What can we say the Kingdom of God is like?
This Sunday, we hear parables about seeds and growth. Jesus introduces the first by asserting ‘This is what the Kingdom of God is like’ and the second by asking ‘With what can we compare the Kingdom of God…?’
At first, these parables seem straightforward, even ordinary, yet there is something strange and unknowable present too. Parables can never be reduced to a single meaning. There is always something more to discover, something that can be sensed yet not grasped, something just out of the mind’s reach. Parables disturb – if they do not, then we are not taking them seriously enough!
Today’s Gospel follows shortly after the Parable of the Sower. In that, the sower has just one task: he sows, seed lands, and he continues sowing. Once sowing is complete, his job ends. Growth is not his concern, success or otherwise not his responsibility. Similarly, in the Parable of the Growing Seed, ‘a man throws seed’ – again, just one task. We are not told if he prepares the soil, waters the land or removes weeds and, like the sower, growth is not his to determine. He throws seed and his work is done. For now, he can only wait. Presumably he watches, but ‘while he sleeps, when he is awake,’ as Mark puts it, ‘the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know.’ Sprouting, growth, ripening are independent of his efforts and beyond his knowledge. Only when ‘the harvest has come’ can he act: ‘he starts to reap’. In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the ‘smallest of all the seeds on earth’ results in the ‘biggest shrub of them all’, a remarkable outcome. We might expect to hear the phrase ‘how, he does not know’ repeated because there is something mysterious here.
Jesus connects these parables to the Kingdom of God. With parables, we are in the area of metaphor – a literary device that allows us to glimpse, however fleetingly, something we could not otherwise perceive and can never grasp fully. As Walter Wink describes it, we “catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives.” Thus, with the Kingdom of God. So, what can we say about it?
The Kingdom of God both is – and is not – like this:
Someone sows. Growth follows ‘of its own accord’, until finally ‘the harvest has come’ (the passive verb suggests, without stating, that it is God who is active here).
The Kingdom of God both is – and is not – like this: Unsown, mustard is the ‘smallest of all the seeds’. Astonishingly, ‘once it is sown’, it results in the ‘biggest shrub of them all’.
If it is the ‘word’ that is sown or if the ‘seeds’ are seeds of the Kingdom, then, hearing these parables, what can we say – of the Kingdom; of ourselves; of doing God’s work, of sharing the Gospel and announcing the Kingdom?
Where can we find our lives in this?
How can this be Good News?
Perhaps, we can say the Kingdom of God is inextricably connected to our lives yet radically independent of us. We have a role but, ultimately, it is up to God.
Our part, our responsibility, our sole task is this: We sow the seed. Then, we wait. Results are not ours to determine. That is God’s work. It is God who brings growth, the harvest, the Kingdom. We cannot. We are not in control – our striving to be so is useless. If our efforts seem miniscule or ineffective, we can take hope from the tiny mustard seed that they are not in vain. We do whatever is in our control. The rest is God’s. To us, harvest is unpredictable. It may surprise us like that biggest of shrubs. It will happen at a time and in a manner we cannot understand or predict, without our awareness, without our knowledge, whether we are asleep or awake. But it will happen. We throw the seed and then wait. We need not worry because God is at work.
That this is God’s work presents us with a choice.
We can try to control what is beyond our control, or we can let go of our need to be in control. We can feel helpless and give up completely, or we can do all we can to cooperate with God and let the rest to Him. We can be uncertain and fearful, or we can trust in God.
In many ways, this is a disturbing realisation. If these parables have this effect on us, they are doing what they are meant to. They can unsettle us in our certainties and in our uncertainties. This is also good news. Good news indeed. God is at work!
Looking around us, we might well ask: where is God?
Our newspapers, news reports, newsfeeds are dominated by bad and sad news of a world in upheaval. As I write this, news has broken that a young father, living not far from my home, was violently murdered in his home last night. This young man’s death is the latest in a spate of violent and tragic killings in our country. Our world, our country, our communities, our brothers and sisters, seem in a state of deep brokenness. This can and must break our hearts but it cannot and must not break our spirits or our faith in our God who is at work.
We cannot bring God’s Kingdom but we can do our part –
“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business” (East Coker T.S. Eliot).
The harvest will come!
God is at work!
Sr. Eileen O’Connell OP