Today’s gospel passage comes from a sequence called Mark’s ‘day of parables’. In the parables we can meet Jesus as an imaginative friend who is explaining his concerns and hopes to us. He tells us of ‘the Kingdom’, in which Israel’s great hopes and all our human longings will be fulfilled. In Jesus’ time, expectations were high and false human hopes were widespread. Jesus used figurative language, as more effective than plain language, to engage the people and awaken in them a sense of the mysterious message he brought. As our understanding of the mystery is awakened, so too is our understanding of the Saviour himself, for it is to the realisation of the ‘Kingdom’ that his whole existence among us is given.
Mark begins his ‘day of parables’ with three ‘seed’ parables. The familiar parable of the sower is not included in today’s passage; it gives us the parable of the seed that grows mysteriously to produce a full harvest, and the parable of the mustard seed, the smallest seed familiar to Palestinian farmers, which can produce a bush ten or twelve feet high. The most striking feature of these parables is the contrast between the tiny seed and what it goes on to produce. The ‘Kingdom’ Jesus announces is not a worldly triumph (something we need constantly to be reminded of); of its nature it has beginnings which are unimpressive and obscure by human standards. But in the end it initiates the realisation of the final achievement of God. Reference to the sickle and harvest echoes what the prophets had said about the End-time. Mark’s audience, who had already seen the Church grow from being a marginal Jewish movement into an international fellowship, would have appreciated the prophetic promise of the original parable of Jesus. The ‘birds of the air’ may be an echo of this. The seed growing mysteriously has a lesson for every age. The growth of the ‘kingdom’ is God’s work, a work that is vast and mysterious. Vatican II teaches that God’s grace is at work in every human existence ‘in a way known only to God’ (Gaudium et spes, n.22). We must distinguish the Church and the ‘Kingdom’ – of which the Church is the ‘first-fruits’ and sign in the world. And even in the Church, as we all recognise, what is important to God is often humble and hidden.
The whole life of Jesus, we can say, is a parable, leading us into the mystery of God’s generous and merciful dealings with us. As we come to appreciate the ‘Kingdom’ Jesus announced, and see him caring for God’s people in their needs, we come to know the commitments which shaped his human existence. More than one of the Fathers spoke of Jesus as the ‘seed’. In fact, he himself said he was the seed that must fall into the ground and die to produce God’s final harvest.
John Thornhill sm