The Kingdom of God is Like This (Ezekiel 17:22-23, Mark 4:26-29)
by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Ezekiel 17: 22-23, Mark 4: 26-29:
The kingdom of God is like this: A man scattered seed on the land; he goes to bed at night and gets up in the morning, and the seed sprouts and grows -- how, he does not know. The ground produces a crop by itself first the blade, then the ear, then the full grown crown in the ear; but as soon as the crop is ripe, he plies the sickle, because harvest time has come.
Jesus began his public ministry with the announcement: The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe in the Gospel. He traveled from town to town, from village to village, preaching the good news of the kingdom. He sent out his disciples to preach the gospel of the kingdom. He asked them to pray, "Thy kingdom come"; not only to pray, but to seek: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God". The kingdom of God means the rule of God, the exercise of the will and purpose of God. To accept the kingdom means to submit ourselves to the rule of God in our lives and in the life of our society. Wherever Godís will is accepted, there is the kingdom of God. Jesus wanted his hearers to turn their attention to God, forsake their old masters and their old way of life and submit themselves to Godís rule.
Jesus taught in parables. It was a characteristic method of Jesusí teaching. A parable is drawn from the familiar, from the common life. Jesus lived and moved among the common people. He observed nature. He observed the birds of the air, the flowers in the meadow, the children in the market place, the women in their houses, the farmer in the field. So he was able to speak to the people in a language which they understood. He drew their attention to what was happening in nature and in their everyday life and told them that the kingdom of God was like that.
Parables which have more or less the same message can be grouped together. The four parables: the parable of the sower who went out to sow; the parable of the leaven in which a woman puts in three measures of flour till it was leavened; the parable of the mustard seed; and the parable of the farmer who sows and then waits day and night in anticipation of the harvest; these form one group.
While the first three are found in all the synoptic gospels, the last one is found only in Mark. These four parables tell us that though things may have a small beginning, the end is great; though everything may seem to be a failure at the beginning, the end is fruitful and successful. Though the leaven is of small quantity, at the end it leavens a large quantity of flour. Though the mustard seed is small, it grows into a big bush and the birds of the air find shelter in it. The sower went out to sow. As he sowed, some fell by the way side, some on rocky ground, and some among the thorns. It seems everything was a waste, a useless enterprise. Yet some fell on good soil which produced fruit abundantly. The kingdom of God is like this.
Why did Jesus tell these parables? To whom did he tell them? Jesus came preaching the good news that the kingdom of God was near. He called men and women to turn back from their old ways and enter the kingdom. He also healed the sick, fed the hungry and even raised the dead. People flocked to hear him and brought their sick to be healed. Wherever he went, he was in the midst of people. In Mark chapter 4 it is said that the crowd gathered around him was so large that he had to go into a boat on the lake. Yet it seemed that only a very few responded to his call to repent and believe in the Gospel. Many turned against him.
On one occasion he went into a synagogue. There was a man in the congregation who had a withered hand and Jesusí enemies were watching to see whether He would heal him on the Sabbath so that they could bring a charge against him. Looking round at them with anger and sorrow at their obstinate stupidity, Jesus said to the man, "Stretch out your hand". He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. "The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him."
The religious leaders who were expected to respond enthusiastically to the gospel of the kingdom turned out to be enemies of the kingdom. Though large crowds followed him for various reasons, hostility towards his ministry also began to grow. When Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you" (John 6:60), people found it hard to accept. Even some of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching, who can accept it." John says, "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." At first many had followed him enthusiastically, but very soon they found it very hard to accept the demands of the kingdom.
Once a young man came to Jesus and asked what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to go and sell all he had and give to the poor. He went away sorrowfully because he was rich. Even the disciples began to doubt whether anybody could be saved. Jesusí announcement that God was about to establish His rule did not seem to come to anything. There was no weakening of the power of Rome and hostility to Jesus and His message seemed to increase; even the disciples began to doubt whether Godís kingdom was going to come or not.
This seems to be the context of these four parables of the kingdom. Jesus is telling His followers that they should not be disappointed. Though there is opposition, a lot of waste, and everything seems to be a failure, the kingdom of God will not fail, Godís purpose will be fulfilled. Like the seeds which fell on the good soil and brought forth abundant harvest, like the mustard seed, though small, which grows into a big bush, the kingdom of God will not fail. This is also echoed in the Ezekiel passage from which we read:
The Lord says, "I will pluck a tender shoot from the top most branch and plant it ... It will put out branches, bear its fruit, and become a noble cedar. Winged birds of every kind will roost under it, they will roost in the shelter of its sweeping boughs. What the prophet is telling us is that though the people of Israel, Godís chosen people, are taken into captivity in Babylon, they will not be lost for ever. A tender shoot will grow into a noble cedar. At the time of Jesus, there were people like the Zealots who wanted to establish the kingdom of God on earth by force, by fighting the Romans. The Zealots were impatient and they believed that instead of waiting for God to establish the kingdom of God, people have a responsibility in bringing about the kingdom of God. They wanted action and an immediate result. Jesus told His disciples that we should have patience. We should avoid the temptation to win the world for God by force or high pressure tactics and not look for immediate results.
It is to convey this message that Jesus told the parable of the farmer who scatters seed and then waits in hope. He sleeps at night and wakes up in the morning and carries on his work. The seeds sprout and grow -- first the blade, then the ear and then the corn. But the farmer does not know how. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like this.
After the communist revolution in 1949 and especially after the cultural revolution, the Christian Church in China suffered much; in fact, many thought that the Christian Church in China had come to an end. Recently I was in Taiwan and Hong Kong and had an opportunity to talk with several people who were in touch with the Christians on the mainland. They all told me that at present, contrary to all human calculations and expectations, the Church in China was growing very rapidly. But they did not know how. This is the secret of the kingdom. It is Godís doing.
In the Christian ministry there seems to be much that is wasted. Often our ministry seems to be a failure. Love is often repaid by hatred. Where we expect acceptance, we find rejection. The natural tendency is to despair, to give up or to take short cuts like the Zealots. Jesus tells us that though the mustard seed is small it will grow, and the birds of the air will shelter among its branches; though much of the seed is wasted, some seed will fall on the good soil and will bring forth fruit abundantly.
The little things we do, the love we share, the time we spend for intercession for others, the visits we make to the sick in the hospital -- however feeble they are, however much they seem fruitless at the beginning, they are not wasted, they will bear fruit in their own time. We do not know how. It is the mystery of the kingdom. The kingdom does not operate according to human calculations. We do not explain the workings of the kingdom. We are not the managers of the kingdom. Like the farmer, we do the work which God has entrusted to us, however small it is, however difficult it is, and then trust in God to bring about the result. We wait in hope.