The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ central concern. It was absolutely key to his ministry and his message. In Mark’s Gospel, the gospel which guides much of our worship this year, the first words Jesus speaks are these, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” Much of the rest of the gospel is devoted to Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, and the two parables we have read this morning are part of that.
There is something beguiling about parables. Sometimes they are stories, sometimes they are more like little scenes or observations in which nothing much happens. All of them use everyday, accessible ideas to explore something deeper, something more mysterious. So, while, on the one hand, they appear accessible, on the other, parables tend to keep their meaning a little bit hidden. Their meaning is not always altogether obvious. That truth is acknowledged in the words with which our reading ended – “With many such parables, he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” That has nothing to do with the actual physical ability to hear. It is about understanding. Parables always require to be approached with imagination. They are not always clear teaching but require interpretation, inviting us into an exploration of their meaning. But if we engage in that process expecting always a clear and simple interpretation to emerge, we will be disappointed. And that, in itself, is part of the lesson about the Kingdom of God.
Let’s take the first parable of the pair. This one likens the Kingdom of God to a feature of plants which should be familiar to anyone, but especially to gardeners and farmers. You can prepared the ground – dig it over, break up the big lumps, pick out the stones and add compost and other fertiliser – but once you put the seed in the ground, there’s not a lot more that can be done. You can’t really do anything about its growing. You can only wait. The process by which the seed puts out roots and sprouts is essentially mysterious and uncontrollable. And Jesus is saying – this is what the Kingdom of God is like, like a sleeping gardener.
If you didn’t get the point, Jesus offers a second parable. The mustard seed was considered then to be smallest of all things, yet from it a bush can grow which is big enough for birds to nest in. The Kingdom of God is like that.
Like what? we might be tempted to ask. Surely, something as important as we sense the Kingdom of God to be ought to be a bit clearer. Jesus taught in parables, as his hearers were able to understand. But with a bit of effort, we might be able to understand better.
The first parable emphasises passivity. Something happens without the person who wants it to happen really having any control or input. The second emphasises disproportionate growth. From a tiny, tiny seed sprouts a great big bush. These two ideas point towards the notion of God’s grace. For such a central Christian concept, God’s grace is really a very difficult one for most of us to believe. I know only a very few people, and I wouldn’t count myself among them, whose lives demonstrate real belief in the grace of God, a profound trust in God, a surrendering of the cares of life into the hands of God. Is this what Jesus is talking about? The Kingdom of God is like a state of restful trust. It is not like the frenetic busyness of works of righteousness. It is not like the anxious attachment to particular moral or doctrinal positions. The Kingdom of God does not depend on us doing the right things or believing the right things.
In some ways, this makes no sense to us. Our normal way of being human is to be busy and, for many, it is also to be dogmatic too, sure of the rightness of our own way of thinking. All sorts of good things come from being active and by being committed to our values – success at school or work, positive changes in the laws that govern us, advances in medicine and science, movements which advocate for justice for marginalised people and for the natural world and so on. Certainly, nothing useful would happen if we didn’t work for it or if we were indifferent to moral and political issues. It is just that this way of operating is not like the Kingdom of God.
And that is a bit confusing. There’s an inconsistency between the way the Kingdom of God works and the way our ordinary lives work. The Kingdom of God is about relationship with God and with one another. It is not a kingdom governed by rules and sanctions if the rules are broken, but a kingdom built on love. It is loving relationships that count in God’s kingdom, and God invites us into his kingdom by inviting us to accept his love, and to love him and one another in return. And we know that, in good, healthy relationships, it is love which motivates the good we do, to care and provide. Love never compels. Rather, love truly thrives in mutual freedom and mutual respect, in cherishing each other for who we are, not seeking to change each other.
Could this be what the Kingdom of God is like? Is God seeking to change us? If he is, he wouldn’t appear to be making a particularly good job of it. Rather, God is loving us and cherishing us for who we are. It is God’s love which transforms the tiniest seed into a bush which supports the birds in its branches. It is God’s love which transforms a dim and confused awareness of his presence into the fullness of faith.
Perhaps that is what the Kingdom of God is like – something we cannot create or control, something we cannot force on others, something that is simply growing because it is God’s will that it should. Is this to say that we shouldn’t be busy, that we shouldn’t be committed to causes that matter? Of course not, because the work that we do and the commitment that we show are part of God’s plan too. It is just that what God can do is so much greater than anything we can achieve, and that we, and the world, are saved, not through our efforts, but through God’s loving grace.