21. And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23 If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And he said to them, “Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25 For to him who has more will be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, 27 and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
Taken as a whole, this passage may be a confusing accumulation of mixed metaphors. It also contains the rather alarming verse 25, which seems to require particular care in interpretation. “For to him who has more will be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”: if Jesus is talking of material things here, this is a terrible injustice which hardly seems consistent with the teaching of a man who exhorts us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. It seems we must read Jesus’ words here not as prescriptive, but as descriptive: he uses a proverb which starkly represents the realities of his society – and we can certainly recognise the truth of this proverb in the economics of our society today.
Alternatively, we may read verse 25 spiritually, as seems to make particularly good sense in the light of verse 24. God measures us by our measuring of truth: if we have some capacity to see the truth, we will receive more, but if we lack truth, we will lose even what insight we once had and will become more and more confused. This reading thus relates neatly, too, to the illumination and revelation offered by the light which is put on the stand in verses 21-2.
There is then an apparently rather sudden shift in verses 26-9, which tell a parable peculiar to Mark’s Gospel. Since this parable follows hard on the heels of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9) it may seem logical to interpret its imagery in the same way as Jesus instructs his disciples to understand that of the Parable of the Sower, so that the seed is the word of God, and the Sower is Jesus (Matt. 13:37). But it may seem odd that Jesus should “know not how” the seed grows. Eschatological readings of these verses suggest that the focus should be on the fact that the harvest – of souls? – is ready for the Sower’s reaping. But to me, the parable speaks most tellingly of “a sower who has accomplished his work in the sowing, and can then only follow his daily round, unable to explain the mystery of life and growth.” The phrase is Vincent Taylor’s, in his annotated edition of Mark’s Gospel, and it occurs very much in passing in his scholarly discussion of competing readings of the parable. But to me, it summarises the reading of this parable which perhaps most fully reflects the simplicity and profundity of the story itself.
We sow seed as an act of faith: the seed represents our lives, or all the things in our lives or in our selves or in our futures which we entrust to God, not knowing what will come of them. We do not know how the seed grows, but it does. The harvest which we reap, which sustains us, is mysterious, bounteous gift. It comes to us as we go about our ordinary, daily life, sleeping and rising, night and day, sometimes perhaps looking for the coming harvest, sometimes, perhaps, concentrating on other things, until on one day, a date we cannot entirely predict, we suddenly realise that the harvest is ripe, the gift given. Stunned at the serendipity, we gather in the fruits of God’s inexplicable bounty – the desperate situation now strangely full of hope, the thing we couldn’t do now transformed to a source of strength, the bitterness now melted and moulded into humble love.
The parable of the mustard seed in verses 30-32 then emphasises the greatness of God’s work, in bringing great things from little beginnings.
But, both the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the seed growing to the harvest are introduced by phrases explicitly noting that they are images of the Kingdom of God. This does not present problems to a reading of the parables as revealing spiritual truths about our lives here and now – after all, the Kingdom of heaven is among us. But, if Jesus’ words, “to him who has more will be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”, are to be taken as descriptions of the harsh realities of society, then should we not also see a pointed juxtaposition between these words and the parables which follow?
The world of men is one of material injustice and inequality – but the Kingdom of God is one in which abundant material provision for all springs from tiny seeds. This material provision does not depend on our offering or receiving enlightenment, for all the talk of lamps under bushels: the sower emphatically “knows not how” the seed will grow. God showers us with sustaining bounty whether we feel enlightened or very much in the dark. This is very much a material as well as a spiritual provision, and if we wish to be part of His kingdom rather than the kingdom of the world we should seek to imitate His material as well as spiritual generosity. God matches our generosity and raises the stakes:
“Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.”