Mark 4:26-34. The Mustard Seed, and the “Already But Not Yet” Kingdom of God

Our Gospel reading for this week comes from Mark chapter 4. It is a redaction of Matthew chapter 13, which is the third great discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. In today’s passage, Mark speaks in an abbreviated manner regarding the kingdom of God; Matthew the Evangelist prefers the term kingdom of Heaven.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus uses two analogies to describe the kingdom of God: the man who scatters seed, and the mustard seed that becomes a great tree.

For the purposes of context, we might consider perusing Matthew 13:31-52, in order to see how Jesus describes the kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s Gospel. You can also read my post: Trading It All for the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew uses several analogies: the mustard seed, leaven, a great fishing net, treasure hidden in a field, and a pearl of great value.

The Kingdom of God

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus first presents us with a rather simple analogy. He tells us that the kingdom of God is like a field upon which a man scatters seed. The seed yields a crop, which is later harvested by the same man. Jesus then tells us that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The mustard seed is small, but then it grows into a large tree, which accommodates the birds on its branches. Mark does not explain these two analogies, nor does Jesus.

Lost in Translation

Mark gives us such a shortened version of the kingdom of Heaven discourse that the passage can leave a student of Scripture somewhat non-plussed. In Matthew 13, we are told that the kingdom of Heaven is something of great value: it should be treasured and cared for at all costs. But this passage in Mark conveys a slightly different message, which is not entirely clear unless the student of Scripture examines other Gospel passages.

The Dynamic and Eschatological Nature of the Kingdom

In Mark’s Gospel, the Sacred author chooses to employ two analogies for the kingdom of God that emphasize a dynamic understanding of the kingdom of God. In choosing a field sowed with with seed that bears fruit, and in choosing the mustard seed that becomes a great tree, Mark emphasizes how man’s progress relates to the kingdom of God. What Jesus does not convey in Mark’s Gospel is that the kingdom of God is some place over there, while we live a distinct existence here on earth.

A Place That Will Be Set for Us, Yet A Kingdom Already Among Us

Jesus reminds his disciples that the kingdom of God is not just the Father’s dwelling place. It is a place set out for us, the disciples of Jesus, as well. Consider John 14:2, in my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. In John 14, Jesus assures us that we have a share in the kingdom, but it is, for the sake of simplicity, still over there.

In Luke 17:21, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is closer than many would realize: “no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.”  Some translations convey that Jesus says that the kingdom of God is actually “within you,” not merely “among you.” The choice of “within” or “among” depends on how literally the Greek term entos (ἐντός Strong’s 1787) is translated.

Already But Not Yet

We do not fully understand the meaning of the kingdom of God because it is not a completed project. With the incarnation and the Passion of Jesus (his birth, death and Resurrection), God inaugurates the Good News and the coming of the kingdom of God. To borrow a phrase from another blogger, the kingdom is planted with the ministry of Jesus. But the project does not come to fruition until Christ returns, a time when all who are called and saved are gathered into the kingdom. For that reason, many theologians say that the ‘planted’ kingdom that is “already” in that Jesus conquered death through his Resurrection. But the kingdom has “not yet” fully come to fruition. When Christ fully reconciles the world to himself, then the kingdom will come to fruition.

Returning to The Field and the Mustard Seed

To return to our passage, Mark tells us that Jesus uses the images of seed scattered on the ground, and a mustard seed that becomes a great tree. These similes or analogies are imperfect, though they also point to a more substantial analogy that Jesus uses at the Last Supper. In John 14:5-6, Jesus says,

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.

We have three organic analogies in the Gospels where Jesus tells us that the disciple of Christ – the person of faith – is part of a broader church (the body of Christ) and part of a kingdom that, though planted, has not fully come to fruition. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciple is a branch on the vine, and that the true disciple must remain in Jesus for his or her entire life. In Mark, when Jesus speaks of the kingdom, he says the harvest comes only after the crop has borne fruit. Finally, even the kingdom itself “grows,” just like the mustard seed. As it grows, it accommodates ever more who enter by their cooperation in the grace of God, just as the mustard tree accommodates the many birds in its shaded branches.

Mark 4:26-34

Jesus said to the crowds:
“This is how it is with the kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and 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.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.” He said,
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

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