Readings:Ezekiel 17:22-24 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 Mark 4:26-34
TODAY’S MASS readings are about how God works — with us and without us. In another sense, we could say they remind us that God’s work will be carried out whether we cooperate or not. If we choose not to cooperate, God’s plans will not be frustrated but we ourselves will be the losers.
The Gospel consists of two parables which are quite different in meaning but which have a common theme in being connected with the growth of plants.
What is the Kingdom?
In the first parable Jesus tell us what the kingdom of God is like.
To begin with, perhaps a few words about the ‘Kingdom’ are in order because it is a term which frequently appears in the Gospel. What is this ‘kingdom’? First of all, it is not a place. The Greek word basileia (basileia) is an abstract word which means ‘kingship’ or ‘reign’ rather than ‘kingdom’, which in English suggests a territory or place. ‘Kingship’ or ‘reign’ on the contrary suggest power.
To belong to the kingdom or kingship of God, then, is to put oneself fully, consciously and deliberately under the power of God, to experience that power and be empowered by it. That power is above all the power of love. It is a creating, enfolding or embracing power, an encouraging power, a power that lifts up and enables us to be what we are called to be. It is not a coercive power which achieves its ends by threats, still less by violence.
When we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your Kingdom come”, we are praying that people everywhere put themselves under this loving power of God.
And our first call as Christians is to belong to, to enter that Kingdom and not just to be a member of the Church. The Church is, in so far as it is faithful to the call of Christ, part of the Kingdom but the Kingdom extends far beyond the membership of the Church. The Church is, when it is being what it should be, the sacrament or visible sign of the Kingdom.
As examples, I would suggest that people like Mahatma Gandhi and the current Dalai Lama are people who are very much full of the spirit of the Kingdom, more so, I dare to say, than many of us who are baptised.
God works when we don’t
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is giving an image of that kingship or power of God at work. He compares it to the situation of a farmer planting seed on his land. “Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how he does not know.” And Jesus goes on: “Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, he loses no time: he starts to reap because the harvest has come.”
The picture is clear: the building of the kingdom is God’s work. It goes on whether we are working with it or not; whether we are aware of it or not. It will not be frustrated by any opposition or passivity on our part.
We can see evidence of that in the way that the Christian faith has survived over the past 2,000 years. Some people, some governments and other powerful agencies have done their utmost to obliterate Christianity from the area under their control. They have inevitably failed.
The reason is that the values that the Kingdom stands for (which are also the same values that the Church stands for) are so totally in harmony with the nature of things and the deepest aspirations of the human person that no intervening force can neutralise them for any length of time. And this nature and these aspirations come, of course, from their origin and creator — God.
So, while the outcome of the kingdom is inevitable, it is important that each one of us identify fully with it. It is possible for the kingdom to be realised and for me to have chosen to stay outside, to adopt an anti-Kingdom position. This is basically to take both an anti-God and, which is ultimately the same thing, an anti-human position.
Tiny beginnings; big future
Jesus gives another image of the Kingdom. This time he compares it to a mustard seed. Here the image is not on the inevitability of growth but of how the Kingdom emerges from tiny beginnings. The tiny mustard seed grows into a very large shrub, so big that it can provide shelter for birds in its branches.
This is clearly a parable of encouragement. We need to remember that when these words were written the Church was still relatively small. It consisted of tiny communities scattered in cities, towns and villages all over the Mediterranean area. Without the communications media which we take for granted today they were to a large extent cut off from each other much of the time.
In addition to that, they were often subject to savage persecution. It would be perfectly natural for them to wonder if they could survive into the future. They were like tiny mustards seeds. Yet, given time, this tiny seed will grow into a plant so large that birds can nest in it. That vision, given the adverse circumstances in which the Gospel was written, was an enormous vote of confidence in the Church and the future of the Kingdom. A similar image in the First Reading speaks of the seed growing into a mighty cedar.
Today’s parable assures the readers of the Gospel that, like the mustard seed, they can grow. How surprised those early Christians would be to see the Church today! How the mustard seed has grown! Christians number well over one billion people today, a figure not even conceivable in olden times. The Gospel’s confidence was not misplaced.
It is important for us to remember all this when we feel somewhat apprehensive or pessimistic about the future of Christianity in certain parts of the world. There are a few things we need to remember:
a. the Church thrives on persecution
b. the Church will never embrace the whole world; it is not the Kingdom but only a sign of the Kingdom.
c. Let us concentrate on cultivating our own little field and see the mustard grow there and God will take care of the rest.