Text: Mark 4:1-34
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”
“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
He also said, “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.”
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
Today, I am reading these passages against the backdrop of current events. Last week, our President unilaterally ordered a military strike with the intent to assassinate Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani of Iran. The strike succeeded and Soleimani was killed. The fallout has been swift – tensions have worsened, some retaliation has already occurred, and it looks like we might be sliding toward all-out war with Iran.
For years, as a Christian, I have wrestled with whether or not war is ever justifiable. Sometimes I fall closer to the understanding that in very specific and rare instances, war can be justified (as long as it adheres to the strict principles of just war theory), other times I buck against even the idea of just war. In an ideal world, we would never have to ask men and women to put on the uniform and sacrificially serve in the military. I know we do not live in an ideal world, but the real world. We live in the tension between what God desires and of what is. The question of the necessity of war is one I will continue to wrestle with for my whole life.
As I read this passage, this time, I couldn’t help but think about the words of Isaiah 2:4: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Isaiah paints a picture of the coming Kingdom of God that indicates a shift away from war and violence and a shift toward agrarian life. I find it significant that so often, when Jesus speaks in parables about the Kingdom of God, like he does in this week’s text, he uses agrarian images. He uses images of cultivation. Of growth. Of life.
We live in a culture of death. Violence, fear, and hatred permeate our society. They permeate our world. It has become normal, justifiable and even in moments, glorifiable, to wage war or inflict violence upon the one deemed as an enemy. I cannot pretend to have figured out what we do about evil and suffering in the world, but I also cannot help but think that when Jesus speaks in parables about God’s Kingdom, he speaks about cultivation, about growth, and about nurturing life for a reason.
In three of these short parables, Jesus uses the image of the seed, scattered or sown in the ground, as a way of talking about what the Kingdom of God is like. In each, something grows, and that which grows provides nourishment or nurture for someone or something else (other people, birds, etc). What does it mean for us to be the good seed that gets spread on the ground? What does it mean for us to be those cultivated for and those cultivating God’s kingdom?
We live in a complicated world, to be sure, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that Christians should do nothing in the face of evil, but I do wonder what it would mean to seek to live out that shift that Isaiah indicates and that Jesus echoes in his parables. What might it look like for our swords to be beat into plowshares? What might it mean to “train for war no more?” What would it look like for Christians to be trained and cultivated in the ways of peace, in ways that provide nurture and nourishment for all? What could it be like to embody a culture of life rather than one of death? I ask all of these questions not because I have answers to them, but because I wrestle with them.
Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – the smallest of seeds. It’s tiny. It doesn’t seem like it will amount to much or make a difference. But when that tiny seed is cultivated, it grows and provides nurture. It lends itself to the life and well-being of God’s creatures. What seeds of life and peace might God be wanting to nurture in you today?
Perhaps we leave the text today with more questions than we had before we read it. Perhaps we feel discomfort after reflecting. May the questions and discomfort lead you to a holy wrestling that move you along the path of wisdom and peace.
o What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o Today’s world is full of violence and unrest. Where do you find peace and hope?
o What might God be trying to cultivate in you right now?
Our world needs prayer. Our leaders need prayer. Our country needs prayer. Spend a significant amount of time praying for wisdom and peace. Journal your prayers, speak them aloud, put them on notes around the house. Ask God to guide you in the ways of Jesus.
It’s still winter so it might be hard to get out in the dirt and work with your hands, but if you can, spend some time nurturing things that grow from the ground. It might be tending to houseplants or planting a windowsill herb garden, or maybe sitting down and planning what your will grow this spring. As you do, consider what God might be trying to grow in you.
God, you are a God of life. Cultivate in my heart your goodness. Train me in the ways of peace. Sow in me the good seeds of your Kingdom that I might be an instrument of nurture for others. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.