The parables of the kingdom fall within the first major section of the gospel of Mark; a rather large teaching unit in this gospel. Our passage for study looks at two of these parables, The Growing Seed and The Mustard Seed.
v26. Mark's "he also said" introduces another unit of teaching, here another kingdom parable. Unlike teaching parables which are similar to sermon illustrations, kingdom parables serve as the gospel hidden in a story. The gospel announces the important news that God is even now gathering a people to share his eternal reign and that he is doing this through Jesus. So, now is the time to believe. The kingdom parables proclaim this truth, but do so in a hidden way to draw out the true seeker and condemn the unbeliever. For the unbeliever is just an innocuous little story. The introductory phrase "the kingdom of God" clues us to the fact that this story is a riddle; it tells us a secret about the kingdom. "God's cosmic intrusion into human affairs may be compared with the situation where a person, as it were, might sow a field."
v27-28. The farmer slaves all day long and then by nightfall, flops into bed for a good night's sleep. As the days go by, the seed sprouts and grows. Other than tilling the soil and applying nutrients and water, it all just happens. First, the green leaf, through to a full grown plant that produces grain.
v29. Then comes the harvest. At this point Jesus alludes to Joel 3:13 and the coming of the grim reaper. The verse is strongly contrasted with the previous verse, "but no sooner is the crop ripe", and is also flavoured with immediacy, "he sends his reapers in without delay." Finally, we are given the punch line, "the harvest is come." So, the parable proclaims the gospel, but only for those with ears to hear. The kingdom is come, God is even now gathering a people to be with him for eternity, so now is the day of decision.
v30. In another kingdom parable Jesus begins by asking what picture he can use to represent the coming kingdom of God. The picture he uses is that of a mustard seed, a very small seed, yet a seed that grows into a mighty bush.
v31-32. The kingdom of God may be compared to the situation where a small mustard seed is planted and grows into a shrub large enough for birds to find shade in its branches. As with the parable of the growing seed, we are tempted to understand this parable in terms of the growth of the kingdom, but its focus is actually on the completion of a process. The kingdom promised long ago has found its fulfillment in Jesus. The clue to the riddle is there for those with eyes to see. Jesus takes imagery depicting the restoration of Israel and presents it as if fulfilled, cf., Ezekiel 17:22-24. The tree is now full-grown and Israel may rest in its shade; "the kingdom of God is at hand."
Some years back a resident of an old people's home in England decided to play a joke on his friends. He dressed up as the Grim Reaper and after dinner appeared at the bedroom window of a number of residents. Three people died of a heat attack. Waiting for God is one thing, for the Grim Reaper is another.
C.H. Dodd in his book "The Parables of the Kingdom" argued for his theory of realized eschatology. As far as he was concerned, the parables of the growing seed and the mustard seed are not parables about growth, but rather they announce that the day of harvest has arrived. The seed planted long ago is now ripe for harvest; the tree is now full grown giving shade and rest. The day of the Lord has arrived, the kingdom is come.
Unlike Albert Schweitzer, Dodd didn't then argue that Jesus got it wrong, that Jesus thought that the kingdom would immediately come through his ministry, but was mistaken. For Dodd, the coming kingdom is indeed "now", but spiritually discerned.
Although Dodd's interpretation of the kingdom parables is still not widely accepted, he has actually performed a wonderful service for us when it comes to interpreting the kingdom parables. When following Dodd's lead we rightly say of the kingdom parables that they proclaim the immediacy of the kingdom, that it is "now", but of course, at the same, it is "not yet." The kingdom of God is both here and coming. Inaugurated eschatology is probably a better term to use when explaining the idea of a kingdom that is "at hand." Jesus proclaims the coming kingdom, which has indeed come in and through his ministry, yet at another level it is still coming. The kingdom today is realized in the life of believers, but we still await the day of glory when the kingdom will come in power.
Without a doubt, this is the best way to view the coming kingdom. God's righteous reign, witnessed in the calling out a people to be with him for eternity, is seen in the life of Jesus, in the life of his disciples today, and in his glorious coming in the last day.
The kingdom parables of the growing seed and the mustard seed, proclaim that the kingdom of God has burst in upon us; it is "now" and yes, it is "not yet", but above all, it "is". Faced with this reality we are bound to ask how well our ears hear, for if God's mysterious reign is indeed intruding into human affairs, then it is also intruding into our affairs. So, do we "repent and believe", or do we ignore the fact that "the harvest is come", the tree is full grown?
"You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone has to dance with the Grim Reaper."
Rather than "casting pearls before swine", construct a kingdom parable for our modern secular age.