This parable in Mark’s Gospel is often over-looked by preachers because it is so short and seemingly so simple. It is often called simply “The parable of the growing seed” and only takes a few short lines.
In brief, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a person who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. All by itself the soil produces a crop. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat form and finally the grain ripens.
As soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.
What is the parable about? CH Dodd says that one can find different meaning depending on where you place the emphasis of the story.
-Is the point of the story the fact that the Kingdom of God is like a seed?
-Is the point of the story the emphasis on the process of growth?
-Is the point of the story the fact that growth happens all by itself, or that the farmer does not know how it all happens?
-Or is the point of the story the harvesting of the grain when it is ripe?
When I first read this, one of the shortest of Jesus’ parables, I didn’t consider that there could be so many different perspectives on just a few lines.
The line that really stood out for me comes in the middle of the parable: “Night and day, whether the farmer sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens.
Firstly, whether the farmer sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, all by itself.
From the little I have seen, not many farmers are likely to lie in bed while the seed are growing. It seems that all year round there is more than enough to keep a farmer busy. Sleeping in doesn’t appear to be much of an option if you’re a farmer.
But in this line of the parable, we are reminded that when it comes to the actual growing process of the crops, there is in fact very little that the farmer can actually do. The farmer can’t make the crops grow. All the farmer can do is prepare the soil and sow the seed. After that the growing happens all by itself, as long as there is enough water, or perhaps if you’re living in Northern Ireland not too much water.
The actual growing process is out of the farmers hands. The growth of the seed happens all by itself. The parable suggests that even if the farmer had to sleep in late, it wouldn’t make any difference to the growing seed and plant. The seed and the plant would continue to grow. The growth of the seed happens all by itself. It is an act of grace.
When viewed from this perspective, the parable is a reminder to us that we are all recipients of grace. There is a dimension to living in this world over which we have no control. We cannot make the seeds grow. But we are all recipients of the fruit. We are all recipients of the harvest. It reminds us that so much of life is a gift. Grace is at work all around us. Nature and this world is a gift of grace. Grace is receiving that which we have not earned. Humanity can plant seeds, but we cant make them grow. The growth of seeds into fruit is a gift.
The second part of the verse emphasizes that the farmer does not know how it happens. Even in today’s scientific world, scientists and biologists may be able to record in minute detail the process of a seed growing into a plant. They may be able to document every stage of the growth. They may even be able to analyse which part of the seed contains the nutrients and which part contains the DNA. They may even be able to play around with the DNA and genetically modify a seed and a plant, but when it comes to the mystery of life, not even the greatest scientist can produce life itself. When it comes to the question of why it is that a seed grows at all, we are all brought face to face with an absolute mystery.
It reminds us that there is a wisdom and an intelligence that is at work in this world that we know nothing about.
In the words of Julien Lennon, “We’re so enchanted by how clever we are”, but in the end the principle of life remains a mystery to us.
And every time a farmer goes out to sow seed the mystery is repeated. All by itself, the soil produces a crop and the farmer does not understand how it happens.
It reminds us of our dependence on a higher and deeper wisdom and intelligence of life. Many modern people don’t believe in a higher power or a deeper wisdom. But nature itself is a higher power than humanity. Every time we celebrate harvest, this parable reminds us that there is a deeper wisdom at work than the human mind.
As mentioned above, it reminds us too that so much of life is a gift. Humanity can plant seeds, but we cant make them grow. The growth of seeds into the harvest is a gift of grace that reminds us how dependent we are.
This little parable that seems so insignificant on first reading invites us to two of probably the most profound religious responses.
1. Humility – There is no self-made man or woman in the end, because all of us are dependent on factors that are out of our control. All of us are dependent on the miracle of a seed sprouting and growing all by itself. Humility, because all of us are dependent on the wisdom and intelligence of the natural world that is greater than us.
Harvest reminds us that we are not the masters of the universe that we thought... because we all rely on a basic miracle, the miracle of life itself.
The word humility is an interesting word, it is a very appropriate word for a harvest service.
Humility comes from the word humus which refers to the rich organic competent of soil of the earth. To be humble is to live close to the earth. To recognize our dependence on the earth. To honour the wisdom of the earth. To honour the wisdom of the seasons.
2. Gratitude - When we realise how dependent we are on the deeper wisdom of life. When we recognize how dependent we are on the cycle of nature and on the hard work of others, farmers who are often up before us and often awake when we are already asleep, the natural response is gratitude.
Humility and Gratitude.
Mesiter Eckhart once said: “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is “thank you”, it is enough”.