The first three chapters of St. Mark’s Gospel focus on the healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus at the outset of his Galilean ministry. These deeds of power provoke both positive and negative responses. Some are moved to follow Jesus as his disciples; others reject him and even begin to plot his death. In chapter four the focus shifts to Jesus as a teacher. In this chapter are clustered the majority of the parables that Mark includes in his Gospel. Like Jesus’ healings, his parables also have a mixed response.
The passage that we read from St. Mark this morning presents us with two of those parables. The first of them is found only in St. Mark’s Gospel. Commentaries on this parable call it by several different names. For some it is the parable of gradual growth. Others call it the parable of the sleepy sower. Finally, there are some who refer to it as the parable of the hurried harvester. It is the first parable that St. Mark identifies as being about the reign of God. The question that has puzzled scholars is very simple. What is the point of this parable?
Jesus is now traveling with a band of disciples. Among his disciples there are twelve that he has appointed as apostles, a word that simply means “one who is sent.” As the Gospel progresses St. Mark makes it very clear that the apostles really don’t understand what Jesus is about. They recognize him as a man of power, powers that have been readily on display. They seem to be expecting that Jesus will gradually win the people over to his way of thinking and will eventually be acclaimed as the leader or king of Israel. In the light of their expectations, this parable seems to contradict their thinking. Jesus speaks of one who sows the seed, but does not know how or when that seed will grow. When he sends them out to preach the nearness of God’s reign, they will also be sowing the seeds of the reign of God. However, it is clear that they are not to be concerned about its growth. Jesus and they sow the seed; God produces the harvest.
The second of the parables is more familiar to us. It is called the parable of the mustard seed. Both St. Luke and St. Matthew include this parable. They pair the parable of the mustard seed with the parable of a woman kneading leaven into dough. This is not the kind of mustard with which we are acquainted. At the time of Jesus, mustard was a pernicious weed. Once it takes hold in a garden, it is impossible to eradicate. It will spoil the taste of anything else that is planted in the garden.
So it seems that these two parables are being taught to forewarn the apostles and disciples of Jesus not to expect to see immediate results. Yes, they are being commissioned to sow the seed of God’s reign. However, others will bring in the harvest. The message is just as relevant for us today as it was for the apostles. Like them, we too have expectations about God and God’s reign. Jesus wants us to realize that while we are sowing the seed of God’s word and God’s reign, it is important to live the rhythms of a Christian life so that we will be ready for the decisive end-time moment, whether that be the end of one’s own life, or the Parousia, the second coming of the Christ. Neither a farmer nor a Christian can reap a good harvest if there has never been any seed sown or tended. It is not our vocation to concern ourselves with the harvest. God will take care of that end of the task.
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul leaves us with a very reliable message. “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Each of us knows that one day this earthly life will come to an end and we will, in the words of Shakespeare, shake off this mortal coil. The Christian who planted the seed of God’s reign throughout his or her life must simply be content with allowing God to work out the details of the harvest. We simply cling to our faith and walk with Jesus to the time of the great harvest. We too will be received just as Jesus was, positively by some and negatively by others. The true vocation of one who follows Jesus is simply to continue walking by faith without regard for how we are received. We sow; God will harvest.
Fr. Lawrence jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator
“It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. The kingdom of God is not only beyond our efforts but even beyond our vision. ... We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that others will come to harvest them. We lay foundations that will need further development.... We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”