An invasive vine called kudzu thrives throughout the southern United States. The Department of Agriculture brought it to the United States from Japan in the early 20th century to stabilize eroding hillsides. The vines grow exceptionally fast and produce dense vegetation that protects loose soil from water and wind but also blocks sunlight from anything that tries to grow below it. Lacking any predators or natural competition, kudzu will rapidly smother shrubs, trees, rocks and even houses and cars. In the course of only a few years, Kudzu’s range expanded throughout the Southeast. Only the drier climate farther west and the colder winters farther north halted its expanse. It is, as one author descibed it, the “vine that ate the South.”
‘He would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how’ (Mk 4:27)
What mustard seeds transformed your life?
How do you distinguish God’s action from your own?
When did you trust God’s mysterious action? What happened?
Jesus has a plant like this in mind in his parable of the mustard seed. From the tiniest of seeds comes a plant that can grow anywhere from six feet to eight feet in height and is strong enough to accommodate the nests of birds. More important, mustard plants were, according to Pliny’s Natural History, extraordinarily hardy and difficult to control. Pliny warned that mustard left unattended would quickly take over an entire garden. The symbol Jesus proposes, then, does not just describe a kingdom that grows to great size in spite of a small start, but one that is also resilient and ever-expanding. Destroy it, and it will sprout up again quickly. Very soon, all evidence of the disruption vanishes under ever-greater waves of new growth.
Jesus referred to seeds in a number of his parables. Although he was not a farmer and his first disciples were mostly fishermen, he found important metaphors in the mysteries of planting and growth. Many scholars agree that in the parable of the mustard seed Jesus consciously drew on Ezekiel 17, a portion of which appears as this Sunday’s first reading, but he replaced Ezekiel’s imposing cedar tree with something that grew much more quickly. Ezekiel’s cedar may have symbolized a majestic and ancient Israel, but it was also a plant that grew slowly and was all too easily toppled. The kingdom that Jesus revealed grew fast, recovered quickly from damage and flourished anywhere it sprouted.
Jesus also called attention to the mysterious way seeds sprout and grow. That something so tiny could give rise to something so much larger than itself suggested divine activity. After sowing, a farmer had little more to do until harvest. “Through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.” The disciples of both Jesus’ day and Mark’s needed a reminder that the success of their mission was in God’s hands, not their own. Their cooperation was important for planting and harvest, but the growth came from divine power.
Jesus’ disciples today also need to trust in the promise of small beginnings and in the power of grace. The kingdom contains as much mystery as a tiny seed, and its growth is as inexorable as kudzu. Many of us dream great dreams for the church and the human community, but the kingdom is ultimately God’s dream, not ours. Our role is to till and sow and then look on in wonder as God brings it to fruition.