26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
This parable tells a story, an unsurprising story. Seed is sown, the seed grows. For a farmer listening though this may be surprising as a seed which is simply left in the ground and not touched is unlikely to produce a good harvest. The seed and seedling need care.
As France comments,
Any farmer knows, of course, that this laid-back approach on the part of the farmer is not a true picture of agriculture in real life: a crop left to fend for itself after sowing in this way would probably be barely worth harvesting. So is the farmer’s inaction and incomprehension a pointer to how this story illustrates the βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ?
France, R. T.: The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle : W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002, S. 213
The parable may aim to to contrast the inactivity of the farmer with the activity of the seed. The seed, in this interpretation being the kingdom of God, grows and is independent of human effort. Although the farmer had to sow the seed in the first place, human activity is needed at some level.
Some 2nd temple Jews, following a zealot ideology and drawing inspiration from the Maccabean martyrs, wanted to bring in the kingdom by force. Is this parable designed to counter this? It is God who will being in the kingdom and cause it to grow.
We need also to factor in a strong linguistic connection with Joel 4:13
Put in the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
for the winepress is full.
The vats overflow,
for their evil is great.
Joel is looking ahead to a time of judgement when YHWH will defeat his enemies whilst his people enjoy the safety of Zion. Jesus maybe then using this parable, for those who have ears, to call people to joining the new ‘community of Zion’ which is found by allegiance to Jesus.
A harvest is coming in the future, there is going to be an ‘eschatological’ showdown which is in the hands of God. If this is a valid interpretation it shows that Jesus adopts a two stage view of the kingdom. The kingdom is in one sense present in the ministry of Jesus, but it is not yet here in its totality. This is the now-and not yet aspect of the kingdom, and is a call to people to join the kingdom movement as the seed begins to grow. Guilich explains the eschatological aspect of the kingdom in a moving and thought provoking way.
This assurance of harvest made more intelligible the presence of God’s rule by assuring the hearers that God was acting, though enigmatically, through the presence of the Kingdom in the present and would act at the appropriate time in the future to consummate the Kingdom in a manner more in keeping with their expectation. The future, however, is related to the present just as the harvest is related to the growth of the seed. The Kingdom is present, though unexpectedly vulnerable (4:3–8, 14–20), hidden (4:21) and small (4:31) with a power of its own (4:27–28). Its consummation, the harvest, is still future.
Guelich, Robert A.: Word Biblical Commentary : Mark 1-8:26. Dallas : Word, Incorporated, 2002 (Word Biblical Commentary 34A), S. 246
In the west we live in a time of transition as we move into post-christendom Britain. We need to hold fast to the promise that God’s kingdom, which is far bigger than the institution of the Church, is at work and is growing. Its growth is in the hand of God.