Jun 17, 2018: 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

11th Sunday OT

1st Reading – Ezekiel 17:22-24

Thus says the Lord GOD:
I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.
And all the trees of the field shall know
that I, the LORD,
bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
wither up the green tree,
and make the withered tree bloom.
As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.

In our first reading, the prophet Ezekiel pronounces an oracle of salvation with a fable about a tree.

Thus says the Lord GOD: I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it. 

The metaphor of the tender shoot calls to mind a similar reference to the house of David, where that dynasty is described as a branch or twig (Isaiah 11:1).

Note that God plants it on a mountain, which was traditionally regarded as the place where God dwells.

It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.

In both instances, the favored sprout is cultivated by God until it grows into an exceptional plant that yields blessings for others.  What was once insignificant and vulnerable will be exalted, which will evoke the admiration of those who gaze upon it.

“Every winged thing” hints at universality.

And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom.

This act will demonstrate how the Lord overturns the fortunes of the lofty and the lowly, of the vigorous and of the withered.

There is a symbolism here: God chose the previously insignificant nation of Israel and made them his own; God also chose the lowly Davidic house and gave it prominence.  Time and again, God chooses the weak of the world to confound the strong.

As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.

The divine force of these prophetic words is underscored.  This is an example of performative language, the kind of speech that brought light out of darkness, that separated the primordial waters and caused the dry land to appear (Genesis 1:3-31).

The Lord simply speaks it, and it is done.

2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10

Brothers and sisters:
We are always courageous,
although we know that while we are at home in the body
we are away from the Lord,
for we walk by faith, not by sight.
Yet we are courageous,
and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.
Therefore, we aspire to please him,
whether we are at home or away.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,
so that each may receive recompense,
according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.

Saint Paul instructs the Corinthians on how to live in this time, when they are committed to the Lord but are not personally with him.

Brothers and sisters: We are always courageous,

As we will see, this particular brand of courage is based on confidence in God.

although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,

Paul uses spatial metaphors to draw a clear distinction between the state of being in this life and that of being in a life to come.  The contrast is between being at home (endēméō) and being abroad (ekdēméō).

It is a question of fully belonging.  During this life we are at home in the body, but away from the Lord.  In the next life, it will be the opposite: we will be at home with the Lord, but away from the body.

Paul is not here denigrating the body; he is using a very concrete metaphor to characterize a state of being.  He is also not suggesting that believers don’t really belong to this life and that their “real” home is in heaven.  Instead, he’s saying that their home is with the Lord, and in this life they are not fully with the Lord.

“We who in this world are ‘away from the Lord’ walk about on earth, it is true, but we are hastening on our way to heaven. For here we do not have a lasting place, but we are wayfarers and pilgrims, like all our fathers.” [Saint Jerome (after A.D. 392), Short Commentaries On The Psalms, 63]

for we walk by faith, not by sight.

This is the key to Paul’s teaching: we walk by faith, committed to those things that are unseen.  Even though we are not completely at home with the Lord, we are not totally separated from him, either.  Trusting in our full union with him in the future, we live in the present, following Christ’s example.

Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.

Note Saint Paul’s full conviction that he will meet the Lord when he dies (see also Philippians 1:21-23).  Paul is not saying that he disdains life on earth; he simply prefers the next life, where he will have full union with the Lord.

Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away.

Not fully being with the Lord in this life doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with cooperating within earthly society (for other examples, see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 and Romans 13:1-7).

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.

A sobering thought: Our ability to be fully at home with the Lord is dependent upon how we live our lives here on earth.

There is universality in the scope of judgment (“we must all appear”), but the level of accountability is personal (“each one may receive recompense”).  Salvation is a universal, gratuitous gift from God, but it must be received personally.

“This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come (Hebrews 13:14), think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Ephesians 4:28). … The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory.” [Vatican II (7 December 1965), Gaudium et spes, 43]

Gospel – Mark 4:26-34

Jesus said to the crowds:
“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 through it all 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.”

He said,
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses parables to teach about the reign of God, that mysterious reality that seems to belong to another world yet is within our grasp here, today.  This particular teaching only appears in the gospel of Mark.

Jesus said to the crowds: “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.

Although human hands scatter the seed and harvest the yield, they are not responsible for the quiet yet powerful mechanism that causes it to sprout and develop.  They can only provide favorable conditions and watch it grow.

