11th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Preached June 17, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

God is a wise and provident Father; he has a plan, which embraces the whole scope of human history and human life. When we can see our own life within the context of that plan that lifts us above the conflict and turmoil of the present moment and gives us confidence and hope; it frees us from the sometimes disturbing events we see unfolding before our eyes, so that we are able instead to walk by faith. In today’s readings, the plan of God comes to us hidden in a mustard seed.

We are accustomed to hearing the parable of the mustard seed and it is easy to get the basic message: from small and hidden beginnings (the mustard seed) the kingdom of God grows into something great and glorious. We can apply this to our own life, or the Church, and take courage thinking, however humble things appear now, God can bring great things from it, as from the of mustard seed.

But just what is this mustard seed? Is it just a symbol for our own faith? After all Jesus does say elsewhere, If you have faith, the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible to you. (Mt 17:22)

Still, through faith we enter into the Kingdom of God, but faith is not itself the Kingdom of God, to which the mustard seed is compared today.

If we wish to grow in understanding and knowledge of Scripture, then we should know that the word of God often presents us the same reality by means of a variety of images and at other times he uses the same image to teach us about different but related realities. Why does he do this? He does not want us to be lazy minded, but he wants us to exercise our minds in trying to understand his word and learn his way of thinking.

Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, does the same thing with his own parables. Today we have to similar parables that teach about the growth of the Kingdom of God, each one revealing different aspects of that growth. Elsewhere the same parable of the mustard seed is set alongside the parable of the yeast, hidden in three measures of flour. Jesus also gives us two parables about the incomparable worth of finding the Kingdom of God: the parable of the treasure hidden in the field and the parable of pearl of great price. Both the parable of the wheat and the weeds and of the dragnet present us with the reality of the mixture of good and evil in the present state of the Kingdom before the final judgment.

Today’s liturgy sets the parable of the mustard seed in relation to the prophetic parable of then tender shoot of cedar given us in the 1st reading from the prophet Ezekiel. This opens the door for a deeper understanding if only we can grasp the historical context of the parable in Ezekiel.

First, though, before addressing Ezekiel allow me to mention three more Old Testament images in which the Kingdom of God emerges from small beginnings. Each of these images, like the prophecy of Ezekiel, is set in the general historical context of the Babylonian exile.

First is the famous prophecy from Isaiah that we hear around Christmas time: A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. Jesse was the father of King David, so the prophecy speaks of a renewal of the Davidic kingdom after being cut down to a bare stump.

In the prophet Daniel, the prophet interprets the dream of the Babylonian king in which a stone, cut from the mountain, without a hand being put to it, crushes a statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay, and then fills the earth becoming a great mountain. The statue represents a sequence of great empires, beginning with the Babylonians. The stone represents a kingdom set up by God that will never be destroyed. (cf. Dn 2:36-45)

The prophet Zechariah experienced a rather cryptic vision in which he beheld a stone with seven facets, which are suggestive of the seven spirits of God, that are an Old Testament representation of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The stone is set in relation to Zerubbabel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after the exile.

Who is Zerubbabel? He is the last descendant of King David to be named in the Old Testament and he appears in the genealogy of Jesus Christ found at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. He led the exiles in Babylon back to Jerusalem and began the rebuilding of the Temple, but he was never a king like his ancestors were. He lived more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

When we connect the prophecies of Zechariah, Isaiah, and Daniel what we have is a prophecy that from the line of David, which at the time of these prophets had been brought low and was about to disappear in obscurity, God would set up a great and indestructible kingdom, that would fill the whole earth, and vanquish all the kingdoms of the earth.

The prophecy of Ezekiel about the tender shoot of the cedar is set in the same historical context. In general the prophet Ezekiel employs the image of the mighty Lebanon cedar as a symbol for royal dynasties; in this particular prophecy the cedar represents the dynasty of David. The cedar is also a reminder of the tree of life in the garden of Eden, from which mankind has been banished since the time of Adam. One might say that men vainly sought the life lost in Eden beneath the protection of royal dynasties.

Does that seem strange? Or is that not an ongoing human temptation to look for ‘salvation’ from governments? Is it not a form of the temptation to utopianism?

The tender shoot, however, taken from the top of the Davidic cedar restores us to the true tree of life. The tender shoot, however, is also the tiny, humble mustard seed. That shoot and the mustard seed are both Jesus Christ, descended from David. His Cross – is there anything so humble, so little, so seemingly insignificant as a crucified man – is the new Tree of Life and he appears as the fruit hanging from the Tree.

The Basilica of St. Clement in Rome contains a famous mosaic above the apse that shows the Cross of Christ as the Tree of Life. Here the biblical image of the vine is used, spreading out from the Cross and sheltering the Christian faithful and the saints, as the birds of the air are in today’s readings sheltered in the branches of the cedar tree or the mustard bush.

Often today when people look at the history of the Church, they focus the dark episodes in that history and they miss the big picture. From the time of Christ the Church has spread out through all the earth and has continued unbroken through all the changes of 2000 years, and within the Church the life of holiness has flourished in every time and place to this very day.

The life-giving vine has reached even to The Dalles and the parish of St. Peter’s and even here there are people, known more to God than to any one of us, who are living lives of true holiness.

Just as Jesus Christ is the stone cut from the mountain, he is the stone with seven-facets in the hand of Zerubbabel, he is the shoot from the stump of Jesse, he is the tender shoot of the cedar, so also he is the mustard seed. We have faith like a mustard seed when, through faith in him we are purified and transformed to become like him – that is what it means to become holy.

That requires that we live our life here and now, walking by faith, not by sight, knowing that we will have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account for all that we have done in this present bodily life.

Then, when like the grain of wheat in the first parable of today’s Gospel, we reach maturity, we will be ready for the harvest and will be gathered into the barn of eternal life, the embrace of the Holy Trinity.

 

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.