Grow Unobserved – John Foley, SJ

Mark 4:26-34, Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The farmer sows seeds in the earth and then waits. He will use a scythe (“blade”) to reap the crop when it is ready. Then he and his neighbors with him will gather it into piles, or “pooks” as they were called in England, so that the farmer by counting pooks could know how much grain to expect from his harvest. Next, threshing, separating the husks and straw from the grain, followed in older cultures by winnowing, which detached the heavier grain from the lighter chaff.

This is the process described to me by an Irish friend as we drove around his country. He said this older method promoted community among farmers as they helped one another. The invention in America of the combine in the early 19th century made it possible for each farmer to reap, thresh and winnow all alone, using the combine harvester. Despite all their efficiency, giant machine-driven harvesting makes it possible to forget the mystery of growth and human effort, as well as community.

For his part, Jesus was much more interested in persons and the miracle of the yield. The first parable in the Gospel for Sunday shows us that. A farmer scatters seeds on the land and waits. His ordinary life then continues. He would

sleep and rise

night and day,

and through it all

the seed would sprout and grow,

he knows not how.

Of its own accord the land yields fruit,

first the blade, then the ear,

then the full grain in the ear.

Jesus gives quiet admiration to this act of life. Seeds begin as tiny morsels and become, by the time the farmer can discern, sprouts. Then they burgeon into a whole field of crops, finally ready for harvest. The farmer has waited modestly for the mysterious process to take place.

Jesus compares this everyday miracle to the Kingdom of God. The Catholic Encyclopedia says the Kingdom of God is “a tone of mind (Luke 17:20-21),” that “stands for an influence which must permeate men’s minds if they would be one with [Jesus] and attain to his ideals” (Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 646, “The Kingdom of God”). The seeds of love are planted in human souls and grow up unobtrusively, easy to miss, as each person sleeps and wakes.

In the second parable the humility of the seed is apparent. Jesus says that a mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds on earth. In fact it was not, so I am told. Smaller still are the petunia, the begonia and orchid seeds. But the tiny mustard seed (the size of a pinhead) unassumingly grows to be a great shrub or even a tree, one that is taller than a man’s head! The white mustard species grew to ten or twelve feet with a stem the size of a man’s arm! It was well known in Israel.

How does this apply to the Kingdom of God? Well, we are small. The movements of the Spirit in us are so modest as to be nearly disregarded. Yet if we are patient, if we watch for growth within us, in winter and in spring rain, the Spirit gradually will surge up and will give us the yield of much fruit.

It is a miracle of growth in plants and trees, but even more in the goodness and grace that is God’s kingdom in us.

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