The Independent Fruit story.

How do we imagine we’re growing God’s kingdom?

Mark 4.26-29

Back to Jesus’s parables about agriculture.

Because in Mark Jesus told this story right after he told the one about the Four Seeds, some in the connect-the-dots school of bible interpreters leap to the conclusion the seed in this story, means the same as the seed in the previous story. In the Four Seeds story, the seed is God’s word. Mk 4.14 In this story, which I call the Independent Fruit story (and other Christians call the Seed’s Growth story, or the Kingdom Growth story), Jesus states the seed represents God’s kingdom itself. Miss that fact, and you’ll miss the whole point of the parable.

Clear your mind about the other parables. Come to this story fresh. Got it? Good. Now let’s read.

Mark 4.26-29 KWL
26 Jesus said, “This is God’s kingdom: Like a person who might throw seed on the ground.
27 He might sleep, might get up, night and day…
and the seed might sprout, might grow, without him knowing.
28 The earth automatically produces fruit. First sprouts, then a head, then a head full of grain.
29 Once the fruit is ready, he quickly swings the sickle, for it’s harvest time.”

Jesus used a lot of subjunctive verbs in this story—talking about what might happen, what could happen. Not what definitely will. Typical translations make it sound like this is all definite stuff: The person throws seed on the ground and it will grow, will produce fruit, will be ready. But that’s not how Jesus describes it. All these things might happen.

The one thing that will happen? The earth producing fruit. As Jesus put it, aftomáti/“by itself”—the word I translated “automatically,” because that Greek word is literally where our word comes from. Regardless of what a person might do, the earth does its own thing. Toss seeds on it, and the earth’ll grow them without our help. Without our knowledge. Without anything from us. It doesn’t really need anything more from us.

And this is what God’s kingdom is like.

The ignorant planter?

“The seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.” Mk 4.27 KJV “He” being the planter. He’s off doing his own thing. So’s the ground.

I’ve heard preachers regularly emphasize this interpretation: Here’s this ignorant ancient farmer who throws seed around his farmland. And shazam, he gets wheat. He has no idea how this happens. Unlike farmers today, who study plant biology in university, this ancient knows nothing about cell division and differentiation. To him it’s like magic. Seed goes in the ground, plants come out.

So this is how God’s kingdom works. We’re like those dumb farmers in ancient times who didn’t know how pants work. We don’t really know how the kingdom works either. We just plant our seeds. (Share the gospel, I suppose.) Then wander off somewhere, and come back later to discover acres of new Christians. Shazam!

Other Christians attempt to overanalyze what Jesus means by “First sprouts, then a head, then a head full of grain.” Mk 4.28 I’ve often heard it compared with new Christians. Sprouts would be the newbies, who don’t know anything yet. Heads would be when they reach some level of maturity. Heads full of grain would be when they’re mature enough to evangelize, and produce new Christians themselves. It’s clever, but it mixes up a few metaphors. Namely how the planter seems to be the evangelist… and now the heads full of grain are evangelists too?

See, overanalyzing this parable is a mistake. Jesus isn’t trying to present an analogy with how Christians grow in maturity. Or how churches achieve stability, or how nations become Christian, or any of the other scenarios we try to overlay this story upon. Jesus is just reminding his hearers how grains grow: You get sprouts, then heads, then heads full of seed, and then you harvest. You don’t harvest the sprouts. Or green wheat. You knew that, right? Even city-dwellers know that.

And ancient planters knew that. They weren’t that ignorant of plant biology. As Jesus just demonstrated, by describing how a grain grows. When he stated os uk oíden aftós/“he had not known this,” which I translated “without him knowing,” Jesus is describing how the planter wasn’t paying attention to the earth doing its thing. ’Cause the planter knew the earth would do its thing. (Or, in times of famine, not.) Either way, didn’t need the planter’s help.

So the planter didn’t stick around to watch his plants germinate, sprout, or grow up. He was busy doing other things. Planting another acre elsewhere. Tend the animals. Watch the kids. Help the wife. Go to synagogue. He didn’t need to watch the earth do its thing. The earth did it all by itself. Got that?

Okay, interpretation time!

Obviously the planter can’t represent God, ’cause God would be there to observe. And yet sometimes that’s how Christians have interpreted this story. God plants the seed, then steps away to let the seed grow on its own, then comes back to supervise the End, which Christians figure is the same as the harvest. (As it is in other parables.) Problem is, the kingdom has therefore grown up without any input from God. I suppose cessationists might be okay with that idea, ’cause a miracle-free universe means an absent God. But I’m surely not.

What’s far more likely is the planter represents a Christian. And the seeds are our good deeds.

