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Gospel according to Mark 4: 26-29 (NIV)
26 (Jesus) also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces corn – first the stalk, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 As soon as the corn is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
It is not clear whether Jesus told this parable to the crowds or whether he spoke only to his disciples.
The kingdom of God is not just like seed scattered on the ground (verse 26). Jesus was speaking about the whole context of planting, growing and reaping. Jesus wanted people to see not just the human effort of scattering seed but, more importantly, the silent work of God that follows. That silent work of God goes on, as Jesus said, night and day, whether the man sleeps or rises to another day of toil. The silent work of God causes the scattered seed to sprout, to grow, to poke up above the surface of the ground.
When a person hears the word of God and accepts that word as truth, the heart softens. That person reflects and perhaps discovers a different way of looking at the world. The process continues: comprehending one’s own sinfulness, realising one’s own inadequacy in the presence of a holy God, desiring to repent and to change one’s way of life.
The soil, the fertile heart of a new believer, produces something responsive, something useful to God and something that eventually becomes more mature in faith. The kingdom is like this action of seed sprouting, growing and producing a harvest.
The man scattered many seeds on the ground. One way the kingdom grows is in terms of numbers of people. The kingdom grows numerically as more and more people hear God’s word, receive it and respond positively to it.
Another way that the kingdom grows is in spiritual maturity as if, within a person, the seed of faith were sprouting, growing a stalk then an ear then the full grain in the ear. We can think first of hearing a parable as just a nice story, then of grasping what Jesus means by that story, then of applying his meaning to our own situations, then of realising how he is calling us to change our ways to become more like him.
The Apostle Paul used a similar metaphor when writing to the church in Corinth, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3: 6). Paul’s point was that neither he nor Apollos deserved any credit for the growth; it is God who makes things grow!
There is an extra element to this parable: a reference to a harvest: “As soon as the corn is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come” (verse 29). I take this to be a warning concerning the end of this age.
It is a timely reminder that there will be a limit to the number of opportunities our Lord gives us to repent and return to him. When God is ready, he will intervene in the affairs of the world. He will draw to himself all who belong to him while those who have chosen to remain “on the outside” of his kingdom (Mark 4: 11) will be left with darkness and gnashing of teeth.