It seems that God has always wrestled with human expectation. We put expectations on God, especially on when and how he works. We desire that God manifests himself in extravagant signs so that our faith is secure, secure not only from our own doubts, but from the questioning of others. We desire to be vindicated in the eyes of men by great signs, if only God would prove himself once and for all. We grow tired of waiting for answers and for growth. God why are you so quiet? God why are you so slow to work? These are human questions that come from our expectation that God should work immediately and loudly so that all might know of his existence and have no way to reject him or hurt us. According to today’s Gospel, Jesus knew of the expectations that we and the people of his time were placing on God. Before the bulk of Jesus’ work and proclamation, we are offered two parables which challenge us to let go of our human expectations. God has a better way. It’s a way which is not immediate, but will take time. It’s a way which is not extravagant, but which uses the lowly. If we let go of our expectations and stay with him, he will explain the way in which he works just as he explains the parables to his disciples who remain with him.
Now the people of Israel expected the Messiah, and they expected him to make them a great nation. Their expectation of greatness was such that every other nation would know that they were God’s chosen ones. They expected their greatness to show forth in a worldly way such that they would no longer have to suffer, not only their own doubts but also insults from others. They thought that the messiah would immediately lead them to overthrow and drive out the Romans. He would rule powerfully and clearly, with signs of the world, an extravagant throne, horses and chariots, and great wealth. The two parables of today’s reading show that Jesus was aware of these expectations, and in order to begin his work he had to prepare them. The Father’s plan would not be of their worldly expectation. The Kingdom would come about in time and it would come about in a humble way.
In the first parable we hear of the sower who scatters the seed and then sleeps and rises for many days while the seed sprouts, and grows, and finally bears fruit. The parable counters the human expectation of immediate results. There will be hidden growth first, the sprouting. They will have to be patient. This parable also indicates the mysteriousness of the growth. We are told that the sower does not know how it grows. He simply sleeps and rises, until the harvest is ready and then he works again. This is a clear indication of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit being at work. Jesus is the sower who scatters and then harvests. In between that time, while he is sleeping and rising, dying and being resurrected, the Holy Spirit will be the one who gives growth to the seed and makes it fruitful. Until Christ comes for the harvest, we are being led by the Holy Spirit, and he will work at his own speed and according to his own design.
In the second parable we hear that God will not use extravagant signs according to the way of the world, but lowly signs. The mustard seed, the smallest of the seeds, will be used to bring forth a great bush, a place for birds to rest and a place of shade. According to our first reading from the prophet Ezekiel, the Kingdom of God was to be like a great majestic cedar planted on a hill. God was to take a sprig, a fresh chute, from the top of the cedar, and plant it on a hill so that all might know of the Glory of his nation. The cedar was humanity, and the Israelite people were to be this sprig planted on the hill. This was their expectation, that all might know they were the chosen ones and that they may no longer suffer insult and oppression.
Almost contrary to this, Jesus says that the Kingdom is like a small mustard seed which becomes the bushiest of plants. Instead of a fresh sprig from a majestic cedar, the Kingdom will come from a humble and lowly beginning, but will indeed still be planted on a hill for all to see. What everyone will see however, instead of a great majestic cedar, will be a lowly, but bushy, mustard plant. This of course counters theirs as well as our expectations for the Kingdom of God, which in our minds should be great, not only spiritually but according to the world.
The seed is indeed planted on a hill, for earlier in this Gospel, Jesus called the twelve to him on a mountain. Later in the Gospel we will see that Jesus is crucified on a mount, and this indeed will be the planting of his kingdom in a public way. The twelve will be his branches, and the plant will grow into the bushiest of the plants. Today there are bishops in every part of the world and over a billion followers. No other plant, no other community, can boast of so many branches and leaves, of such “bushiness.”
And what if God worked in the way of immediacy and worldly power of our expectation? If he appeared in his full glory to all everywhere at once, how deep would his love penetrate our hearts? If instead of small waves gently lapping the shore of a beach, God worked through a mighty wave crashing down on our heads, how would that establish a deep personal relationship which includes the response of human freedom? No, true love is love freely chosen. If God’s sign was too worldly or too immediate, then true loving relationship would not be established. Instead of a powerful wave bringing us immediately to our knees by force, God desires us to recognize him in the lowliness of the gentle movement of the water on the shore and for us to freely come to him and love him.
Other kingdoms have sought to grow through force, through display of power, or through promise of wealth but they have all failed. The Persian empire, the Roman empire, Marxism… every other kingdom or community which relies on worldly power or enticements instead of the grace of the Holy Spirit has failed and will fail. We must let go of our worldly expectations so that God can bring about something better, something which endures forever, something which satisfies our deepest longing, something which leads us to growth beyond our expectation.
As these parables are placed near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, we are being taught that for the Kingdom of God to be brought about we must set aside our expectations. We must be patient, we must be trusting, and we must be willing to accept the lowliness in which he comes to us. Our hearts were made for something more than worldly power and immediate proof. Our hearts were made for God. He is meek, humble, patient, and merciful. He is willing to endure insult and rejection so that we might choose him freely through grace. Let us thank God for sharing with us a better way, a way that is founded on the mysterious depth of our Heavenly Father’s love.