Mark tells two stories in what scholars call the parables of the kingdom. They both describe scenes familiar to almost everyone who lived in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. Mark remarks that Jesus had to explain the meaning of these tiny vignettes, for disciple means learner.
It would have seemed to those early Christians, whether they lived in urban centers like Rome or Ephesus or in more rural settings, that the kingdom had been announced and subjects recruited beyond the farthest regions of the Roman Empire. The field seemed ripe for harvest. That tiny mustard seed planted in Jerusalem was now in the capital of the most powerful empire the world had known, and was challenging that empire by claiming that Jesus was the genuine king.
|First reading and psalm: Ezek. 17:22-24
Ps. 92:1-4, 11-14
Alternate: 1 Sam. 15:34-16:13 • Ps. 20
2 Cor. 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 • Mark 4:26-34
Those who read or hear Mark’s voice today are beset by three problems. Many of us live in cities, and if we venture into the country we rush by on a journey, perhaps unaware of seed time and harvest in the fields along the highway. We hear the punch lines but, like the disciples, we do not grasp the point. Where is the kingdom announced?
Even if our intimate connection with agriculture is a small patch of grass or a window box, we know that growing things is not all that easy. Grass and other plants have to be watered, fed, given sunlight. Behind these two simple parables is a common understanding that plant growth includes toil, care, and perhaps harvesting, even if only for seeds to replant after winter. Is Jesus suggesting that the kingdom will just grow? Yes and no. He predicts a fruitful harvest. At the Ascension he ordered his followers to go into all the world, to work at telling the world about the Messiah, baptizing, celebrating the Eucharist, loving extravagantly. At Pentecost he sent his Holy Spirit to give strength for this service.
For most of the Church’s existence the kingdom has been announced with enormous success and citizens have been recruited. We’ve come to expect these signs of success. The Church continues to thrive as proclaimer and recruiter today in Africa and Asia. That may seem cold comfort to us, particularly if we are part of an average congregation of 61 pew-sitters, struggling to pay the bills and a priest. We sing, “Thy kingdom comes and grows for ever, till all thy people own thy sway.” But does it? Jesus gave two answers. God will bring the kingdom in his own time. Church farming is not always successful. There will be stony ground. Weeds will choke out good seed.
Is the Church the same thing as the kingdom? The infuriating, mysterious answer is, “It all depends.” The Church as God sees her — faithful in announcing that the kingdom is on its way, faithful in making disciples, — is a preview of the kingdom, in which many kingdom elements may be found. The Church as we see her — divided, confused, in error, often corrupt, and neglectful of announcing the kingdom and making disciples — may well be a very discouraging sight.
Yet be assured. God is on his way and uses the Church wherever it is to announce mercy in an unmerciful world. Wherever even a few gather to tell about Jesus, to baptize, to break bread, to care for others, there are the signs of God’s reign. We cannot create the reign of God. The seed is God’s Word, and God’s Word is Jesus. As we obey Jesus, do the things he told his disciples to do, and live in his abiding presence, the seed is planted and the earth brings forth its increase. We do the planting. We do not do the harvesting.
Look It Up
Read Matt. 13:24-53.
Think About It
How would you tell a kingdom story today to a city dweller?