The Independent Fruit Story.

Mark 4.26-29.

Here’s another of Jesus’s agricultural parables. It only appears in Mark, and because it comes right after the Four Seeds Story, some of the folks in the connect-the-dots school of bible interpretation presume the seed in this story is the same as the seed in that story: It’s God’s word. Mk 4.14

Thing is, Jesus says what the seed represents in his very introduction of the parable: “This is God’s kingdom.” Mk 4.26 It’s not merely a message, a teaching, a prophecy, a doctrine; it’s God’s kingdom itself. All Jesus’s parables are about his kingdom. Miss this fact and you’ll always miss the point.

There’s no secret code in which every “seed” in every parable represents God’s word. Every parable is interpreted independently of the others. Clear your mind about the other parables and come to this story fresh. Got it? Good. Now read.

Mark 4.26-29 KWL
26 Jesus was saying, “This is God’s kingdom:
Like a person throwing seed onto the ground.
27 He might sleep, and he might rise up, night and day,
and the seed might sprout, and might grow, while he’s unaware.
28 The ground automatically produces fruit.
First a sprout, then a head, then a head full of grain.
29 Once the fruit is ready, he quickly swings the sickle:
It’s harvest time.”

Jesus used a lot of subjunctive verbs in this story—talking about what might happen, what could happen; the KJV translates ’em as what “should” happen, but in the 1500s “should” meant it was likely, not mandatory. But typical translations delete all this possibility stuff, and make it sound all fixed and definite.

ME: “…and the seed might sprout, and might grow.”
KJV: “…and the seed should spring and grow up…”
NKJV: “…and the seed should sprout and grow…”
CSB, NIV, NLT: “…the seed sprouts and grows…”
ESV, NASB: “…and the seed sprouts and grows…”

Hence people with those translations get the idea the seed will sprout, will grow, will produce fruit, will be ready to harvest. But that’s not how Jesus describes it. These things might happen. And might not.

The kingdom might grow. And might not.

There’s this mindset we Christians get, and it’s not biblical: That everything we do, if we’re doing it for God, will have nothing but massive, spectacular success. That when we share the gospel we’ll trigger full-on revivals. That when we plant a church it’ll become a megachurch within the decade. That when we start a ministry donations and volunteers will come pouring in, and we’ll save the world.

And when this doesn’t happen, we wonder what we did wrong. We presume, like when Joshua and the Hebrews tried to invade Ai and got beaten back, there’s some hidden sin or sinner within the organization, ruining and destroying all. Js 7 Somehow we’re impure, and God can’t abide sin, and there goes our victory.

Somehow this never occurs to us: God’s gonna grow his kingdom, but sometimes he wants it to be big impressive growth… and sometimes he wants it to be small unimpressive growth. Because he doesn’t care about impressing shallow people. He cares about his relationships with us, and wants to develop them, and sometimes this is best done in a small church, a small ministry, a small outreach. A more intimate setting, as it were. Like picking 12 kids to carefully, personally, interactively train instead of lecturing an audience of 5,000.

Somehow this never occurs to us either: People are selfish, and have no interest in any kingdom but their own. So the gospel’s not gonna appeal to them any. Try evangelizing a wealthy community, or a town full of ambitious professionals, and you’re gonna find few takers. You’ll wind up having to shake the dust from your feet over that town… but Christians tend to be more stubborn than that, and keep plugging away at such communities anyway. I was part of one such church for a few years. Wasn’t easy.

All things being equal—as is true of all the wise sayings in the bible—we should see growth in God’s kingdom. But sometimes we won’t. Don’t rule out the possibility we won’t. Don’t naively assume we should easily go from victory to victory—as we perceive victory.

The one thing that will happen? The ground automatically produces fruit. As Jesus put it, it does so αὐτομάτη/aftomáti, “automatically.” The Greek word is literally where our English word comes from. Regardless of what a person might do, the ground 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.

See, God can grow his kingdom all by himself. He doesn’t need helpers. He’s almighty, remember? But he values relationship, and wants helpers and contributors and collaborators. He wants us to be his family, and pitch in.

And if we don’t understand how on earth the kingdom is growing so significantly despite our pathetic efforts: Yep, this is why.

The ignorant planter?

The planter threw seed on the ground, and it grew “while he’s unaware.” Mk 4.27 The KJV translated it as “he knoweth not how,” and preachers have assumed by this, Jesus meant the planter didn’t know how seeds worked. Because, they figure, back then nobody knew how seeds work.

