The Parable of the Growing Seed – so called by Snodgrass1 – found in Mark 4:26-29 at first glance appears to present an image of a careless and maybe not very intelligent man who aimlessly throws seed around, naps during the growing season, and then harvests whatever happens to grow. First impressions, however, are not always best. On a deeper analysis, the parable reveals an image of humankind participating in the building of the kingdom of God and enjoying the bounty of God’s blessings once his kingdom has been fully realized. In this short parable, Jesus not only answers the question of why things do not seem to have changed too much at the Son of Man’s arrival, but also why his followers should work to build the kingdom they thought would appear in an instant.
When a parable of Jesus starts with “the kingdom of God is like a man” the parable is referring to the entire process found in the parable, not just the actions – or inactions – of the people in the parable.2 In their interpretation of this parable, many scholars have focused on the apparent inaction of the man who scatters the seed.3 I am not convinced that the man, who I see as a farmer, is inactive during the growing season. When the man “sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows” the intent is not to say that the farmer lazily slept through the entire growing season without ever tending to his crop, but instead is a mark to show the passing of time from sowing to harvest.4 Once the seeds are planted in the ground by the farmer the earth does indeed germinate and feed the plant to maturity automatē (“of itself”), but this is hardly an uncommon, miraculous happening.5
Farmers and hobby gardeners alike know that a successful crop does not come to one who is lazy and inattentive. If several summer days pass without rain, the farmer knows he or she must water the crops. When weeds sprout amongst the grain, a farmer knows to remove them lest they steal valuable moisture and nutrients from the harvestable crop. This parable makes no mention of the man being absent during the growing season, so it is unfair to make such an assumption. Parables are intentionally brief and only give the details needed to make a point.6 The man was present at the planting of the crop and he was present at harvest time, so it is safe to assume he was present during the growing season.
This parable is about sowing, tending to a growing crop, and harvesting the crop when the time is right. Many expected the arrival of the Son of Man and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God to usher in a time of judgment; a metaphorical harvest.7 The kingdom Jesus brought wasn’t like this. Jesus’ kingdom was present, but its full realization was into the future. His followers were metaphorically planting the seeds of his kingdom. Through God’s grace, the seeds planted by Jesus’ followers would automatē lead to a harvest – the full realization of the kingdom of God and final judgment. This could not be stopped. A farmer does not leave her or his field on its own. In the same way, the followers of Jesus are to work towards the building of God’s kingdom. Like an attentive farmer, the followers of Jesus will be rewarded for their work by the fruits of a bountiful harvest.
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 179.