Tomatoes, peppers, green beans, summer squash — at this time of year, those with vegetable gardens are reaping the fruits of their labors. If you do not have your own vegetable garden, very likely your neighbor will visit you with a gift bag of assorted garden products. At this point of the summer, everything seems to ripen at once. Dedicated gardeners often share their goods with people they know and with local food pantries.

I have always seen the growth of vegetables in the garden and crops in the field as something mysterious and holy. How a few seeds with a little rain, sunlight and cultivation become an abundant crop is nothing short of miraculous to me. Perhaps that is why Jesus used figures and parables based in agriculture to help his disciples envision the kingdom of God. The parable of the sower describes the seed sown in rich soil as growing and yielding much fruit. Jesus explains that the seed sown on rich soil are “the ones who hear the word of God and accept it.” (Mark 4:20) They are the ones who bear the fruit of God’s kingdom.

The Bible is replete with agricultural images. Archeologists believe that farmers have worked the land in Palestine for more than 10,000 years. Within Sacred Scriptures, we see ample references to farming, beginning with Genesis: “The Lord God took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” (Genesis 3:15)

While Egypt relied on irrigation to raise crops, in Palestine, rainfall usually sufficed, although drought certainly was a danger. The most important crops in Palestine were wheat, grapes and olives. Farmers raised other crops, as well, such as barley, lentils, cucumbers, onions and dates.

Animal husbandry and fieldwork were year-round activities. After the fall rains, fields were prepared with plows pulled by oxen. Farmers used hoes and harrows to break up the clods, and sowed the winter crops, such as wheat and barley, into the fields. Then came the winter rains followed by the spring rains in March and April. Nourished by rain, sun and soil, the crops grew. The barley harvest took place in April and May. Wheat needed more time to ripen and was harvested about a month later. The harvest took place either by pulling out the stalks by the roots, or by cutting the stalks with sickles. The grain was bundled into sheaves and placed on the threshing floor. The hooves of animals, flails or sledges separated stalk, chaff and grain. Winnowing forks separated the grain from the chaff, and then the grain was sifted to take out pieces of straw. The grain was then bagged for storage or for sale. Farmers cultivated vegetables and other crops, planted after the winter rains, and harvested them in late summer. The fruit harvest took place in the fall.

Jesus used the image of the agricultural cycle to describe the mysterious unfolding of the kingdom of God: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

God’s kingdom among us begins as a seed; something small and seemingly insignificant — a little faith, a kind word, a smile, a thoughtful gesture, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on — and then it sprouts and grows. The small gestures and positive dispositions inspire great acts of love and self-giving. Then comes the harvest of the fruits of charity and justice that comes about through cooperation with God’s grace.

The harvest is also an image that Jesus used to speak about missionary discipleship: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37) In Matthew’s Gospel, this saying is a prelude to the story of Jesus sending his disciples to the towns and villages on a mission: “As you go, make this proclamation: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:7-8a)

As you observe the glory of the harvest in your neighbors’ vegetable plots, in farmers’ fields, in urban gardens, or in your own tomato patch, try to contemplate the mystery of God’s kingdom in your life — how it begins small and grows into something great. Reflect, too, on Jesus’ teaching of the bountiful harvest as a call to go forth and evangelize, teaching the word of God and sharing his love with others through works of mercy.