Jesus’ teaching about the reign of God often forces us to reexamine our expectations. This is especially true of His parables. Whether He is talking about a generous vineyard owner or a magnanimous father, an ungodly judge or a fanatical shepherd, Jesus uses parables to challenge His hearers’ conception of the world and offer a glimpse into another reality, which is the one, true reality. Sometimes His parables do this with a twist, or a surprise, or an unexpected discovery. Other times, He uses parables to make a relatively straightforward comparison. This week’s text includes two brief parables of the latter variety. They describe the nature of God’s reign by comparing it to seeds and the plants which grow from them.
This was not the first time Jesus spoke of the reign of God with images of seeds and planting. He used a similar metaphor in the longer parable at the beginning of chapter four. There Jesus described a sower who gratuitously spreads his seed. As He explained to the disciples, the seed is the Word, and the types of soil are the various ways in which the Word is received. The focus in that parable is on the differing fate of seeds depending on the soil in which they are cast. The parables in today’s text, in contrast, concern the nature of the growth for the seeds which land in good soil and bring forth fruit.
The first parable (4:26-29) invites reflection on the timing of the growth. It begins with a man who scatters the seed. He does not know how the growth works. That is not necessary. He simply does his work, goes to bed, and rises each day. Once it is planted the seed does its thing. But the growth does not happen immediately. It comes in stages—first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain. Finally, when the grain is ripe, the man returns to bring home the harvest.
This first parable seems to encourage patience. Plants grow slowly and without the sower’s full understanding. So, it is the same with the reign of God.
Plants grow slowly and without the sower’s full understanding. So, it is the same with the reign of God.
The second parable (4:30-32) has to do with the extent of the growth. It focuses on the size of the seed that is sown. This seed is very small—much smaller than the other garden seeds. But do not be deceived. After it is sown and grows to maturity, this little seed surpasses all the other garden plants. Fully grown, it provides a home that is safe and secure for all the birds of the air.
This second parable seems to encourage trust. The plant that comes from this seed will grow larger than you might imagine. Again, so it is with the reign of God.
I already mentioned the connection to the Parable of the Sower at the beginning of chapter four. If we look back a little further, we are reminded how Jesus had only recently called His disciples to follow Him (3:13-19). They had already witnessed incredible works, but they were still on the front end of their life with Jesus. Mark does not give us many clues about what they were expecting Jesus to be or do. But you get the impression that, through these brief parables, Jesus was teaching them His reign would not grow as they might expect.
We stand on the other side of Jesus’ life and ministry. We have read about His teachings and heard about His healings. We have mourned His death and rejoiced in His resurrection. We have observed His giving of the Spirit and have been grafted into the Church. This all took place through the Word.
But there are so many who have not believed. They may have heard the Word, but they show no signs of faith or life in Christ. Indeed, the number of people in America who identify as Christian is drastically falling—and these numbers were pre-pandemic. That is not to mention the personal connections for your specific hearers. Most of them have loved ones who have heard of Christ but show no signs of believing. In such a context it would be easy for Christians to become discouraged and grow weary. It would be natural to question whether God, who desires all be saved, is really in charge. It would be tempting to give up and throw in the towel of Christian witness.
Into this uncertainty and weariness, these two brief parables offer a word of promise. The promise is simple: God works as we proclaim the Word of Christ. Like plants which begin as nothing but seeds, the life of faith grows from nothing but the commands and promises of Jesus spoken by God’s people. We know not how (recall 4:27), and we do not know when, but God works according to His perfect will and His perfect timing. As His reign spreads, many people find a home that is safe and secure in Christ. Your people believe His promises for themselves. That is why they are here. Encourage them to believe God promises the same for others. And in so doing, spur them on to faithful Christian witness wherever God has placed them.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 4:26-34.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 4:26-34.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Jeffrey Pulse of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 4:26-34.