JUNE 17TH, 2018: ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I, too, 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;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.
And all the trees of the field shall know
that I, the LORD,
bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
wither up the green tree,
and make the withered tree bloom.
As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.
Brothers and sisters:
We are always courageous,
although we know that while we are at home in the body
we are away from the Lord,
for we walk by faith, not by sight.
Yet we are courageous,
and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.
Therefore, we aspire to please him,
whether we are at home or away.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,
so that each may receive recompense,
according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.
Jesus said to the crowds:
“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.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.”
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.
One of the first questions Scripture scholars must answer is, “What was going on in the biblical community to prompt the author to write this particular passage?” No one sits down on a beautiful, sunny day, no problems in sight, and writes the Bible. Scripture is only written because our sacred authors discover something is the matter in their communities. No problems, no Bible.
It doesn’t take a doctorate in Scripture to discover the reason our three authors composed today’s readings. Paul states the overriding issue in his II Corinthians pericope: “We walk by faith, not by sight.” People of faith don’t normally see the consequences of their actions. That’s the problem our sacred authors feel compelled to address. Their communities go through life taking for granted their acts of love are having good results though they themselves usually experience few of those results. According to the Apostle, the instant gratification we long for will only take place after “we leave the body and go home to the Lord.” In the meantime, we’re forced to do a lot of hoping.
The gospel Jesus certainly didn’t feed his followers any “fake news” when he talked about what they could expect as his disciples. He couldn’t have been more truthful or realistic. As a first century CE Palestinian Jew, only one basic metaphor applied: farming.
“The kingdom of God,” he warns, “is as if people scatter seed on the land, sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed sprouts and grows, they know not how.” As I quickly discovered when I first planted nasturtium seeds with my dad, nothing’s going to come up out of the ground for a long time, no matter how often you sneak a look, hoping for something to appear above ground.
Though Jesus engages in “Semitic exaggeration” when he refers to a mustard seed as “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” and to a mustard plant as “the largest of plants,” his point is clear: if we’re not willing to start small we’ll never end up big. We always have to presume growth, even in our encounters with God.
It’s significant that Mark’s Jesus employs the phrase “the kingdom of God” in this passage. That’s how this Galilean carpenter normally refers to God working effectively in our lives. It’s not how we’re personally working, it’s how God’s working. That’s where we encounter the problem. More than five centuries before Jesus’ birth, Ezekiel also realized that when you’re dealing with Yahweh, you’ve got to be patient. Eventually God will cause the cedar tree of our life “to put forth branches and bear fruit,” but it’s in God’s time, not ours.
Through the years, one of my most popular commentaries was the one in which I used the image of monarch butterfly migrations as a way of understanding our role in God’s kingdom. It takes up to at least four generations of butterflies to complete the 3,000-mile trip from Mexico to Canada, and back to Mexico every year. No one butterfly is able to pull the migration off by itself. Most of the insects experience only a small portion of the trip. They have no idea what the whole trip is like or where it’s taking them. I don’t know if butterflies are capable of faith, but they certainly are a terrific metaphor for our going through life on faith.
Since monarchs aren’t indigenous to Palestine it’s no wonder the historical Jesus didn’t employ them when talking about our walking by faith and not by sight. But there’s no need to exaggerate the metaphor the next time we see one of those little critters fly past. Their connection with us is evident.