Liturgically, Ordinary Time is devoted to the preaching of the Kingdom of God. What do we need to know about it? Today’s Gospel gets us started.
Gospel (Read Mk 4:26-34)
St. Mark tells us that, when speaking to the crowds of people who clustered around to hear Him, Jesus described the Kingdom of God in parables. This is interesting, isn’t it? Parables need explaining (“to His own disciples He explained everything in private”). Why didn’t Jesus speak straightforwardly to the people who were curious about Him? The answer is partially revealed in what Jesus had to say in this reading.
“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.” Jesus uses the familiar work of a farmer to emphasize that something so human, so common, so necessary for human existence (farming) has a foundational element of mystery. Nobody knows what happens to the seed in the ground, invisible to the naked eye. Nobody can ultimately control the seed’s fate. “Of its own accord the land yields fruit.” In other words, there is more here than meets the eye, and this truth arouses a curiosity, even a certain amount of awe. The sowing and reaping are human actions; everything in between is often beyond vision, certainly beyond the control of the farmer. In order for him to benefit from the harvest, the farmer must be a willing partner in a mystery way beyond himself.
That is exactly what is necessary when we hear someone speak a parable. When it first falls on our ears, there may be confusion or even impatience, because its meaning is not immediately apparent. We must be willing to acknowledge that there may be more here than meets the ear. Curiosity can lead to more careful attention and engagement with the words, images, and action contained in it. Those who are aroused by this mystery linger to find out more. Those frustrated, disappointed, or skeptical just walk away. Jesus was content to use parables to sift the huge crowds who came to hear Him. He was looking for those who would linger; “to them He spoke as they were able to understand.”
The truth about the presence of mystery imbedded within reality itself is emphasized by the parable of the mustard seed. Its appearance gives no clue whatsoever to its ultimate destiny. The tiny seed mysteriously grows into “the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” Anyone passing judgment on the future of the mustard seed based on its appearance would likely wind up far from the mark. When the mysteries of time, the life within the seed, and the soil have done their work, the visible results are both unexpected and impressive.
Jesus is telling us here that so it is in the Kingdom of God. Things are not as they seem! Just as in farming, there is much mystery in the seed of the Gospel when it is planted in the soil of our lives and in the soil of the world. This should be a great encouragement to us, prone as we are to making judgments based on what we can see. The farmer needs humility when he sinks a seed into the ground, knowing that the outcome upon which he is entirely dependent is beyond his control. Likewise, the seed of the Gospel planted in us and, through the Church, in the world requires patience and faith in the outcome. The difference here from farming is that we can know with confidence that God’s harvest won’t fail. This is the first and most important thing we need to remember as the Sower is, even now during Ordinary Time, sowing His kingdom seed. Our work is to welcome it with a good and generous heart. Then it will produce a rich harvest.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, what small, seemingly insignificant seed of goodness can I plant in the world today? Please help me plant well.
First Reading (Read Ezek 17:22-24)
Ezekiel was a prophet during Israel’s exile in Babylon (about the 6th century B.C.). In this section of his work, he writes against the backdrop of what was happening back in Judah, right before the final destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had placed a puppet king, Zedekiah, on the throne there. In a desperate attempt to ward off final domination by the Babylonians, Zedekiah revolted against Nebuchadnezzar and turned to Egypt for help, disregarding strong prophetic warning not to. The results were disastrous.
Through Ezekiel, God thunders against the kings of Judah, themselves descendants of David (“the cedar,” or root tree of the throne) and vows to replace them with “the crest of the cedar…a tender shoot.” This, of course, refers to Jesus, the Son of David, Who would become the “majestic cedar.” In this prophecy, we see the language upon which Jesus drew in His parable about the lowly mustard seed. God declares His ultimate power over the throne of David and His intention to surprise Israel by bringing “low the high tree” (Zedekiah, the unfaithful king) and lifting “high the low tree” (the meek, unlikely King Jesus). Poetically, God confirms through Ezekiel what Jesus taught in His kingdom parables: things are not as they seem. He will “wither up the green tree and make the withered tree bloom.” God’s plan for His kingdom can never be thwarted, regardless of appearances: “As I, the Lord, have spoken, so will I do.”
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for sending our “Majestic Cedar,” Jesus, to make my withered tree bloom.
Psalm (Read Ps 92:2-3, 13-16)
The psalmist, in contemplating the kindness and faithfulness of God, describes how those who are “planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God.” He finds that the life of a tree (“like the palm tree, like a cedar of Lebanon”) is an apt metaphor for the life of God’s people. Because of God’s loving husbandry, the tree “shall bear fruit even in old age; vigorous and sturdy.” Confident of this, today we can sing: “Lord, it is good to give thanks to You.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 2 Cor 5:6-10)
In the epistle, St. Paul comments on the theme we have seen in our other readings, although his topic takes him in a different direction. He is pondering how much he prefers to “leave the body and go home to the Lord.” He knows that “while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord.” He means that our walk with God in this life must be a “walk by faith, not by sight.” We do not yet behold God face-to-face, so our life now must be one of faith, trusting that He exists and, through the grace of the sacraments, is present in our lives, preparing us to go to be with Him. This requires us to live every day knowing that things are not as they seem. We do not judge anything about God, or ourselves, or the world based only on appearances. Here we find an echo of our Gospel reading. St. Paul gives us a practical example of how we live “by faith, not by sight.” He tells us that, by faith, we know “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” The simple consequence of that faith is that “we aspire to please Him, whether we are at home [in the body] or away [with the Lord].”
In other words, a life of faith is a life of action aimed always at pleasing the Lord. We know God is keeping all His promises to us; we must work hard to keep our baptismal promises to Him. We cannot now “see” the outcome of this way of life, but we can be confident, by faith, that it will bear rich fruit for eternity.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, it’s a daily struggle to walk by faith, not by sight, and to aspire to please You rather than myself. Please help me!