And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
(Mark 4:26-34 ESV)
I have been reading Joseph Ellis’ wonderful short biography of George Washington. It provides a great deal of insight into colonial life in America as well as into the politics of his era.
The Colonies were something really unique in Western Culture when they came along. They lacked, for the first time in Western history, a feudal system. Our “Founding Fathers” were all landed gentry, and they expected to be treated with the same deference their European counterparts received. The problem was that there was no precedent here for peerage. Washington himself was one of the wealthiest men in America from the time of the Revolution onward. He owned land in Virginia and Ohio – vast tracts that people lived on as tenants. To him, in great part, this was “The Kingdom of Washington,” and these were his people. Their economy mattered to his bottom line. And even the 300 or so slaves he owned figured into the total.
When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, this is his understanding of kingdom. The man scattering seed is doing something incredibly foolish economically speaking. He is a serf living on another man’s land. Every penny he can make matters. And in an agrarian culture an ear of corn is currency. Why scatter seed without a plan? It will be very difficult to tend or harvest because there will be no rows. As the wheat or other grain grows it will become sharp. And without space between the rows, the man tending the crop will surely get his share of cuts and scrapes. Tending this crop will hurt. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to sow with intent?
You will notice though, that the foolish serf does tend the crop. He knows that the landowner – the king in this case – will come looking for the fruit of his labor come harvest time, and he would be an even greater fool, and lazy, if he didn’t tend the plants.
We are serfs – tenants – living on the land of the Kingdom of God. We are servants who owe our very existence and protection to the King. Jesus doesn’t instruct his servants to be wise about how they sow the seed of the Kingdom. That’s the really incredible thing. He actually wants the Word of God sewn liberally here and there; among rocks and along the path, on good soil and where the weeds grow. And if that isn’t bad enough, when some of that seed does take root in an unpromising growing environment, he doesn’t tell us to transplant the little plant someplace safer. He actually means for us to tend the plant where it grew.
To you who are engaged in farming your little plot of the Kingdom, whatever that looks like, God wants you to know something: You’re going to get cut up if you hope to bring certain men and women to growth in Christ. The rocks will bruise your knees until they bleed. The thorns will slash you. Infection is possible, and sickness or even death is possible. Some days you’ll have a hard time telling the plants from the weeds, and you may spend a fair amount of time tending a whole crop you thought was wheat that turns out to be nothing but grass. To be blunt: helping others to grow the way Jesus asked us to do it can be discouraging and hazardous to your health.
I know there are whole vast plans of evangelism and discipleship that are orderly and organized, and certainly they will produce a nicely ordered crop that someone like George Washington would have been proud to have on his property. And there are good leaders in the church today overseeing large churches that are producing in quantity for the Kingdom. But Jesus is speaking to the average tenant farmer, the average believer here. You and I probably don’t have a big church. I know I don’t. But the King has told us to scatter the seed and tend it right where we are. And while it doesn’t sound like a very organized plan, it is a very wise plan. If we do it, it will ultimately change the world.