By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let me begin by setting the scene for the Gospel reading. Jesus is sitting in a boat near the shore of the Sea of Galilee—a place I visited just three weeks ago. And he is teaching the crowd on the beach in parables, little stories with hidden meanings. Why parables? Well, because not all are being called to be Jesus’ disciples. He is seeking people with imagination and curiosity and determination. Those are the kind of folks who will take the time to come to Jesus later on to get their questions answered. And those are the kind of folks that Jesus wants as his disciples.
Today we hear two agricultural parables about seeds. Now, to be honest, I grew up in an agricultural area, but at heart I’m a city boy. So these parables don’t speak to me the way they would to people with a closer relationship to the land, like Jesus’ original audience. But some of you, I know, are gardeners, so maybe they will resonate with you.
We are told that after telling these parables to the crowds, Jesus had the habit of explaining their hidden meanings to the disciples in private. In these cases, we often find that the parables are, in fact, allegories. And the key to interpretation is to know how to decode the allegory. Today, unfortunately, we are not given the key to the code. So we are on our own regarding the correct interpretation!
The first parable is often called “The Parable of the Growing Seed.” But I prefer to call it “The Parable of the Growing Seed and the Lazy Farmer.” For in this parable, the farmer scatters the seed, and seemingly, just sits back and waits for the seeds to germinate and grow. There is no mention of watering or fertilizing or weeding! After the scattering of the seed, the farmer takes no action until it is time to harvest. Not what one would expect of a farmer! And yet Jesus says that this is what the Kingdom of God is like. How are we to interpret this odd little story?
According to the standard interpretation, the disciples sow the Word and then leave the rest to God. When the time is right, Jesus harvests the faithful on the Last Day. The moral of the story is then: to trust in God and not to worry about church growth. Here is the problem with that interpretation: the farmer starts out as the disciples and ends up as Jesus!
I think there is a more plausible and consistent interpretation: The farmer is Jesus—at the beginning and at the end. The seed is the Word of God. The earth represents us, the hearers of the Word. And the harvest represents the Day of Judgment, when the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness.
The moral of the parable is then this: Be good soil! Be receptive to God’s Word, and let it grow in you. And then be patient. When the time is right, God’s Kingdom will come.
The second parable that we heard today is the familiar Parable of the Mustard Seed. The moral of the story is that big things can come from small beginnings. In other words, a tiny community of faith consisting of just a handful of disciples can eventually result in a great Kingdom.
But there is more going on here than just that! We can learn something valuable from how Jesus tells this parable. Jesus is being a bit playful; he is riffing on the oracle from Ezekiel that we heard in today’s first reading. There, the House of David is represented as a great stately cedar that grows from a tiny twig. By God’s grace, it thrives, while the “trees of the field,” which represent the surrounding Gentile nations, are dried up and brought low. But in contrast, in Jesus’ rather homey parable, the coming Kingdom of God is not a great towering cedar, but rather an overgrown shrub! From this, we can derive a second moral to the story: you need a sense of humor to understand the Kingdom of God.
Now, all too often Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God are applied to the Church, as if the Church were the Kingdom. Well, it isn’t—at least not yet! Even so, there is a clearly a message or two to the Church in today’s parables.
The first parable calls us to be the soil that grows the Good News, to be the matrix for the spread of the Gospel. The harvest will grow and flourish because it has been nourished and sustained among us and within us. Now, it is not so unusual to be asked to pitch in and to “get our hands dirty.” We hear phrases like that thrown around every year when getting ready for the annual book sale. But Jesus is asking something different—he isn’t asking us to “get out hands dirty,” he is asking us to be dirt—potting soil—if you will! And that requires a degree of humility.
The second parable, the one about the mustard seed, invites us to allow ourselves to be imaginative, even playful, in how we go about things, just as Jesus was playful with the oracle from Ezekiel. The Church is invited to see itself as a humble mustard bush, instead of a towering cedar. And the purpose of the Church, we can infer, is not to grow just for the sake of growing, but so that it can provide shade to creatures who need shade. One point of the Church, surely, is to provide respite and succor to the poor, the sick, the elderly, the refugee—to everyone who cannot fend for him- or herself. We should invite them here to nest in our branches and to find shade from the harsh noonday sun. (What we should not do is to separate children from their parents when they seek refuge in this country! What we should not do is to minister justice without compassion and then pretend that it is the will of God!)
No, the Church is not yet the Kingdom of God, but it is meant to model the Kingdom and to help build it up. And these two parables about seeds give us some hints as to how to go about that daunting task—namely, with the humility and fruitfulness of plain old dirt and with the absurdity and usefulness of a big scraggly bush!
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission