then gathers in.
To me, this parable is both good news and a warning for the church in our own time. The good news is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has its own inherent power. It doesn’t require us to be highly skilled planters or constantly attentive farmers. According to this parable, all the gospel needs to grow is for us to scatter it out into the world. We don’t even have to sow it carefully—we can just toss it out there as best we can. The innate power of the gospel will do the rest.
At the same time, this parable comes with a warning. We as the church often like to think that we know what we’re doing as planters of the gospel. We value our technical expertise about how to plant the gospel in the world. We imagine that our church structures and missional strategies are necessary to the spread of the gospel. As a result, we can spend so much time thinking about how to spread the gospel and make it grow that we forget to do the only step that actually matters. We forget to toss the seed out into the world—which is in fact the only thing we’re required to do.
The Kingdom of God is for the Birds (Mark 4:30-32)
In a second parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great shrub. In its usual interpretation, this parable is said to be about the great potential of the tiniest of seeds. While the parable certainly describes the tremendous potential of the tiny seeds, there are layers to this parable that we often pass over.
We often think of the tiny mustard seed as growing into a tree, which is in fact how Luke tells this parable (Luke 13:18-19). Yet in Mark’s telling, Jesus uses the Greek word lachanon, which refers not to a tree but rather to a smallish plant in a cultivated garden. The NRSV’s translation of “the greatest of all shrubs” captures the strangeness of the image. The tiny mustard seeds don’t grow into a towering tree but into something like a nice-sized shrubbery. The image is far less dramatic than we at first imagine.
While the plant is shrub-sized, it isn’t a shrubbery exactly. Rather, it is a mustard plant carefully planted (Gk speiro) in an herb garden. The planter no doubt intends to use it as a spice for cooking or perhaps as a medicine, since mustard is known for its healing properties.
Yet, according to Mark, Jesus values the mustard seed not because of its flavorful or medicinal properties but rather because it provides shade for the birds. Surely this isn’t what the gardener intended! Imagine planting mustard seed in your garden only to have it become a nesting place for birds! A typical gardener would think of the birds as pests who had ruined the spice garden by nesting in it. Yet Jesus is celebrating it!
Again, I think this parable has both an encouragement and a warning for the church. On the one hand, it means that we shouldn’t be frustrated by the smallness and apparent frailty of the seeds we have on hand. Even the tiniest of mustard seeds can grow into a plant of profound usefulness. All we have to do is put it into the ground and watch it grow.
Yet at the same time, the parable speaks a warning to us about trying to control outcomes. We may plant a seed with one intention only to discover when it comes to fruition that its usefulness is entirely different than we anticipated. We may be trying to grow a spice garden only to produce instead a nesting ground for birds. In the end, our intent isn’t what matters.
The Gospel is Beyond Our Control
Taken together, these two parables have a profound and challenging message for the church. In both cases, the intent and ability of the sower is unimportant to the outcome. Our lack of understanding doesn’t undermine the capacity of the gospel to grow into a bountiful harvest. Nor does our intention to produce a spice garden prevent God from producing a bird sanctuary. Our task is simply to put the seeds into the ground, carefully or willy-nilly, and trust that the harvest will come—maybe not as we intend it, but in its own time and its own way.
Further, both parables suggest that we don’t know what we’re doing. One sower throws seed on the ground and waits for it to produce a bumper crop, “he knows not how.” The other sower carefully cultivates a spice garden only to produce a habitation for birds. We ought not be too invested in our own expertise, and we dare not take credit for whatever may be produced from our efforts.
The kingdom of heaven grows how it will and where it will. It comes to fruition whenever it will and shelters whomever it wills. Our job is to plant the seeds of the gospel and to rejoice in the abundant life that will inevitably spring forth.