Eleventh Sunday In Ordinary Time
The first reading for this Sunday is an excerpt from the Prophet Ezekiel. The dates of his ministry as a prophet extend from about 593-573? B.C. Ezekiel was a young priest in Jerusalem, probably a member of the Temple clergy who was taken into exile in Babylon (Iraq today) in the first deportation in 597. He received his call to be the Lord’s prophet in 593 B.C. through a bizarre but awesome vision in the Book of Ezekiel, chapters 1-3. Like some of the other Old Testament prophets, so Ezekiel also was a strange man who did very strange things. One example: after shaving his beard and cutting off his hair, , he burned some of the hair, hacked at some hair with a sword, scattered some to the winds, and tied a few wisps of it into his robe. Hardly normal! A major theme of his message (oracles), is the doom of the province of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem. In this theme, he seems influenced by his older contemporary Jeremiah.
Our first reading is the sequel to a long parable the Lord told Ezekiel to speak to the Israelites in exile. A large eagle plucked the top branch off a cedar of Lebanon and transplanted it to a new location. From that location, he took a vine seedling and planted it in the fertile soil next to a stream, where it prospered. Another eagle brings destruction to this vine. The Lord then interprets the parable through Ezekiel as an oracle of doom for King Zedekiah of Judah. This was the last king of the line of King David to rule in Jerusalem. But all is not lost. The Lord has a plan for restoration. Our first reading begins at this point. The Lord himself will take from the top of the cedar a shoot from the highest branch, plant it on a mountain, and make it prosper. Meaning: the Kingdom of David of 1,000 B.C. would be restored through a new ruler descended from David. Historically that restoration never happened. However, Christian interpretation proclaims that Jesus is that descendant of King David who restores the kingdom. That being the case, the closing words of this reading are still valid, “As I the Lord have spoken, so will I do.”
The Responsorial Psalm (92) seems to have been chosen to respond to the reading from Ezekiel because, like Ezekiel’s parable and sequel, it uses a flourishing cedar of Lebanon as a symbol. This time it is not the symbol of some ancient Israelite king, but of a just man, “The just one shall flourish like the palm tree, like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow.” If we understand the just man as Jesus, and if we rely on the gospels’ proclamation of the kingship of Jesus through genealogies, etc., then we can connect not only the first reading, but even this Psalm to today’s gospel, which speaks of the Kingdom of God.
The second reading is taken from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul engages in one of his stream of consciousness reflections. The possibility of his death is the theme. Earlier he referred to his body as a tent (last Sunday’s second reading). He pondered the pluses and minuses of being in that tent. Today he drops the tent symbol and speaks directly of his body, still pondering pros and cons. “As long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord.” He admits the uncertainty of the afterlife when he says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Then he decides it is better to “leave the body and go home to the Lord.” (One wonders why fervent Christians so desperately cling to this life, while at the same time they speak of the glory of eternal life with God.) Paul too is a bit fearful of going across to the other side of reality, and expresses this as follows: “We aspire to please him…, for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”
The gospel is taken from Mark’s chapter of parables. Jesus (Mark) begins, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God.” Two brief parables (riddles, puzzles) follow: seed scattered over land and growing secretly, and the mustard seed. But what is the “kingdom of God”? Mark never defines what this means, nor do the other gospels. It probably has many meanings. Possibilities: the Christian Community (the Church); the work or mission of the Church; eternal life with God; the reign or rule of God in our lives or in the world; the presence of Jesus in his ministry. Let’s understand this reference to the kingdom of God as the rule or sovereignty of God in our outer and inner life. Like seed which a farmer scattered, God’s rule over our acts and our thoughts, our plans, our work, grows quietly and secretly within us, even when we sleep, as the parable notes. When God’s rule over us has come to perfection (produced grain), “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” then the harvester (God) cuts the grain because it is ripe. “
Next, the kingdom of God is like mustard seed sown in ground. This time the growth is not secret but for all to see. The parable notes that mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. It isn’t really the smallest. Orchid seed is smaller, but in a parable or comparison, that kind of accuracy is not necessary. Even this very small seed can grow into a large plant with large branches so that birds can live in its shade. This sentence about growth into a large tree reveals to us why Ezekiel’s parable of the top branch of a cedar of Lebanon was chosen as this Sunday’s first reading – similarity of theme, concept, idea. In this parable the kingdom of God can be interpreted as the Church, the Christian Community. It is a parable of encouragement to a small Christian Community. Another way of expressing encouragement: large oak trees grow from a small acorn. Mark closes by noting that Jesus spoke to people in a way they could understand – by making comparisons, telling them stories, riddles, puzzles for them to think about. Homilists and teacher may still benefit by using Jesus’ methods of teaching. Jesus often closed his parables with these words, “Those who have ears to hear, let them here,” or “Go, figure it out!”