He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
I posed a question to my friends on Facebeook recently: how often have you used a quadratic equation since you left school? I got a few positive responses from maths teachers and from parents helping with homework but in the main the response was that the quadratic equation was something that most of us were very happy to leave at the school gates and promptly forget.
I wasn’t very good at Maths at school and once got into trouble for writing “who cares?” as an answer to a question that went something like, “If a train leaves York at 9.45, travelling south at an average speed of 57 mph and a car leaves Penzance at 13.27, travelling east at an average speed at 42 miles per hour, how many sweets does Susan have left after she’s given Peter 9 oranges?”
It’s a mindset, I know, but I’m not one for puzzles of any sort: if someone starts that sort of conversation I just glaze over. “I’m not even trying. Just give me the answer and then I’ll tell you how much I care.” Catherine Tate’s wonderful comedy character Lauren Cooper, the gobby schoolgirl, sums it up for me:
“Lauren, you have to try, it’s important.”
“Not to me it’s not!”
I sometimes wonder if any of the disciples had this same feeling when Jesus told parables. I like to imagine a couple of the more recalcitrant ones sat in the back row muttering, “Oh here we go again. Just tell us the answer. Life’s too short!”
The parable, Jesus’ favourite teaching aid: some short and pithy, like today’s examples and others long and complex, like The Good Samaritan or The Sower. Now the parable of the Sower really sums up all of Jesus’ teaching: there are those who hear the word gladly but get side-tracked by other distractions. They’re the ones who have shallow roots. Others are the stony ground where the teaching has no impact whatsoever and still others are the ones where the seed takes root and they bear great fruit. (I over summarise, but you get the idea. You know the parable well.) That this parable is the key to all of Jesus’ teaching is clear when he rebukes the disciples, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?”
The point is that Jesus only occasionally explained the meaning of the parables straight off. He liked to leave the ideas hanging in the air for people to think about and struggle with. Sometimes he would relent and explain the meaning to his immediate group of disciples, generally frustrated that they hadn’t worked the meaning out for themselves – the disciples get a pretty bad press in Mark‘s Gospel for being a bit slow. As Victoria Wood once noted, “There wasn’t dyslexia in my day. You just sat at the back with raffia.”
Unlike the Parable of the Sower which Jesus had just told and explained in detail, the two parables we’re given today are (mercifully) short: perhaps, like any good teacher, Jesus recognised that his listeners had limited concentration spans. There are no long narratives and no deeply hidden meanings here. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “We’ve done the hard stuff. This is by way of consolidation.”
Yes, they are simple stories but they’re not just about how little things turn in to big things. They’re more about how the Kingdom of God takes over everything around it. So, yes, more of, “The Kingdom of God is like this” stories.
The seeds take over the field. They’re small and seem insignificant, but they change everything around them. That's how the Kingdom of God works. It’s good to be reminded about that because sometimes we simply fail to see that sort of change. Perhaps we aren’t looking for it. Perhaps we don’t recognise it when it happens. Perhaps it takes us by surprise when it does happen.
I’ll give you a simple example: I started to work in a prison three years ago now and it’s busy. It’s don’t-have-time-to-think busy and that means that it’s really easy to miss signs of the Kingdom on a daily basis.
Just before Easter last year, I ran a Lent group on one wing. Twenty-two men opted to attend and they took part with great enthusiasm and showed some real perception and evidence of spiritual depth. A couple of weeks later, the Bishop came in and confirmed eight of them. Now it’s not easy being a man of faith in a prison: but these men, regardless of their crimes, had come to a point in their faith journeys where they wished to make a public declaration of that faith; to show true penitence and to strive to live a changed life for the remainder of their sentences and to seek to live as better role models to those around them - and many have noticed the change in these men’s lives, other men who are not generally easily impressed.
There’s a strong belief amongst the regular chapel-goers in the prison that you can move on from the shame that lead so many into mental health problems and a downward spiral of self-loathing; that you can be released from all of that to start afresh even if you know you’ll never leave prison. For these men, coming to a deeper understanding of God was also, inevitably, to come to a deeper understanding of themselves. At some time in the past – and I take no personal credit for this – something started to work in the lives of these men: something initially as tiny as a mustard seed set in motion something that would grow and flourish and, to borrow from the parable of the sower, to “bear fruit thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold.”
I think the point is that often we don’t see the wood for the trees and because things don’t always work out in church life in the ways we expect, we lose heart and fail to recognise that something is happening but it’s something different, or it’s happening to someone we don’t see any more because of something that we said or did some time ago which set in motion a chain of events which has taken time to come to fruition. We may never know, but because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
There is, though, another meaning in these parables for those of us who have been on our own pilgrimages of faith for some time: there is a theme of growth and maturity to be discerned at the heart of these short stories. To what extent has “the harvest come”, in the words of the first parable in each of our lives? Have we “put forth large branches” in the words of the second parable? The Kingdom of God is like this: we have to make room for the Kingdom in our lives. We must allow it to take over our lives in a big way. When we allow God to be significant in our lives, we create a path for him to be significant in the lives of other people too.
Spiritual growth and maturity: in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul talks about the mother’s milk of spirituality and notes that his listeners were not yet ready for solid food. How many years have you been on your pilgrimage of faith? Where are you in relation to the solid food of spirituality? One way to assess this is to take an honest look back to your early years of Christian faith. In which ways have you moved on? What ideas and attitudes have you left behind and which have replaced them? What have been the shifts in your spiritual awareness and understanding and what – or who – have been the influences for those changes? How has your faith matured? What’s the evidence? – and it’s a personal inventory: you’ve no need to tell anyone your conclusions. For some, it’s the difference between accepting and questioning, for others it’s the espousal of the justice issues we find in the Gospels, for others a growing awareness, perhaps, of God’s transcendence and the realisation that the God you first met is much bigger than you ever dared to think. Could it, perhaps, have something to do with the way you now express your faith to others? Is about a greater sense of confidence or assuredness? Is it about a growing recognition that the Kingdom of God is something for the wider world and not just the individual convert? Does it lie in your recognition that the way you live your life needs to reflect kingdom values? Is it linked to being willing to engage with the big theological questions in ways you’d never have imagined yourself engaging in the past?
I can’t answer those questions for you, but they – and a hundred and one similar questions – are part of the inventory of spiritual maturity. Are we asking those questions? Has the harvest come? Are we putting forth large branches? Or are we still at the stage of refusing to engage with the depth of the puzzle that is the Kingdom?