“So here’s this ancient farmer who threw seed onto his farmland… and shazam, he got wheat. He had no idea how this happens. It’s like magic! Seeds go in the ground, plants come out. And that’s how the kingdom works. We plant seeds. Then wander off somewhere, and come back later to discover acres of brand-new Christians. Shazam!”

Um… ancient planters weren’t that ignorant. Present-day preachers might be. There’s this all-too-common prejudice people have about their forebears: They don’t have the technology and resources we have, and it must be because they’re unworthy or dumb. (It’s not too different from similar prejudices they have about the poor.)

Ancient planters were plenty aware of why and how their plants grew. Ancient naturalists paid close attention. Sometimes they even experimented, though not with the scientific precision we insist upon nowadays; more like the curious but informal work put into a grade-school science fair entry. But they knew some of the processes, and what results to expect, and how different things affected the results. Like water, and heat, and fertilizer, and fungi. They observed, and learned. Don’t underestimate the ancients’ intelligence; they had fewer resources, but they were just as bright as we. They knew better than to imagine seeds were magic. They put magic beans in their fairy tales.

It’s because they knew how plants grew, that they weren’t out in the fields every day, calling upon the weather gods and burning incense and dripping water everywhere. They knew the plants would grow on their own, without any input from the planters. They could comfortably be elsewhere, letting the plants grow while they were blissfully unaware of how things were going. Because they trusted things were going.

Y’see the difference in attitude? Jesus was speaking of faith in the process, and by analogy, faith in God. Preachers are speaking of magic, which if anything is faith in rubbish.

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?

Other Christians attempt to put the following spin on Jesus’s description, “First sprouts, then a head, then a head full of grain.” Mk 4.28 They assume he’s describing growing Christians:

  • Sprouts would be the newbies, who don’t know anything yet.
  • Heads would be when we reach some level of maturity.
  • Heads full of grain would be when we’re mature enough to evangelize, and produce new Christians ourselves.

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? How’d the grain turn into planters?

See, overanalyzing this parable, and any parable, is a mistake. Jesus isn’t trying to describe how Christians specifically mature. Nor how churches grow stable. Nor how nations become Christian. Nor any of the other scenarios we try to overlay upon this story. Jesus is just reminding his hearers how grains grow: You get sprouts, then heads, then heads full of seed, and then you harvest. But the planter didn’t necessarily stick around to micromanage the whole process. He had other things to do. Better things.

Lastly there’s the folks who claim the planter is God. Obviously it’s not. Because God never goes away to do other things, and lets things run without his knowing. And yet I’ve heard Christians claim he is so God: He plants the seed, then steps away to let the seed grow on its own, then comes back to supervise the harvest (i.e. the End Times). I suppose cessationists might be okay with the idea of an absentee God, ’cause they’re clearly cool with a God who refuses to do miracles. But I’m surely not.

Okay, interpretation time!

Most likely this planter represents a Christian. And the seeds aren’t the word, like they are in the Four Seeds Story. Here, they’re our good deeds.

As we Christians do our job of following Jesus, we do good. Can be obedience to Jesus, or loving one’s neighbors; it doesn’t have to be 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 of our good works 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 walking around with a bag, scooping handfuls, and flinging them 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, find better ways to drive back the pests, till the soil better to prevent soil erosion or depletion, irrigate better, 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.

Christians make two mistakes when we apply this idea. First, we presume every form of hard work oughta produce fruit. Especially once we slap the label “Christian” upon it. Fr’instance I knew a couple who started a “Christian” coffeehouse, and after many years of struggle, they closed it. I can tell you why: Starbucks was cheaper (and you know Starbucks ain’t cheap), had better hours, served better coffee, served it faster, is better-located, and doesn’t alienate pagans by making all their decor and music super-duper-Christian.

These Christians weren’t competitive. Didn’t feel they had to be: They expected their fellow Christians to buy their coffee, and for God to automatically bless ’em because they were devout and earnest. This kind of naïveté will put you out of business every time.

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, doesn’t limit their employees’ hours so they can avoid paying them benefits, 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,

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 expected God to grant them big piles of money, but how did 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. Once stingy people get money, they cling onto their money all the more. Once covetous people get money, they start buying themselves stuff.

If your “Christian” business doesn’t function like God’s kingdom—with, at the very least with some forms of grace and generosity—it hasn’t grown his 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’s a whole other parable.

Anyway. Jesus’s story is about kingdom growth. 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 his kingdom’s meant to work.