Just about everyone is trying to grow. Some are looking to grow a plant or indoor garden (sure, if you have more than one plant you can call it a garden) by the one window in their apartment that gets enough sunlight to make it possible. Others are trying to further develop career skills in order to improve their marketability in the workplace. Maybe you’re one of the people trying to improve your fitness (although good luck ordering any equipment these days). Log on to Amazon and you’ll find thousands of resources promising the keys to personal improvement and self-help in any and every arena including health and wellness, mindfulness, psychology, religion. Even my daughter (who is currently 3) is obsessed with growth: “No dad, I’m not a big girl. When I get big then I will [insert whatever instruction I just gave her that she doesn’t want to do and is sure that staying small is the key to getting off from doing it].” As Human Beings we want to be more; we want to be better; we want to transform. Every person wants to grow.
Jesus tells three stories in Mark 4 that teach about how growth works and what sort of growth will make a difference in your life. (Spoiler Alert: What Jesus says about growth is not what you’ll find on Amazon. But it’s far, far better than that plant in your apartment window.)
Growth comes from the Word of Christ. When Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower, he gives most attention to various types of ground. But the juice of the story is in (A) The Sower who (B) spreads the Seed. Jesus specifically identifies the “Seed” as being “The Word”. Jesus is teaching us that growth and productivity as a Human Being is not something we muster up within or among ourselves, nor is it made possible by just any ideology(s). The agent of growth and transformation, fullness and fruitfulness is The Word.
But saying “The Word” still leaves a degree of ambiguity. Whose “Word” are we talking about here? Given that we’re reading from a religious book here we would naturally say, ‘God’s Word’, which would be right but then we’re still left to wonder how we are to determine which words are actually the words from The God that will produce meaningful growth in our lives. I think the way to read this story is as an autobiography. “The Sower” is Jesus — the Son of God who came spreading the “seed” of God’s Good News (Mark 1:14-15, 22, 38, 2:2). If you want to grow into something better than what you are, you need to obey the command of Jesus, the Sower of God\’s Word: “Listen! … If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:3, 9)
Growth depends on your response. The Word of Christ won’t make a difference in your life on its own. The fact that Jesus describes his word as a seed is insightful. Seed can only grow in certain conditions as Jesus outlines in the parable. Some ground is Hardened, unflinchingly rigid, and unable (or unwilling) to receive the seed. Other ground is Shallow with thick bedrock preventing the seed from penetrating deep enough to develop roots that will sustain growth. Still other ground is so Divided and Crowded with weeds, thorns, and the like that seed might grow at first but will be choked out and unable to produce any fruit in the long run. Seed can only grow in Good soil — open, deep, and clean ground where life can flourish.
Jesus wasn’t talking about dirt. He was talking about us. His Word is given and available to all but whether or not the Word produces anything in your life is up to how you respond to it. You can be Hardened and reject it entirely (a lot of people did that in Jesus\’s very day — they were too powerful, important, comfortable, or otherwise occupied to consider his teachings). You could be Shallow, only letting the Word of Christ penetrate deep enough to get you initially excited but not so deep that you actually commit, allowing anything substantial to change. You might actually take his Word pretty seriously, but refuse to let go of “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things [that will] come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19).
You and I are aiming to be those who make something good out of the Word of Christ by hearing, accepting, and producing “fruit” (4:20). Growth in our lives is what the Word of Christ is all about. It’s what God wants, and it’s what we want too. Whether or not the Word produces growth depends upon how you and I respond. The choice is ours.
Growth can happen but (probably) not how you would expect. Besides the main event of “The Parable of the Sower”, there are two other short stories about growth that Jesus tells in Mark 4. The first is about a farmer who plants a seed, does the stuff farmers do, and then, without his understanding or precise knowledge of how or when, the seed makes a productive plant pop up out of the ground. The second story is about Mustard Seeds which are the tiniest of garden seeds but once they grow up they turn into a large tree (maybe you’d call it a big bush, but you get the idea) that is able to provide shelter to the birds.
Jesus said both of these stories were about “the Kingdom of God” (Mark 4:26, 30) which could mean that they are about the influence that God, through the work of Jesus, would over throughout space and time, or it could be speaking to how God influences individual people. Maybe it’s both. I’m not entirely sure, but I know there’s a great lesson to learn here.
Growth from God through the Word of Christ will not happen like you would expect. It won’t happen on your timetable, it will be imperceptible at times and incomprehensible at others, but in the end it will far exceed whatever you imagined would be the best possible scenario. All this is true because growth in the Human Soul, like growth in the dirt, comes from God. It’s magical, actually it’s better than magical–it’s divine.
So go ahead, set up another plant by the window and do a few more pushups, but more importantly, listen and live out what Christ has to say so that you can grow in all the ways that really matter.
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