Sister Marie-Pio Mẽn, OCist
Monastery of Vĩnh Phước (Vietnam)
The Seed grows
Jesus said to them, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. It is as if a man should scatter seed on the earth. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed sprouts and grows; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the earth produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because harvest time has come.’
The lovely parable of the seed growing on its own is unique to the Gospel of Mark. It comes between two other parables, that of the sower (Mark 4.3-9) and that of the mustard seed (Mark 4.31-32). These three parables share a base: the development of the kingdom of God and the proclamation of the Gospel. The image of sowing and harvest was familiar to Jesus’ listeners, as it is also for our contemporaries - at least for those in rural areas. Nevertheless two aspects of the story can seem strange to the audience: the absence of the sower during the growth of the grain and the interior force which allows the grain to grow on its own.
The Absence of the Sower
Normally when someone sows a seed that person watches over it, its growth, even if only by regular irrigation! The story of this parable envisages things differently. It seems to say, ‘Sow, sow in all confidence, don’t worry about rain or sun.’ Mark 4.7 has, ‘While he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed sprouts and grows; how, he does not know.’ This is an image which contrasts with that of the farmer elsewhere, ‘who needs to work hard before harvesting the fruits of the earth’ (2 Timothy 2.6), and who waits ‘patiently for the precious fruit of the ground until it has had the autumn rain and the spring rain’ (James 5.7). Does this approach correspond to a specific desire of Mark in presenting the development of the mystery of the kingdom of God?
‘The kingdom of God is like a man who sows seed on the earth’ (Mark 4.26). Should the sower be understood as Jesus himself, or as any random person? In any case if it is a random person without the authority of Jesus, why is this person not worried about the seed growing by itself without any particular care?
The interior Force of the Sowing
‘Of its own accord the earth produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because harvest time has come’ (Mark 4.28).
The miracle has happened: while the sower was far away the seed germinated on its own and bore fruit. The internal force inherent in the seed made it autonomous at every stage: seed – flowering – fruit, a long and steady process which occurs progressively in stages, adding one element after another without the help of any exterior force.
The seed may be interpreted as the Word of God, as in the parable of the sower (Mark 4.13-20). In this case the word ‘sowing’ indicates a unique power, as the prophet Isaiah says, ‘Thus the word which issues from my mouth will not return to me fruitless, without having done my will, without having accomplished its mission’ (Isaiah 55.11). The Word, once implanted in the human heart, transforms the heart and gives life, since that Word is ‘spirit and life’ (John 6.63). Consequently the fruit does not rely on any supplementary action of the sower or farmer but depends on the power which the seed has of itself. That is why the sower can scatter the seed in all confidence that it will grow.
Even though he had been absent while the seed was maturing, the sower had not been neglectful. It was simply that he knew that he did not need to intervene: ‘when the crop is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because harvest time has come’ (Mark 4.29). The intervention of the sower at the time of the harvest, his withdrawal while the seed is maturing and his absolute confidence in the power of the sowing in which one can recognise the Word of God, all these, as we have said, show the extent of the mystery of the kingdom of God: ‘I have planted, Apollos has watered, but it is God who gives the growth; neither the planter nor the waterer achieve anything; it is God who assures the growth’ (1 Corinthians 3.7). The kingdom is the work of God, the growth of the kingdom of God is a mystery; this work and this mystery are symbolised by the image of the man – a sower – who sows the Word of God. The seed was sown attentively and planted with plenty of care. It was not sown on the edge of the road nor on stones, among thistles or on thirsty ground. The seed was sown where conditions were united for germination and growth.
In silence and without disturbance the seed of the Word of God, that is, the kingdom of God, did not grow apart from the world, even if the world today is ambiguous, pragmatic and secularised, but thoroughly within the world as it is. Each day is the best moment for sowing the seed and for the spread of the kingdom of God. The kingdom develops without the human sower knowing how this happens. Nevertheless God knows well the true place of this sower.
Every Christian is in a different situation and a different work, but all are called as scribes of the Word of God in their ordinary circumstances simply to sow and to harvest; the hidden work of growth belongs to God alone. Are you a Christian? In that case do not hesitate to sow and harvest here and now, hic et nunc, putting all your faith in God for the hidden work of growth.