Mark 4: 26–34
Jesus teaches the meaning of the reign or kingdom of God by way of two parables. In the first comparison, the reign of God is like seeds that a man plants in the soil. It is not the man, however, but the soil that makes the seeds sprout and grow in a way the man does not understand. In the second comparison, the reign of God is like the smallest of all seeds. Yet, once it has completed its growth, it is so large that birds can build nests in its shade. Mark mentions that Jesus further explained the meaning of parables to his disciples.
An immediate life implication is present in the means that Jesus uses to help us understand the meaning of God’s reign—that is, through parables. He uses images from our common experience whose truth is evident in order to give us some insight into a reality whose truth is not evident. A parable is a literary form that better fits the category of non-fiction, rather than fiction: it is not simply an imaginative story. Jesus uses parables to make us aware that we are a living part of a deeper, real story. Some response on the hearer’s part is thus inescapable—whether it be to ignore, to reject, or to accept the truth of the parable as pointing to the ultimate meaning of one’s life. Jesus had explained to his disciples that some people may hear a parable, “but worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke the word, and it bears no fruit” (Mark 4: 19).
In the two parables of today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us an insight into the mystery of God’s reign. We have already learned that the purpose of Jesus’ ministry is to preach the good news of the reign of God (Mark 1: 14). The good news is that God has not abandoned his human family, fallen and wounded, living in bondage under the reign of satanic powers (Mark 3: 20–30). It is the will of God to liberate and to reunite the human family through a divine reign of parental love, which ultimately will prevail over satanic violence and deceit. We see the meaning and the complete realization of the reign of God’s love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And in the Church that Jesus founded, we see the beginning of the complete realization of God’s reign in the entire human family.
Because the reign of God is a reign of love, it is not realized unless the divine self-giving to us is accepted and lived in human freedom. The Lord’s Prayer beautifully expresses the decision to accept and to live in God’s reign. It is the necessary context of all the parables.
Jesus in the two seed-parables addresses the human tendency to believe that human fulfillment comes mostly through our plans and efforts. As a result, when things do not turn out as we have planned and worked to achieve, we become discouraged and lose hope. Jesus reminds us that the coming and growth of God’s reign is the work of God’s love. Its complete realization will be evident only when the Son of Man comes in glory. Our response to this truth about the reign of God is to pray for its coming on earth as it is in heaven. Further, it is to do our utmost to prepare for its coming in the particular circumstances of our lives.
The story is told that upon his election Pope John XXIII was unable to sleep because the seemingly insurmountable problems facing the Church were pressing upon him. Then the personal meaning of the seed-parables dawned on him. He was able to pray: “Listen, Lord, this Church is yours not mine. I’m going to sleep.” Only in this trust was John XXIII liberated to take courageous actions that were to change the course of world history.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.