So we Christians do our job of following Jesus, and seeds get thrown all over the place. They don’t necessarily represent the word of God, or his messages, or the gospel. Can be obedience to Jesus, loving one’s neighbors; it doesn’t have to be so specific. Can be anything borne from a love of Jesus, and the proper religious desire to follow him and get closer to him.

And like seeds, the output is far greater than the input.

We put in a certain amount of input: We scatter seed. Is scattering seed hard work? Not really. Do it first thing in the morning, and you needn’t worry about the hot sun beating down on you. Do it with one of those seed-scattering devices (which I’ve used to seed my lawn), and you needn’t worry about carrying big bags of seed. But the old-timey way of scooping handfuls from a bag and flinging it around: Anyone can do it. It’s far easier than harvesting with a sickle or machete.

So God’s not the planter. Nor really is he the earth, which does all the work. But God does empower the earth, as the ancients realized when they prayed, “Blessed are you, LORD our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” The natural processes work as God made ’em. Largely all we need do is stand back and let ’em do their thing.

True, we might learn scientific farming methods. Improve on the grains, drive away the pests in different ways, do a better job of tilling the soil to prevent soil erosion or depletion, provide better irrigation, use better nutrients. But largely we just stand back and let the seeds grow. The earth works automatically.

So Jesus’s story is really about how we put in our little bit of effort, but God makes something far greater come from it. And this is how his kingdom works. He makes our efforts fruitful.

The fruit we want, versus the fruit God wants.

Christians make two mistakes when they apply this idea. First, we presume every form of hard work oughta produce fruit. Especially after we’ve slapped the label “Christian” upon it.

Fr’instance I knew a couple who started a “Christian” coffeehouse. And after many years of struggle, it finally went over and they closed it. They were extremely frustrated: They presumed because they were a Christian business—and they were good Christians—God should automatically make the place rake in the dough.

Yeah, I can tell you why it didn’t work out that way: Starbucks was cheaper, had better hours, served better coffee, served it faster, is better-known, better-located, and doesn’t make pagans feel weird by making all their decor super-Christian.

The Christians weren’t competitive in business. Didn’t feel they had to be: They expected their fellow Christians to patronize them, and for God to just bless them because they were so earnest. Well, this kind of naïveté will put you out of business every time.

The second mistake? We presume the growth of our individual kingdoms, is the same as the growth of God’s kingdom. They’re not one and the same! My material prosperity doesn’t mean God’s kingdom has grown a millimeter. If anything, I’m more likely to slide into Mammonism than not.

This couple with the coffeehouse: They expected God to grant them big piles of money. How does this grow his kingdom? I dunno. Not sure they knew either.

Perhaps they intended to donate their profits to their churches or to charity. Thing is, if we’re not already generous, more money isn’t gonna make us more generous. Tends to have the opposite effect. Now that they have the money, they start making bigger plans for themselves. Bigger salaries. Better lifestyle. Fix up the place. Make plans for expansion. Sometimes they think to share the wealth with their employees; usually not. This couple never once thought about paying their employees more money. They paid ’em the legal minimum. Which is why their employees did the bare minimum. They knew how little they were valued.

See, if your “Christian” business doesn’t function like God’s kingdom—with, at the very least, some forms of grace and generosity—it hasn’t actually grown the kingdom any. Any financial success you see has nothing to do with God blessing it. More like the marketplace doing its own thing. Kinda like the earth does its own thing, and grows weeds just as well as wheat. But that actually takes us into a whole other parable, Mt 13.24-30 and I’m not doing that one today.

Anyway. Jesus’s story is about kingdom work. Stuff which actually does spread God’s kingdom. Stuff we do in direct response to God’s commands. It’s not the activities we slap Christian labels upon, and figure God now has to grow them because we’re spreading Jesus’s name around. Too many “Christian” organizations presume they’ll grow because they’re gathering Christian tchotchkes and slogans like good luck charms, and maybe that’ll make up for their poor business practices. That’s why worse-but-Christian has become a far too common cliché, and it needs to stop. It’s giving Christians a reputation for earnest but shoddy work. And not just in our music and movies. It’s an embarrassment: We need to do better than pagans. Christians must stop subsidizing inferior “Christian” businesses, demand better, and do better.

If all we do is our job, and no more, what praise do we merit? Lk 17.7-10 God isn’t looking for mere obedience. He’s looking for more. He expects us to be eager, generous, go the extra mile, Mt 5.41 go above and beyond. He wants to reward such behavior with far more than we ever put in. Lk 6.38 We scatter abundant seed; we get an overabundant harvest. That’s how the kingdom’s meant to work.