Sunday of Week 11 of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Commentary on 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 a 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 tells 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 used in the Gospel is basileia, and 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.

Lord’s Prayer
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, that is, 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 well, perhaps we can think of numerous modern examples of non-Christians who are very much full of the spirit of the Kingdom (using the definition above) – some, even more so than many 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:

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

And Jesus continues:

The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle 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.

Failure to crush
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 – and they have utterly failed.

The reason is that the values the Kingdom stands for (which are also the same values 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 us 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 focus is not on the inevitability of growth, but on 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, the church communities, 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 the tiny mustard seed.  Yet, given time, this tiny seed will grow into a large plant.  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 noble 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 a billion people today, a number not even conceivable in olden times.  The Gospel’s confidence was not misplaced.

Apprehensiveness about the future
It is important for us to remember all this when we feel somewhat apprehensive or pessimistic about the future of Christianity in various parts of the world.  We need to remember that the Church thrives on persecution and that the Church will never embrace the whole world – it is not the Kingdom, but only a sign of the Kingdom.

So let us concentrate on cultivating our own little field and watch the mustard grow there…God will take care of the rest.

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