Friday, June 15, 2012

“Now Seeds, START GROWING!!” Trusting God for Growth: Readings for the 11th Week of Ordinary Time

In this week’s Mass readings, Jesus teaches us about himself and the Church using agricultural images.

It is the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time.  The last time we had a Sunday of Ordinary Time was on February 19th, and that was the Seventh.  The logical question is, what happened to the 8th, 9th, and 10th?  They were pre-empted this year by Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi.

Since we haven’t been here since February, we have to get re-oriented to what is going on in Ordinary Time of Year B.  The Gospel is moving ad seriatim (sequentially) through Mark.  We are going to read virtually all of Mark this year by the end of November, with the exception of the Passion and Resurrection accounts (Mark 14-16), which were already read during the Triduum.

The second reading at this time of year is moving through Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians.  Unfortunately, this Sunday 2 Cor 5 appears “out of the blue,” because the readings from Corinthians leading up to it were missed due to the big Solemnities the past three Sundays.

The first readings for the rest of the year are selections from the Old Testament chosen to complement the Gospel reading.

(1) This Sunday’s first reading, Ezek 17:22-24, provides crucial background for understanding Jesus’ parable in the Gospel:

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.

The good homilist should explain the background of this reading a little.  Ezekiel is prophesying during the time when the Kingdom of David was nearing its end (early 500’s BC).  Only the southern tribe of Judah was left for the son of David to rule over.  Northern Israel had already been exiled by Assyria, and Babylon had already deported/exiled many Judeans, especially of the upper classes, included the high-ranking priests and the king himself.  In a few years, Jerusalem and its Temple would be completely destroyed. 

In the midst of this quite depressing time in the history of God’s people, Ezekiel gives a prophesy of hope: God will preserve the dynasty of David, and it will grow once more.

The “cedar tree” in this parable is the Kingdom of Israel, the “crest” is the royal house, the House of David, and the “tender shoot” is an heir, a Son of David.  God promises to “transplant” this “shoot” to the mountain heights of Israel (=Jerusalem) and he would grow again, becoming an international kingdom.  The oracle seemed hopelessly optimistic and out-of-touch in light of historical events in Ezekiel’s day.

(2) The responsorial psalm (Ps 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16) continues to develop the “tree” motif:

R. (cf. 2a) Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
To proclaim your kindness at dawn
and your faithfulness throughout the night.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
The just one shall flourish like the palm tree,
like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow.
They that are planted in the house of the LORD
shall flourish in the courts of our God.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
They shall bear fruit even in old age;
vigorous and sturdy shall they be,
Declaring how just is the LORD,
my rock, in whom there is no wrong.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.

In this psalm, the “just one” is compared to a tree that flourishes, grows, and bears fruit.  This is an image used elsewhere in the psalms, most notably in Psalm 1.  At the back of it is the image of the Tree of Life, the ideal tree in Eden, the primordial garden-temple of God.  The “just”—those who live their lives according to God’s will—become like the Tree of Life.  They bear the fruit that Adam and Eve didn’t taste, because they chose unwisely. 

The “just one” in this psalm is first of all Jesus Christ—the only one who is truly “just.”  He is truly the Tree of Life who bears the good fruit perennially. Yet by extension, the “just one” can be each one of us, since we eat the fruit of Christ and (according to our faith) become him in the Mass.  There is hope that we will grow spiritually strong and resilient despite life’s troubles, and bear the fruit of the Spirit and of good works.

(3) The second reading is 2 Cor 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.

This reading, among other things, reminds us not to make judgments based on superficial externals: “we walk by faith, not by sight.”  If we walked by “sight”—making superficial judgments based on what appears on the surface—we would quickly lose our way, because in this world it often seems that evil people prosper, seem “happy,” and succeed despite or even because of their lies, distortions, and self-interest.  The Church, and many who do what is right, and practice virtue, are often weak and apparently powerless against their enemies.  It has always been like this, since ancient times (see Psalm 73).  St. Paul reminds us to take a perspective of faith, and keep in mind the eternal: “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”  The prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the good is a reality of this life.  But there is the life to come.  All will be taken into account.  God is a God of justice, and of mercy: “each [will] receive recompense according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.”  No one escapes the final encounter with the Truth, which is God.

(4) The Gospel (Mk 4:26-34) brings to fulfillment the “tree” motif of the first reading and the psalm:

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.

There are two parables here.  In both of them, the “seed” is the Word of God, in two senses: (1) the proclaimed Gospel, the “Word of God”; and (2) Jesus himself, who is the Word of God (John 1:1).

In the first parable, Jesus emphasizes that the growth of God’s kingdom is something mysterious, and not something caused by human effort, anymore than human effort can make something grow.  This truth may remind many of us of the classic “Frog and Toad” story about the garden, when Toad gets frustrated with his plot of ground and starts yelling, “Now seeds!  START GROWING!”  You can watch the story here, and its worth pondering as a parable of Church growth.

We are responsible to plant the seed—this is the proclamation of the Gospel.  Beyond this, the workings of God in the human heart are ultimately not something that we can manipulate or control.  It is the work of God.

The second parable takes up the tree theme from the earlier readings.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grows into a great tree-like plant.

This “mustard seed” which is the “smallest of seeds” is in fact Christ himself, who is both the Word of God, and the “seed of David” (2 Sam 7:12, Hebrew zerah) whom God promised by covenant oath to “raise up”:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your seed after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.

Christ is the “smallest of seeds” because he is humble and lowly, despised by all:

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isa 53:1-2)

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt 11:28-29)

Jesus is literally planted in the ground at his burial (John 19:41-42).  He is the grain of wheat that dies, but bears much fruit:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

The “mustard seed” of Jesus, planted in the ground in the mountain heights of Israel (Jerusalem), rises from the dead and becomes the Church, which grows and grows throughout the world, becoming so successful that even those who hate her find it necessary to imitate her and the structures she invented: schools, universities, hospitals, hospices. 

In Christ, the royal Son of David, Ezekiel’s prophecy did come true.  The House of David was reestablished in Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of David—manifest visibly in the Church on earth—has spread throughout the world, an international empire.

The readings for this Sunday encourage us to have faith in God.  In a dark time of world history, in which Christians are suppressed, tortured, and killed in Muslim and Communist countries, and in the “free world” secularists enjoy almost total control over the institutions of education and media in order to indoctrinate society with the idea that “science” has disproven God and all human ills are traceable to religion, especially Christianity and its hated morality—in this dark time, its helpful to remember that times were frequently dark in the past as well: when Ezekiel prophesied under the oppression of the Babylonian empire; when Jesus prophesied under the oppression of the Roman empire.  The Messiah and all connected with him perpetually look small and even pathetic: a mere mustard seed.  Yet in ways unseen it grows.  It does not die, it grows; it fills the whole earth, it brings eternal life to those that seek its shade.


De Maria said...

When you said that Jesus is the tree and the seed, it took me back to the Douay version of Gen 3:15 and then to Rev 12:17. You also said that in the Mass, we are He. And that, I think, ties it all together.

In one sense, the Tree of Life is Mary and we are her seed who have the testimony of Christ and the Commandments of God. Both of which are the Word of God. And we must grow and sow more seed to the Glory of God.

John Bergsma said...


Unknown said...

Thank you for the explanations! I often wonder what each line means since we are so far away culturally from the times when it was written!

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