As our season moves into the fullness of summer, we see leafy green trees and blossoms around us. Gardeners are busy with planting seeds and caring for the new blossoms and fruit. The same kind of growth in nature forms the comparisons in parables of today’s mass, starting with the first reading.
The first reading draws its theme from today’s Gospel. Both books show how comparisons in teaching and prophecy start with what was familiar in the daily life of the hearers. From the familiar, they then ask the listeners to look more deeply for the spiritual meaning. Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar with the writings we call the ‘Old Testament’ and this passage from Ezekiel is likely one his listeners would have known. Ezekiel used the ‘top branch’ of a cedar tree as a symbol for a future king of David’s line who would first seem insignificant compared to surrounding powerful kingdoms, but upon whom God’s favour would rest. A similar prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the ‘branch from the root of Jesse’, the father of David The ‘cedars of Lebanon’ were fabled for their size and strength; they are now popular trees in large English gardens where they are indeed impressive. An ideal king protects everyone under his care, symbolized here by the variety of birds. Although the point is not stressed in today’s mass, we can see how Jesus will be seen by Christians to fulfil the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah.
Psalm 91:2-3, 13-16
The Psalms often use the two ends of a line, like morning and night, as markers for the whole. Any hour of the day or night is a time to thank God. Many psalms were designed to be sung to music as this one suggests. Then we jump to the verses that use the same image as Ezekiel of the Lebanon cedar –here adding other plants, especially those which bear fruits. These healthy plants are symbols for those who follow the ways of the Lord, and who flourish and grow ‘fruits’ of justice and kindness.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10
St Paul’s comments are a shift in emphasis, looking ahead to the heavenly end of God’s kingdom dramatically contrasted with the problems of present life. Shortly before these words, he described how difficult his life is – ‘afflicted in every way, ‘perplexed’, ‘persecuted’ – but he still living confidently in hope. With these troubles, it is not surprising that he is eager to leave this ‘exile’ on earth, but still willing to go on living ‘by faith and not by sight’ in the full assurance of a coming reward. This invites us to do the same.
Mark’s Gospel often mentions that Jesus is teaching, but only in Chapter 4 does it give many examples of that. Most of these are parables, and most are also found in Matthew and Luke. The first one of the seed growing unseen, however, is only in Mark, and the first parable that is said explicitly to describe the Kingdom of God. It is a short and simple comparison with an agricultural background which would have been familiar to the first hearers. It is a mistake, however, to rush through a parable for its simplicity or its familiarity after years of hearing them at mass.
A story can have two or more levels of meaning and the flexibility that the various evangelists saw in the parables indicate the various ways they worked in Jesus’ ministry and in the early church – and continue to work, for that matter. They invite the listener/reader to engage with the story, to look for a meaning that may touch on the inexpressible, or that may challenge a settled belief or way of acting. Jesus begins reaching out to people with a story at their level of understanding but then it invites them to go deeper into the heart of the life he came to give.
The secret seed on its most obvious level can be a call to recognize that there is a mystery in God’s work we do not completely understand. Mary Healy (in The Gospel of Mark) notes that ‘even today with all the advances in microbiology, life remains a mystery.’ All the more so, for the Kingdom of God. The parable also has a message about patience: the first listeners hoped for a conquering Messiah who would quickly overcome the Roman Empire and re-establish a Jewish king. God’s kingdom, however, works out of sight and without violence. The idea of the final harvest appears in the Hebrew prophets, but more often as a time of justice and punishment for the wicked. Here however, in God’s kingdom it becomes a happy fulfilment, represented by a sustaining supply of food.
The parable can be taken on a personal level: God’s grace works in us, in ways we don’t always recognize, but which will bear fruit in due time. A good reminder when one is feeling discouraged at a seeming lack of progress, or distractions in prayer: it is God who is working unseen within us. On the community level we may be asked to see that although we may have a part to play, the coming of God’s Kingdom is God’s work and not the result of what we do. We often do not see it happening around us and that can be discouraging.
Mark’s Gospel is working towards a different meaning of triumph coming only through suffering which will challenge today’s listeners as it did Jesus’ generation.
The second parable picks up the Ezekiel picture of the tree, but Jesus makes a new point of the seed – the ‘mustard’ plant seed was fabled for its tiny size. Jesus often uses exaggerations to make a point, and in this story he treats the result as if this common shrub were a tree the size of a tall Lebanon cedar. ‘Even more so’ is the suggestion of how the Kingdom of God will surpass our wildest hopes.
Mark then deals with the use of parables in Jesus’ teaching. ‘Explained privately to his disciples’: for some, Mark’s words imply that Jesus deliberately intended to hide his message from most of his listeners and only reveal it to a selected few. Nicholas King (in The Strangest Gospel) suggests that rather than intent, that is the result of hearing Jesus’ words ‘so if you are not disposed to accept the mystery of the Kingdom of God, you will not understand the stories.’ Mary Healy catches the same idea that the message is meant for all, saying that the ones who understand what they hear are ‘all those who choose to be disciples by staying close to Jesus and listening to his teaching and by doing the will of the Father.’ There is a challenge for us as well when we hear Jesus’ call in the Gospels. Are we responding or among those who are not willing to hear the deeper meanings?