26 He 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 grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
(Mark 4:26-34 NIV)
In the previous passage, Jesus called us to accountability to the truth presented to us. Our response to the truth is illustrated by the various soil types in the parable of the sower and the seed.
In today’s passage, Jesus teaches His disciples (and us) about the kingdom of God. Jesus’ focus is not on the soil or the farmer, but on the seed.
In the first parable (vv. 26 – 29), Jesus emphasizes the power of the seed. While the farmer may plant the seed, the growth is out of his control. Almost imperceptibly, the growth begins, and the miracle of life springs forth from apparent death.
From Jesus’ story, we see the power of God’s Word (the seed) to grow where it is sown. As we share the Good News of Christ with others, may we remember that this Good News is not just a cold, impersonal fact. Instead, the Gospel is like the seed, containing life and the potential for growth in the heart of the one where the seed is sown.
Notice, also, the powerlessness of the farmer to make the seed grow. Granted, the farmer has a lot of responsibility, preparing the soil, sowing the seed, watering, keeping the weeds away, etc. However, the growth is out of the farmer’s control. The growth comes from the Lord.
Notice also the growth pattern. While the farmer gets up and goes to bed each day, the seed sprouts, grows, and ultimately produces grain. Growth must be measured over time – in its season. Growth is not measured overnight; rather, over due time. Maturity and the harvest will come in the proper season.
In verses 30 – 32, Jesus speaks of the tiny mustard seed. Jesus used a well-known object in Jewish culture to tell this parable. The mustard seed was the smallest seed known at their time. The mustard seed grew into the grandest of garden plants. It was commonplace for a mustard plant to grow to be taller than a horse and mounted rider.
Jesus began this parable talking about the kingdom of God. Jesus then likens the mustard plant to a tree that is large enough for a flock of birds to come and roost in its branches. By making this analogy, Jesus is encouraging His disciples, saying that something as small as a mustard seed can grow into something huge like the kingdom of God. Jesus is also saying there will be room for all, as signified by the flock of birds (us).
Jesus was encouraging His disciples ahead of when He would send them out in the near future to spread the seed of the Gospel. Jesus was telling them not to underestimate the small beginnings of sharing the Gospel because it would grow into something as large as the mustard plant in due time.
Finally, Mark closes out this section of parables in verses 33 – 34 with some summary comments. Mark notes that Jesus taught many other parables, many of which were not recorded in his Gospel account. Mark reminds us that Jesus taught in parables, using the power of the narrative story to engage the audience and plant the seed of the Gospel in both their hearts and minds.
Mark also informs us that Jesus was knowledgeable and sensitive to His audience. Jesus only shared with His listeners “as much as they could understand.” (v. 33). Jesus did not talk down to them, nor did He talk over their heads. Mark also tells us that Jesus continued to unpack each parable privately to His disciples, so they were able to understand the deeper meanings and thus go and teach others. Jesus was not hiding anything from the multitudes that came to hear Him; He simply provided further explanation to those who were able to understand the deeper truths of the parable.
May we be diligent “farmers”, spreading the seed of the Gospel to those around us.
And may we trust the power of the Gospel, even as tiny as a mustard seed, to grow into something far larger than we can imagine. We may plant the seed, or we may water what another follower of Christ has planted, but God ultimately gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).