We are familiar with the parable of the sower, which is in fact about the soil, but Jesus also told a parable about the seed. In Mark’s gospel we read:
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”Mark 4:26-29
Jesus loves to use parables to show us what the kingdom of God is like. Maybe that’s because it is such a difficult and broad concept for us to grasp. In any case, in the parable of the seed the emphasis is on the way in which the kingdom grows. How does the kingdom of God advance and spread across the globe?
One thing is clear, the kingdom of God is not like any other kingdom of world history. We would expect a kingdom to advance through might and power, and armies and wars. If we would put it into a parable we might say Christians are the soldiers of the king, Jesus, who go into battle against the devil and his dominion and seek to slay them with the sword, the word. The kingdom will only move forward as Christians take courage and devote themselves to the battle against this sinful world.
Of course, if we told such a parable it would not be completely off the mark. The Scriptures do use the language of fighting and armour to describe the Chrisitan life. And maybe that is what makes it even more remarkable that Jesus uses the image of the seed. What a contrast! A seed is about as harmless a thing as you could imagine.
The parable of the seed begins like the parable of the sower: a farmer scatters his seed on the field. Once the sower has sown his seed, he leaves the parable. The camera lens, as it were, pans away from the brief glimpse of the sower, and narrows in on the seed, seeking to answer the question: How does the seed grow?
It does not grow by the farmer camping out in the field to keep vigil over the little seed and nursing it along through its stages of development. Nor does it grow by the farmer carrying in buckets of sunlight and water and horse manure. No, if the soil is good and the conditions are right, the seed will grow “all by itself”. The farmer could sleep all night and day, or travel to Jerusalem and back, and it would not stymy the growth of the plant in any way. The plant is indifferent to the farmer. Jesus essentially compares the growth of the plant to a mystery which the farmer “does not know.” One might think: well, yes I do know. But let not our small knowledge of plant biology make us arrogant enough to think we fully comprehend how a tiny seed transforms into a flourishing plant. Jesus’ description of the plant’s growth remains true.
After the plant has done all the hard work of growing and bearing fruit, the farmer enters the scene again, this time with a sickle in hand. The farmer reaps the benefits of what he has sown, even though he played no part in the actual sprouting, growing, and bearing of fruit. One might interject once again, (most likely a farmer) and talk about how hard it is to grow a decent crop, but I think Jesus has in mind a good seed, sown in good soil, growing in good conditions. Given such favourable conditions, the seed will indeed grow by itself with no interference needed by the famer. The most important factor is the seed, not the farmer.
So what is Jesus getting at? How does this parable give us insight into the kingdom of God?
First of all, we can say that the coming and the growth of the kingdom of God does not depend on us. In a sense, the kingdom of God will grow whether we are asleep to its reality or wide awake and busily running about. That does not make us irrelevant, rather, it puts us in our proper place and gives us a stable starting point from which we can begin our kingdom work. In regards to the spread of the gospel, some of us are inclined to apathy, while others go overboard and burn themselves out in busyness. Jesus’ parable corrects both extremes – God is sovereign and he will advance his kingdom according to his good and perfect plan. That gives both great courage to those of us who are timid, and a calm assurance to those who are at the point of despair. Sow the seed, pray, and trust the growth to God.
Second, Jesus teaches us how we should expect kingdom growth to take place. A plant grows steadily and subtly – one day the field is bare earth, and the next it is dotted by shoots of green. As a general rule, the kingdom of God grows in the same way, so we should not expect sudden surges of miraculous growth, although that is not out of the question. Rather, we are faithful to the world-changing commands of Jesus in the ordinary, everyday stuff of life, we will see growth.
Third, all kingdom growth is attributed not to us, but to God who “causes the grass to grow” (Psalm 104:14). We are workers in the field and together with the Apostle Paul we must humble say “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Not to us the glory, but to God alone.