Fruitfulness

Mark Johansson, PhD, wrote an email to a friend after a conversation over dinner regarding the seed scattering parable of Mark 4:26-28. Following is the contents of his epistle. This is one of the most freeing things I’ve ever read…

26He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  27Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  28All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

As a follow up to our dinner conversation regarding usefulness/fruitfulness: It seems to me that our functional, utilitarian, productive and measurement-oriented world of work often misleads our own sense of worth and significance. Against these “measures of the world” we are often left feeling inadequate, falling short, wondering what we actually accomplished and how productive we really are no matter how hard we may try.

I admit there is a good part to holding oneself accountable to results and standards, to giving ones best effort.  But at the same time, as believers, we live in a dual reality; we are part of an invisible if not so apparent second kingdom that is just as real as the first. It is by all accounts more important given its timelessness and eternalness.

Our discussion on Tuesday threw me back to the above scriptures. Our function in the second kingdom is “throwing seeds”, recklessly throwing seeds and then trusting the powers of heaven to bear fruit. To be honest this activity seems random, often capricious and not very measurable to be sure. There appears little cause and effect and certainly there is no control. Nonetheless we are called to live in this manner, throwing seeds.

What is this activity of throwing seeds which (like the mustard seed) seem so insignificant? A smile in the elevator hardly seems the most important thing I do in a given work day; after all my professional job objectives call me to supposedly much more important work than smiling.

However, a journey into the world of complexity theory and quantum theory ironically helps me appreciate what Jesus means by scattering small (and insignificant) seeds. Complexity theory reminds me of the importance of the butterfly effect, those tiny wings of the butterfly potentially impacting large scale weather patterns on the other side of the world. Tiny and even mundane beginnings often have the biggest outcomes.

Nuclear theory tells us one small raisin has enough stored atomic energy to light up all of New York City for several days, if we only knew how to unlock its power. A smile (in Jesus name) can be a spiritual raisin, a mustard seed yielding immeasurable fruitfulness. A gentle word of hope, taking time to give direction, a word of encouragement, an empathic touch, a listening ear, just being with, acting kindly, etc., etc., are “nuclear” acts when unlocked by God yield stunningly explosive results.

We will “wake up” one day (in the next life) and ask “what happened?” I never did that! God responds, “Yes you did!” God has used each of us in stunning ways, no doubt. We just do not have a clue what scattered seeds were used and how God accomplished what He did. It is sometimes easier to see the fruitful outcome in the lives of others. We cannot see it in our own life. God will rarely grant us that insight.

There is something terribly humbling about all of this. We are easily captivated and think too highly of “great” human achievements. Our egos are quite vulnerable to the seductive praise of persons. We often wrap those “smaller” things in life with disparagement. I think it part of God’s humor and delight to use things inconsequential to keep us grounded in spiritual reality and dependence upon Him.

So on those days (and there are more of them than not) when we feel inadequate, less than useful and unproductive we can take comfort in the little things we do realizing again and again that living in the second kingdom challenges our own values, our own sense of effort and calls us into a fundamental dependence upon the Lord to use us as He wants.

We are called to recklessly scatter seeds anywhere and everywhere often in spite of doing our more “important” duties. There can be a joyful and palatable tension we feel while called to live in this world but not of this world when we ultimately integrate His reality.

However, just maybe, those smiles in the elevator, the widow’s coin, that cup of water given in Jesus name are not so insignificant after all. We just do not see the fruit. But on the other hand our human eyes are quite limited and trained to notice human activities. Those large scale majestic events in the second kingdom triggered by those “insignificant” seeds do occur but are hidden from human view. Our eyes of faith are meant to help us see our participation in the divine cosmic drama, to hear the crowd of heaven roar its approval.

Within the second kingdom is found sacred multiplications beyond our own human doings. It is the spiritual mechanism of fruitfulness. Here is a fruitfulness that requires only the smallest and most vulnerable of beginnings as if anything more would choke its’ own creative process. It is the authentically simple things offered to God that fuels the mysterious explosion of fruitfulness.

Seeds by their very nature are unimpressive, small, simple in appearance and to some degree valueless in their original state. It is, however, seeds that we are to scatter, the simple little and unimpressive works of love. Anyone, at any age, of any ability can manage to throw seeds. That is the point is it not? God’s work is available to anyone to do. We shy away, however, seeking more complicated and “important” ways of doing his will: And in doing so we no longer scatter seeds but often scatter unusable objects and things; things that cannot be reproduced; things that cannot be buried and die; things that cannot grow into unmeasureable life.

Seed Scattering

Recorded in Mark 4 are two of Jesus’ agrarian-related stories (parables). The first one is about sowing seeds in God’s economy. The kingdom message is sown indiscriminately in all kinds of soil – rocky, gravely, and good soil. Since we tend to be people focused on outcomes, we have terribly moralized this story with a focus on trying hard to be good soil, entirely missing the point of the story. Wanting to continue our conversation about doing right things, we are going to turn our attention to the second seed-sowing parable in Mark.

In first century Israel, farmers did not prepare the seedbed in any manner close to the way it’s done today. Same when planting seeds. In the first century, the farmer found a plot of ground capable of growing a crop, scratched the surface with primitive tools, and then threw seed randomly over the “prepared” soil. This seed scattering is what the first Mark 4 parable is all about – some seed landed on the road, some landed on less favorable soil, some among weeds, and a majority (presumably) of the seed landed on the prepared seedbed.

Because of the tendency to moralize Jesus’ words, the second seed scattering parable gets overlooked. It’s short and can be found in Mark 4:26-28:

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

Back to the Hinkle farm. Each spring, after preparing a good seedbed (doing right things) and sowing seeds in a meticulous manner (doing things right), my dad used to say something to the effect of, “Well, not much we can do now. It will be interesting to see what kind of crop we end up with.” That’s the exact point of the parable! The farmer sows the seeds and goes to bed! And all by itself, the soil produces grain. In the margin of my Bible, I jotted, “And all by himself, God can…”

Through the centuries, God has enlisted his people to be the seed sowers in his kingdom. As Christ-followers, we are kingdom people with one basic job – scattering seeds. Reading these two parables, it appears that we are to do this randomly, intentionally, and indiscriminately. The rest is God’s job. All by himself, God can produce fruit. This is what doing right things is all about!


Next week: I will share the contents of an email that a friend of mine, Mark Johansson, wrote to a friend of his after a conversation over dinner. His little epistle is focused on this parable. It is one of the most freeing things I have ever read! You will not want to miss it.