James Tissot (1836-1902)
Brooklyn Museum - New York
‘The Sower’ by James Tissot was painted in opaque watercolours over graphite on grey woven paper.
While working on a series of paintings themed, ‘The Women of Paris’, James Tissot visited the Church of Saint Sulpice in order to sketch the portrait of a choir singer. Here he had a vision of Christ tending to the broken and the down-trodden.
This experience led to a renewal of his faith and a shift in his artistic focus.
He took off on a research trip to the Holy Land, beginning a ten-year quest to illustrate the whole of the New Testament. The result was ‘The Life of Christ’ popularly called ‘The Tissot Bible’. It is a monumental series of 350 watercolours with profuse archaeological observations and lucid realism.
‘The Sower’ is one of the representations in the ‘Life of Christ’. Tissot presents the Sower as a First Century Palestinian farmer. This is indicated by the pattern of dress. The use of the sash was a Jewish custom which separated the ‘Chosen Ones’ from pagans. In addition, the scarf was typical Jewish head-gear which held the Jewish name for God (J.H.V.H) at its four corners.
In this painting, the Sower holds his left hand on to a part of his robe that acts as a pouch for his seeds, while his right hand scatters the grain in a sweeping motion of the arm. A flock of birds are seen across the horizon. Weeds are swaying in the morning breeze. The partially rocky terrain stretches through the land. Yet the Sower walks upright, undeterred. His outstretched arm is reminiscent of the Saviour preaching the Word.
Mark 4: 26-34
26 “Jesus said to the crowds, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe,
at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come’.
30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’.
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples”.
We return to the Gospel of Mark. In February we celebrated the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time after which we entered the Season of Lent and then Eastertide. On that Sunday we read a text taken from Chapter One of the Gospel of Mark narrating the healing of a leper.
Today, we move a ahead to Chapter Four and a different section of the Gospel.
Chapter Four of Mark comprises three Parables and other sayings of Jesus as well as some explanations of why Jesus used parables in his teaching.
If we consider the structure of the Gospel of Mark along geographical lines, the Gospel can be divided into four parts:
1. The Galilean Ministry;
2. The Journey from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem;
3. The Ministry in Jerusalem; and
4. The Accounts of the Resurrection.
In this sense, the text we read today belongs to the first part: the Ministry of Jesus in Galilee. One characteristic of this section is that Jesus speaks to the “crowds” while later on He will instruct just the Disciples.
If we consider the structure of the Gospel along theological lines, namely the division of the Gospel by themes, Mark contains two main parts:
1. The Mystery of the Messiah; and
2. The Mystery of the Son of Man.
In this light, Mark Chapter Four belongs to the Galilean Ministry and again to the period when Jesus unveils his role and identity as the Messiah, the Anointed One.
Although throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus will insist on concealing his Messiahship, paradoxically He rebukes his Disciples for not being able to “understand” who He is.The reason however for the “Messianic Secret” is that Jesus was a humble servant Messiah and not the triumphant King the Jews expected.
The Use of Parables
We should avoid the temptation of thinking that Jesus spoke in Parables in order to “conceal” the significance of the Kingdom of God from the crowds, and then to explain it only to the few privileged Disciples.
Jesus was an excellent teacher. He used a unique methodology and we cannot say that He was not successful, or that He failed to make his message clear.
On the contrary, if Jesus used Parables we can be sure that the use of Parables was the best way to reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom.
We must remember that Divine Revelation is the communication between God and humankind. Although by His words and actions Jesus bridged the divide between the divine and the human, the vast gulf remains … and therefore the crowds and the Disciples could not fully understand the mysteries of the Kingdom to which Jesus refers.
In speaking in private to His Disciples Jesus was clearly entrusting them with the “Secrets of the Kingdom”, that is the ability to interpret Divine Revelation down the centuries.
Stages of growth
The first Parable describes in some detail each of the stages of growth of the seed until it becomes fully developed and serves the purpose for which it was planted. There is a process not only in the growth of a plant or of any living creature, but there is also a process of development in the faith of each person.
No one is born a saint. We are all saints in the making. No one is excluded from this possibility. No one reaches Christian maturity until the final surrender of his/her own self in death.
The Mustard Seed
As a matter of scientific record, the mustard seed is not the smallest of all the seeds, and therefore our interest should not focus on how small the seed actually is. Jesus is only stressing the difference between the size of the seed and the size of a fully mature mustard tree.
In a number of places the New Testament shows how things develop from small beginnings: for example, Mary received the Word of God and bore Him in her womb. ‘Buried’, as it were, in her inmost being, the Word saw the day of light, became man and was made manifest.
Again, the New Testament shows how the ministry of Jesus is like the mustard seed, in that it was small in its beginnings, subjected to a time and a place, ‘buried’ in his death and bearing fruit in his resurrection, and will have a far-reaching influence on world history.
Likewise, the seed grows in the heart of every believer: the Word is received, and by the power of the Spirit, bears fruit in acts of charity and of service. The seed bears fruit only when it is communicated.
“Lord, perhaps my task is only to sow the seed and
to trust that it will grow at its own rhythm and
come to harvest in Your good time.
Let me sow with love,
since only love endures into eternity,
and let me keep my eyes on You always:
I am the disciple,
you are the Lord of the harvest,
the Project Manager”.
I pray “Father, may your kingdom come,
may your will be done on earth as in heaven” (Luke 11:2)
Am I ready to allow the Kingdom of God enter my life?
Can I welcome God and the gifts of God, and offer God the greatest gift that I can give - my trust?
Am I ready and willing to allow God to transform me?
My life is God’s ‘project’. I must leave God the freedom to work on me. Then I will truly be ‘God’s work of art’.
From even the tiniest seed planted in a soul, the Kingdom of God can grow so that the person who trusts in God is a source of nourishment and care for others.
The Kingdom of God is already planted in creation.
God is always at work in our lives, like a seed scattered upon the earth.
We may not understand it. Outward appearances may even suggest God is absent. It may look as if nothing is happening. We rise. We wait. We trust. We hope. We pray. We go about the ordinary work of life. We sleep. Within the ordinariness of life God has already been planted in each one of us. One day it sprouts. It grows.
The invisible becomes visible. The seed was always there. It may have been invisible, but it was never absent. It was always there.
 Mark 4:13: “And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?’” Mark 6:52: “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened”. Mar 7:18: “He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile”.  “There are many plants, such as begonias, petunias, and wormwoods that have smaller seeds. The smallest known seed, which belongs to a species of jewel orchid (Anoectochilus imitans), measures a microscopic 0.05mm in length”. https://answersingenesis.org/bible-questions/are-mustard-seeds-the-smallest-or-was-jesus-wrong/  Judges 9: 15: “And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon’. Ezekiel 17: 23: “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind”. Ezekiel 31: 5-6: “So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived”. Daniel 4: 21: “Whose foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, and which provided food for all, under which animals of the field lived, and in whose branches the birds of the air had nests”.