Everyday Work Still Bears Good Fruit

Everyday Work Still Bears Good Fruit
Photo by Felix / Unsplash

Today’s passage from Mark’s telling of the gospel is the end of a series of parables. There is a temptation for the preacher—and perhaps a desire on the part of some listeners—to explain the parable, as though it’s a riddle or puzzle to be solved. There are lots of attempts out there if you wish to search for them. I find them generally unsatisfying as they often reduce parables to simplistic, moralizing stories. I believe that the parables are much deeper than this. I think parables reward patience and a willingness to sit with them, contemplate them, and wait to see what God reveals through them over time.

Now, we should note that, at the end of the passage, there is this note from Mark saying that Jesus spoke in many parables for the crowd, “as they were able to hear it.” Only after, in private with his closest disciples, did Jesus explain things in more detail. This seems to suggest that, if a listener was already on track with the kingdom of God and what Jesus had to say, this little festival of parables would enhance that. If a listener was already confused about what this Jesus character was saying, this particular session may have also enhanced that confusion.

We don’t have a record of the private explanation, but it seems to suggest that Jesus thought the parable itself was enough food for thought for most people, whether they were “getting it” or not. We can take some comfort, then, when the parables leave us confused or uncomfortable in their lack of certainty. If it was a good enough outcome when Jesus was the preacher, I can’t hope for any better here.

The parable about the seed that grows while the sower sleeps is an interesting one. It doesn’t have a parallel in the other gospels. There are other sowers and seed images, but this one about the sprouting seed stands alone. I find it a comforting parable, in many ways.

First, it reminds us that we are invited to cooperate with God in the appearance of God’s kingdom. We have been given seeds, out of God’s abundance in creation, and we can scatter them where we wish. Or store them up in our pockets and clay jars, I suppose. If we’re well-organized, perhaps we do some scattering and some watering. A little bit of weeding, perhaps. We scatter the smallest reminders of the kingdom of God around the world as we pass through it, occasionally coming back to check on them.

But, as the parable reminds us, the bulk of the work happens without our intervention, whether we’re waking or sleeping. The seed, in the earth, through God, bursts its shell, sprouts, and pushes toward the sunlight, breaking the earth where we finally realize what’s happening. But even by the time we see, God has been hard at work for hundreds of hours. If we can contribute one tenth, God will sort out the other nine tenths. Most of what we’ve done in the growing of that shrub has been waiting and watching.

As the tiny seed grows into a significant shrub—not the mighty cedar or great tree other parables mention—it becomes a place that is comfortable, safe, and useful as habitat for birds. It is not dramatic nor exceptional. Mustard is a common enough plant. But it does not need to be dramatic or exceptional or even unique. If the mustard shrub is a sign of the kingdom of God then it seems that somehow, in addition to being the place where tyrants are toppled from their thrones and the hungry are fed while the rich go empty, the kingdom of God is also embodied in that which is common, ordinary, reliable, sustainable, comfortable, and safe.

We Christians struggle mightily with the difficulty of understanding what it is to be given salvation as a gift. Not something that we have to earn or prove ourselves deserving of, but to be given freely. Like starting the race with a first place ribbon pinned to our chests. We believe—we have faith—that God’s promise is true and we will be saved. But we also feel compelled to act as those who have been saved; that we should live out our liberation and do the things that Jesus said were evidence of people who know God.

In some places we have turned this into a false choice: one must place one’s salvation in the basket of faith or in the basket of works and hope that it’s the right one. This parable seems to suggest an alternative to this tension. That works—the scattering of seeds—and faith—believing that God will make use of the seeds we have scattered—are both important parts of what it means to live in the emerging kingdom. God has entrusted us with these seeds and we ought to do something with them, but we must also trust in God to do that thing once our scattering is done.

Important also is the evidence that God will not manipulate us into cooperating. We have been given seeds but there is no compulsion to scatter them in particular places, or to scatter them at all. I suppose, if we wished, we might pack the seeds into clay jars and do absolutely nothing with them. Of course, God will find a way to see God’s will done, so if there need to be mustard shrubs there will be mustard shrubs. They just won’t be the ones we planted.

In these parables, as ever, God invites humanity into the new thing that God is doing in the world. God’s work is mysterious and sometimes hidden. We are invited into the mystery with no promise of clear explanations and, when it seems mostly hidden, we are invited to wait. Maybe even have a nap. God’s emerging kingdom sometimes seems very ordinary and not at all the kind of bang-and-crash drama that one might expect from the creator of all things seen and unseen. Some days it’s Moses and Elijah and the transfigured Christ on the mountaintop. Other days it’s the mustard shrub growing outside, sheltering rabbits and quails under its branches. Even when God’s work is of the everyday, comfortable, pedestrian sort, it is the work we are invited to share in and it does bear good fruit.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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