Seeds of the Realm Scattered and Sown—Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4B (Mark 4)

Vincent Van Gogh, Sower at Sunset 

Mark 4:26-34 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


                Jesus often used nature parables to describe the realm of God. He might say, as he does here: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground.” The two parables in this reading speak of a simple act of scattering seed as well as the planting of a mustard seed. One parable speaks of a rather unorganized effort and the other of the size of a seed and its produce. When it comes to planting things, I’m a bit of a scatterer. In other words, I’m not sure I know what I’m doing with my flowers and plants but at times I’m amazed at what comes up. The realm of God is something like that. It might start small, but it can expand and grow in ways we don’t understand. As a preacher, I know that there have been sermons I felt lacked substance but have spoken to people’s hearts, while ones I thought were well-developed and deep have not. In other words, preaching is a lot like scatting seed!

                Mark is not known for sharing the parables of Jesus. One of the few places we find parables is here in Chapter 4. He includes the Parable of the Sower, the Lamp under the Bushel Basket, and the two featured in this reading, the Parable of the Scattered Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. In a section following the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells his disciples that the parables are not for the disciples but for those who are outside their circle. They are not designed to reveal but to conceal the truth of the Realm of God. That is, “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). This fits with Mark’s idea of the “messianic secret,” such that the full picture won’t be known until Jesus’ death on the cross. If parables conceal, unless one is part of the community, then how should we approach these two? Unlike the Parable of the Sower, which Mark’s Jesus explains using an allegorical interpretation, a similar interpretation is not given for these two.  

                The first of the two parables compares the Kingdom of God to seed scattered on the ground. According to the parable the seed is scattered, the one who scattered it goes to bed, and eventually the seed sprouts and grows, but the Sower doesn’t know how it happened. Somehow the “earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” While the farmer might not understand how this works, he knows it will work, and apparently with no effort on the farmer’s part except sowing seed. We might read into this the idea that the process by which people come to understand the Gospel is something of a mystery. It’s different for each person. We can sow a seed and it might grow but how it grows is not known to us. Then, at some point, the harvest will be ready, so it will be time to participate in the harvest.  As Mark records: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes out with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mk. 4:29). What this means is not revealed. There is, so it seems, a role to play at the beginning and one at the end. The assumption is that this has something to do with God’s realm, involving sowing (witnessing?) and harvesting. As the old Knowles Shaw gospel song puts it: 

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

                If the first parable of the kingdom of God (Realm of God) speaks of sowing and harvesting, the second compares the realm to a mustard seed. According to the parable, the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and yet when it is sown it grows into the greatest of all shrubs. Its branches provide shade for the birds to nest in. The mustard plant spoken of here is very different from the mustard plants I have encountered living in Santa Barbara. That plant, which grows wild (no one is sowing seeds for the plant), turns the hillsides yellow in the spring. I also blamed it for my spring hay fever. Nonetheless, this mustard plant was not a large shrub, and its branches did not provide cover for birds to nest in and under.  Of course, the parable is not designed to provide horticulture guidelines. The point is something very small can grow into something quite large. We might interpret this as suggesting that the realm of God may start small, but it will expand exponentially. As Mariam Kamell points out, “The kingdom of God would not begin with conquest and glory, but a tiny seed” [Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, p. 139]. Perhaps the message here has to do with the nature of power. Jesus didn’t fit the usual categories of a revolutionary spiritual leader. There is another element to the parable of the mustard seed that is suggestive of how God’s realm takes place. Amy Jill Levine points out that the mustard plant is an invasive shrub that can grow a few feet in height. Therefore, she suggests that the parable is designed to be “satirical and humorous, and highly suggestive: the kingdom is like a shrubby invasive bush!” [ The Jewish Annotated New Testamentp. 68].  In other words, the plant that emerges from that tiny seed is in reality a weed. As a weed, we might envision a plant that takes root, grows mightily and pushes out the other plants in the garden. Thus, according to Jesus, the kingdom is more like an invasive weed that takes up space in the garden, pushing aside such plants as fragile roses.

                The passage ends with a brief recap concerning the use of the parables. Mark writes that Jesus taught through many parables. While he used parables to speak to the crowds, and nothing other than parables, he explained everything to his followers in private. So why might Mark portray Jesus in this way? William Greenway might have a possible answer to the question of why Jesus might use parables. He writes:

Perhaps Jesus uses parables because they resist quick resolution, because they push us toward listening with ears that can hear, toward hearing that brings transformation and forgiveness (4:23). Perhaps Jesus is concerned over the simplistic understanding of the multitudes. Perhaps this is also why he tells the demons not to tell anyone who he is (1:34), namely, because he understands the threat of people labeling and understanding him in accord with established categories, and so never being pushed beyond theory to spiritual awakening. [Connections, p. 86].

If we follow Greenway’s suggestions here, we can better understand why Mark’s Jesus uses parables to hide the full message. It takes a relationship to fully understand what Jesus has in mind.  At least in the parable of the mustard seed, the parables of the kingdom, as Mark lays them out, are rather subversive.

What we have here are two parables that both reveal and hide Jesus’ vision of God’s realm. The first parable invites us to sow the seeds of the Gospel. There is no need for high-pressure efforts or advertising campaigns. Our marketing techniques and strategic decisions may seem like good ideas, but the kingdom isn’t dependent on our entrepreneurial tactics. Just share the good news and let it fall where it may, and when the seeds take root, sprout, and grow until they are ready for harvest, we can bring in the sheaves (so to speak). At the same time, the kingdom of God is like an invasive species or weed. Once it takes root, it cannot be controlled no matter how we try to contain it.   

God’s realm is present amongst us, but much of the action is taking place underground away from our view. William Placher writes of how the realm takes root: “Pastors can preach the word, teachers can teach, Christians of all sorts can try to provide good examples of faith and upright conduct. But conversion to the Christian faith does not follow neat recipes. It happens, indeed, underground” [Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), p. 73].  This doesn’t mean we should remain passive in our faith, but it reminds us that God is responsible for establishing the realm. Yes, we participate in this work by sowing seeds of God’s grace, but bringing things to harvest lies in God’s hands. So, let us scatter the seeds of God’s realm and watch as it takes root in our world.

 Image Attribution: Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Sower at Sunset, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved June 10, 2024]. Original source:


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