Commentary on Mark 4:26-34
Building on the parable of the sower that opens this parable chapter in Mark, this week’s reading offers two more agricultural parables of the kingdom of God,
which suggest that, like the parable form itself, the kingdom may be hidden from those unaware of its secret presence (4:11-12), but it is also destined to be revealed in its fullness (4:21-22) and produce a harvest.
The fruit-bearing (4:28-29) in the first parable and the act of sowing (4:31-32) in the second echo vocabulary in the parable of the sower and suggest that we are learning more here about what it means to sow the word and that this sowing of the word is related to the kingdom — that the word the sower plants (4:14) is the seed of the kingdom itself.
The first parable of the kingdom is again a story of sowing and harvesting. The sower sows and then sleeps and rises, night and day, as step by step the kingdom grows, invisibly at first and then in the form of a stalk, then a head, then the full grain in the head. The word for grain in 4:29 appears also in 4:7-8 where it is translated fruit (as also, for example, in John 15:1-17). So while this is about the natural progression of rising wheat, it is also, like the image in 4:29, an image of fruitfulness.
We know from the earlier parable that some seed will fall on deaf ears and into rocks and among thorns and will not be fruitful, but in this image as in the earlier one we are encouraged not to dwell too much on that. We cannot control what happens after the word is sown. We just sow it. Only that. The sower here does not even weed or water, just sows and waits in peaceful trust.
Then the one who is over all sends in the sickle (the literal translation of the phrase translated goes in with his sickle in the NRSV) when the time is right. The harvest is a traditional image for judgment. (See Joel 3:13, in particular, and Revelation 14:14-20.) In Mark, it is usually God or Jesus who sends. The implication is that they will manage the kingdom harvest. If there is room for us to plant the seeds of the word, for the rest, we, along with the sower of the parable, can leave that to God.
Psalm 92, a lectionary reading for this Sunday, which compares the righteous to a tree still producing fruit in old age, always green and full of sap, may provide a complementary image for this one, as may an image from the feeding of the 5,000 in 6:40. There the crowds who have been taught by Jesus and then seated in groups on the green grass to be fed are described figuratively as garden plots (translated groups in the NRSV) — perhaps a glimpse of the kingdom word already bearing fruit in Jesus’ ministry.
Like the first parable, the second parable illustrates the growth of the kingdom from something hidden and minute to something fully visible, but it also hints at more features of God’s reign. The mustard plant presents the contrast between the smallness of the present kingdom and the relative largeness of it in its fullness. This kingdom will grow generously and abundantly from the smallest of all seeds to the largest of all shrubs.
Unlike the image of the shrub that magically becomes a tree in Matthew and Luke, Mark’s mustard plant stays a mustard plant. The word for shrub is translated vegetable and herb elsewhere in the NRSV. The mustard plant, though a very big shrub, is not a giant thing like the cedar in the Old Testament passage for this Sunday, Ezekiel 17:22-24, where, as here, birds nest in its shade. Jesus chooses a common plant to describe how the kingdom could be working its way into something amazingly large from the tiniest whisper of a beginning.
But he doesn’t use an amazingly large object to make the point. He uses the image of a bird nesting in the shade of a shrub. It is an image of expansive gentleness but not of overwhelming, unmissable glory. The kingdom of God is described not in grandiose terms but in terms of ordinary, quiet beauty as an inviting place to call home.
The summary statement in 4:33-34 echoes the statements about parables earlier in the chapter. Parables, we know from 4:11-12, leave outsiders mystified but are an opportunity for further teaching of Jesus’ own disciples to learn on their own (privately in the NRSV) with him — the word own is used twice here. All are included in Jesus’ teaching, but it is those who follow him who are given further insight. The next passage, the lectionary text for next week, like many others, suggests that this does not make Jesus’ disciples immune to terror and confusion. But they do have him close and can, like the birds, nest in safety in the kingdom.
The passage as a whole emphasizes the hiddenness and smallness of the quiet beginnings of the kingdom and also underscores the sense in which the sower does not make the kingdom happen by force of will; indeed the sower of the parable doesn’t even water or weed! The sower just sows and then sleeps and rises night and day, and the earth produces of itself, and the mustard plant puts forth its large branches. The kingdom grows organically. And inevitably, as day follows night, God’s hidden, mysterious work in the world and in us will be fruitful.
Meanwhile as the kingdom gestates and sprouts, proximity to Jesus and his way puts us in a position to learn more about the kingdom so that we don’t miss the quiet growth of the familiar mustard plant in our own garden or indeed the “garden plots” of hungry listeners already springing up around Jesus and nesting in the shade of his fruitful, abundant, sheltering grace.