Trust in the mystery of Kingdom growth

Blog Bulletin 

Published on: Thursday June 13 2024, 2:15 pm

I wonder, do any of you remember the nursery rhyme:

Oats and beans and barley grow,

oats and beans and barley grow;

neither you nor I nor anyone know

how oats and beans and barley grow.

When I was small, I loved that rhyme, with its actions – the farmer stamping feet and turning round to view the land – and the mystery of the growing crops as the farmer goes through the cycle of tending and harvesting.  I don’t remember where I first heard it, but perhaps one of my farming grandparents introduced it.  It was one of the collection of rhymes I later often used, as a librarian, at children’s story times.  

This mystery of the growing crop is used as the image in one of the parables Jesus told to communicate the nature of the kingdom of God, in this Sunday’s gospel reading. This parable is only in Mark’s gospel (Mk 4:26-29).   It is a curious little parable, using a farming metaphor which would have felt familiar to many of the crowd listening to Jesus.  Yet it challenges assumptions about how such a metaphor would work.  It is not immediately obvious whether the listener is invited to identify with the farmer, or the crop, or neither.  The parable seems to suggest that after sowing seed, the farmer has no more involvement until harvest time, which surely would not ring true to those used to the hard graft of tilling and weeding and tending crops. Perhaps God is the farmer, sowing the seeds of the kingdom which will then grow to fruition, whatever humans do or don’t do.  But God would know just how and why the seed sprouts and develops. Perhaps we don’t need to push the metaphor too far, but just acknowledge that kingdom growth is in the hands of God, something beyond human control and understanding, and that in God’s own time it will ripen fully.  We, like the farmer, must be patient and allow – indeed, expect – the kingdom grow in its own way (God’s way) and have confidence that it will turn out according to his plan. 

But this does not mean we sit back and do nothing. In Mark’s gospel, when he reports Jesus telling parables, he often records how Jesus urged his audience to be all ears, to pay attention: ‘Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!’ (Mk 4:9)  We have to have faith in the mystery of the parables Jesus told, and to seek the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to enable our understanding. Even while the parables are simple, recognisable and evocative at one level, they are deliberately mysterious and hard to grasp at another level.  Just a few verses earlier (vv11-12a) than this parable of the growing seed, Jesus told his disciples,

 ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand.

Pondering this, I am transported back to my librarian days again, helping parents to support their children learning to read, and I wonder if you too enjoyed and shared, for example, Briggs’ The Snowman, Spiers’ Rain, Baker’s The Window, or Lehman’s The Red Book? The significance here is that these are wordless picture books, a perfect way to grow language and understanding by exploring and talking together about what is on offer in the images. 

In the same way, the parables offer us wonderful pictures to help us move outside the knowledge and context we already have, and draw us in to how Jesus plays with these ideas and turns them round to open up new ways of thinking. We need not be alone in this task of listening and exploring: we have the guidance of the Spirit, and we have the opportunity to keep on discovering new things as we talk over Jesus’ stories together. And we know that even though Jesus had ‘given the secret’ to his disciples, they continued to struggle to ‘get it’, and Jesus was endlessly patient with them. He will be patient with us too, as we strive to grow in understanding and trust.

Lord, we thank you for your parables and your patience; give us ears to hear you and insight to understand.

Lucy G

Image by Eliza, from Unsplash.com