(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
At long last, after so many weeks of feasts, we return this Sunday to the season of "Ordinary Time." When the Church uses the word "ordinary," it does not mean "normal" or "not special." Instead, it refers to the fact that we order the Sundays of the year with numbers--first, second, third... This Sunday is the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and next Sunday will be the twelfth, and so on. The colour for this season is green. It is at the same time normal and special; we return as normal to our thinking about the special Kingdom of God 😉
In the Gospel this week, Jesus tells two Kingdom of God parables. Even though we just thought about ordering, let's consider the second parable first.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Jesus tells many parables that mention seeds. Each is slightly different. In this one, the tiniest of seeds grows to become the greatest of shrubs. We are shown two moments: the beginning:
and the end:
We skip over the middle altogether. We are given a vision of the Kingdom complete. "Birds of the air"--we are not told which ones, so we have to consider that Jesus means all of them--make nests. Hawks and sparrows, falcons and finch, eagles and chickadees---predator and prey--they all find shelter and safety and relief from the sun in the branches of the Kingdom. It is a beautiful dream.
But it is ridiculous.
It is ridiculous to skip over the middle, the difficult part. It is ridiculous to think that a seed that small could grow to become anything bigger than a stalk of lettuce or a small flower. It seems impossibly small. It could blow away in the wind, get trampled upon by humans in big boots, get sprayed by weed killer, dry up in the sun. There is no way it will survive.
Yet mustard seeds do grow, mustard shrubs are found everywhere in Israel. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like this. We do not know how.
He also says,
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
In this parable, the person is more realistic. This person does not have a ridiculous dream of an impossibly small seed becoming home to all the birds of the air. We notice that the person in this parable is not sowing seeds, and he is not planting them, either. He is scattering grain. St. Mark uses the Greek word "balló"--not used in any of the other seed parables. Balló means to throw or let go of something, uncertain of what will happen. It is like the person just shrugs their shoulders and lets the seeds fall. Jesus says, "he does not know how" the seeds grow.
This makes it clear that this is a parable and not a farmer's guide. Farmers do not scatter grain; farmers know how seeds grow. This is how we know that Jesus wants us to understand something more.
We say we “do not know how,” when we are bewildered or overwhelmed. When problems seem too big, we "do not know how" to deal with them. When the people we love get angry, when we say or do something we cannot undo, when families storm and shout--we "do not know how" to fix it. We get anxious and we worry. We can feel like throwing our arms up in despair, giving up, scattering it all.
In this time between Baptism and Confirmation, we "do not know how" we are called to build the Kingdom. We "do not know how" to solve all the problems of the world. We might bring some cans to the Food Drive, but there are so many hungry people, what difference will it make? We might say a kind word one day, but we can remember with shame so many nasty ones we have said, too. The dream of the great mustard shrub with all those birds of the air finding rest in the shade is beautiful. We would love to work with God to build this Kingdom, but what can we do? We are too small. It seems impossible.
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
The seed sprouts. It does not seem to matter that the person does not know how. The Greek word that St. Mark uses here is “blastano!” It sounds like an explosion! Think of the power required for that tiny living thing to burst forth from the dry, caked earth.
Who has that kind of power?
The seed sprouts and grows—does the man need to know how? Is it his work?
The earth produces of its own accord
Who is it that produces this new life?
Who has the power to take dry seed that has been scattered and make it sprout and grow…
…to become tall waving fields of grain, filled with new seeds…
…seeds that will be harvested…
…seeds that can be gathered and sown to produce more and more life…
…seeds that can be milled into flour, and baked into bread, and,
in the hands of God,
transformed into Risen life, abundant life, more and more life…
Who has this power?
We know that this is God’s work. God produces more and more life. The person,
would sleep and rise night and day
because he trusts, because he has hope. He does not know how God provides life, but he knows that God has the power. Sometimes life seems impossible, sometimes we seem too small, but God is the God of possibility, the God of life. God holds the vision of the Kingdom, and provides the blastano! to build it.
So we scatter our seeds--we bring a can or two to the Food Drive, we speak another kind word, we offer our gifts and talents to God. We do not know how God will use them to build, but we trust and we hope. We sleep and rise, night and day, and let God do God's work. The harvest is coming, and it will be clear then what we are to do. Our work comes later, and God will show us how. We trust and we hope.
And each night when he sleeps, what does the person in the parable dream about?
God shares that ridiculous yet possible dream with him.
God shares that dream with us.