Those familiar with biblical prophets know about their concept of the "remnant." Though many begin their prophetic ministry with high hopes for success, all eventually are forced to admit that very few of the "faithful" are even interested in hearing the word of God, much less in carrying it out. After a while they're convinced only a minute number will actually change their lives because of the message they're commissioned to deliver. They have no other choice but to develop low expectations.
In today's first reading Ezekiel speaks about that remnant in poetic terms. "I (Yahweh) 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 .... It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar." In the midst of general rejection, the prophet consoles himself with the conviction that this small branch - those who actually listen to him and carry out Yahweh's word - will one day grow into a huge tree.
We presume all sixth century BCE Jews basically held the same doctrines and dogmas. Like all prophets, Ezekiel's ministry didn't revolve around familiarizing his people with a catechism list of beliefs. His task was to demand they live the kind of lives which flow from those beliefs.
My old biblical archeology prof Robert North bought into our prophet's idea of the remnant. He once shared his conviction that we have far too many Christians - a position the great theologian Karl Rahner had also defended years before in his classic book The Christian Commitment. "The historical Jesus," North stated, "never intended his followers to be more than a small minority in the overall population. Very few people would actually have the courage to imitate his lifestyle. Yet he was convinced those committed few could change the world." Both Rahner and North believed once it becomes socially acceptable to be Christian, Christians will change nothing. Worse yet, they'll start labeling as "radical Christians" the remnant actually imitating Jesus.
As we hear in today's second reading, Paul knows it takes courage to "walk by faith, not by sight." Yet he also knows we're eventually going to be judged only on what we do "in the body." A million good thoughts about faith don't equal one good action done out of faith. Christians are to imitate Jesus, not just think or talk about Jesus. We're gradually to become other Christs.
What part of Jesus' life are we expected to imitate? In today's gospel pericope it's the part which springs from his conviction that God's working effectively right here and now in our daily lives. He refers to that insight whenever he talks about the "kingdom of God" or the "kingdom of heaven."
Real Christians need lots of patience. Both of today's "kingdom parables" stress that dimension of faith: the patience of farmers planting fields or sowing mustard seeds. Eventually the things we sow in faith will grow. But it'll take a long time before we notice any tangible results. Few people are willing to work a lifetime focused on a distant, better future. Most demand immediate results. I once mentioned in one of my commentaries that it takes a least four or five generations of Monarch butterflies to complete one migratory cycle from Mexico to Canada and back. No one butterfly ever experiences the whole process.
It's been two and a half generations since Vatican II began. Today only a faithful few still seem intent to carry out its reforms. Those who expected the council to bring instant results bailed out years ago. Our present prophets are simply encouraging us not to pull the rip cord.