So it is with the kingdom of God: it takes root and grows and produces fruit, in secret places deep within human reality.  In fact, it is usually found in places where one would least expect to find it: among the poor and despised, in the hearts of those who suffer, in the lives of the persecuted.

A seed itself may be quite inconsequential, but deep within it is great potential.  Within the acorn lies all the potential for a majestic oak tree.

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.”

An apt description of the life cycle of the seed, from its first beginnings to the harvest.  This image beautifully represents the gradual increase of the work of grace in the hearts of humankind: we can create the right conditions for grace to take hold, but ultimately, we must wait for the mysterious work of God to take place, like a grower waiting for the seed to unfold into a full ear of grain.

What was Jesus trying to say with this parable?  To those who expected God’s kingdom to be established immediately, he may be cautioning that God’s times are not human times.  To those who wanted to inaugurate the kingdom themselves with violence or other extraordinary means, he may be reminding that God’s reign has a power of its own.  In both cases, the emphasis is on being ready for the harvest.  A time will come to act, and we must stand ready.

He said, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it?

Jesus frequently used parables in his teaching, a literary form that is associated with the wisdom tradition. Parables engage two different realities and use one to throw light on the deeper meaning of the other.  They are used by sages precisely because they force the hearers to stretch their imaginations and to make connections they ordinarily would not make.

Here, Jesus stimulates the intellect of his hearers by making them his associates in the search for the appropriate similitudes.

It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. 

The mustard seed is not actually the smallest seed, nor does it produce the largest plant.  Parables are figures of speech, used to illustrate a point, not to describe things accurately. Here the exaggeration serves to emphasize the paradox of a negligible seed producing a substantial plant.

But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants

This parable is about the contrast between insignificant beginnings and extravagant results.

The seed of the Kingdom of God on earth began as something very tiny (the chosen people of ancient Israel surrounded by hostile nations, the twelve apostles within the city of Jerusalem); but it will grow to a great multitude which “no man can number” (Revelation 7:9).

and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”

God’s kingdom is also universal, so spacious that the birds of the sky can roost there.  God will provide shelter for all.

There is clearly a connection here with our first reading from Ezekiel 17; see also Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4:17-19.  However, Ezekiel’s image of majestic trees was a familiar one in antiquity; was Jesus being intentionally humorous and ironic with his choice of the humble mustard plant?  It was far from majestic, and not set upon a lofty mountain, but it still shelters the birds of the sky.

In fact, the mustard plant is a bit of a pest.  It is very hearty and tends to take over a garden, attracting birds that can destroy the rest of the garden.  It is interesting to imagine God’s kingdom as a bothersome bush that provides a haven for even unwanted birds.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to
understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

This summary statement about Jesus’ teaching style is curious. It may mean that the parables could be comprehended on several different levels, and while the crowds grasped the obvious meaning, he explained their deeper meaning to the disciples in private.

Or it may mean that the crowds understood, but the disciples required additional explanation. Regardless, it is clear that those who sought out Jesus were open to new ideas and stretching their minds to accommodate these new teachings.

Connections and Themes

  • The reading from Ezekiel and the gospel reading both include poetic language.  Why is poetry so often used to describe God?  Sometimes it is the only available way to describe something that cannot be precisely defined. Parabolic, symbolic, and poetic language carries us to levels of understanding beyond the surface of things, a kind of understanding that is closed to strict rationality.
  • Poetry also allows us to discuss the mystery of God without profaning it.  Obviously the reign of God cannot be contained within a mustard seed, but envisioning it this way helps us realize that the smallest may well be the greatest.
  • The first reading and gospel reading both also include images of gradual growth.  The cedar tree took years to develop from a seedling into a majestic tree.  Similarly, the growth of a mustard plant from a tiny seed into the most substantial of shrubs doesn’t happen overnight.  The reign of God expands in much the same way: rooted in God, it begins in very ordinary circumstances, but eventually it becomes something holy, majestic, and all-encompassing.
  • This growth happens before our eyes, but imperceptibly.  In the second reading, Paul reminds us that we need eyes of faith to recognize the progress that at times seems invisible or even absent.  The life force that drives the germination of the seed and the expansion of the branches cannot itself be seen; yet it is undoubtedly there.  The reign of God is similarly mysterious, invisible, and mostly incomprehensible.

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