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Reflections for the XI Sunday of the year

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the eleventh Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the readings focus on the birth and growth of the reign or rule of God.

Ez 17:22-24; II Cor 5:6-10; Mk 4:26-34  

Homily starter anecdote: 1) Do you know what happened to the tiny seed Rita Rizzo planted? You probably don't recognize the name, Rita Antoinette Rizzo. Rita was born on April 20, 1923. She had a rough childhood which she spent mostly in poverty. When she was a young woman Rita decided to become a nun. At 21 she entered the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, a Franciscan religious order for women. She believed that God was calling her into television ministry. At the time she didn't know anything about television except how to turn one on. But she prayed about it and decided to go ahead with the project, believing that everything would fall into place. With only two hundred dollars and a handful of other Sisters, she became the only woman in religious broadcasting to own a network. She went on to found a new house for the order in 1962 in Irondale, Alabama, where the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), is headquartered. In 1996 she initiated the building of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Hanceville, Alabama. This sister, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, suffered a stroke in 2003 and was semi-paralyzed and unable to communicate from then until her death on March 27, 2016. But she is seen still by millions of people on her prerecorded twice-weekly program, "Mother Angelica Live." Her network, EWTN, is available 24 hours a day everywhere in the world. Visitors to the EWTN complex in Birmingham, Alabama cannot help but be impressed with what God has accomplished using this little nun - a monastery, network facilities complete with satellite dish, a print shop and a chapel. Whoever would have thought that Rita Rizzo, coming from an impoverished background, and starting on her own with only a few hundred dollars, could reach out and help millions of people to learn and appreciate their Faith? Whoever would have thought that such a tiny seed would become such a large shrub? That is the way the Kingdom of God works. (http://stjohngrandbay.org/wt/client/v2/story/WT_Story.cfm?SecKey=151)

Introduction: Today’s readings are about the birth and growth of the reign or rule of God (Kingdom of God), in human lives and about the gigantic growth of the Church from very humble beginnings.  Both growths are slow and mysterious, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture lessons: The first reading, taken from Ez 17:22-24, is a Messianic prophecy. Ezekiel tells us how the Lord God of Israel will send a descendant of King David to Israel as His Messiah and the Savior of the world. In contrast with the parable of tiny the mustard seed in today’s Gospel, Ezekiel sees the Messiah originating in a royal family (lofty Cedar, David). In the second reading, St. Paul teaches the Corinthian Christians that they are to please God by doing His will (thus advancing the growth of God’s Kingdom and of His rule in their lives), so that they may be amply rewarded in the final judgment. In today’s Gospel, Jesus compares the growth of the Kingdom of God to the germination of a wheat seed and that of a tiny mustard seed. Both have very small beginnings. The wheat seeds, by gradual but steady growth, yield a bumper crop for the farmer. In the same way, the life principle in a tiny mustard seed enables it to grow into a large bush. The reign of God in human hearts and the growth of the Church in the world also have small beginnings. But the Source of all life, God the Holy Spirit, gives to both a steady, persistent and gigantic growth.

The first reading: Ez 17:22-24, explained. In this reading, Ezekiel prophesies the better days coming for the Chosen People, when Yahweh will take back His people once more and dwell in their midst forever. The Lord God tells the people, through the prophet, that He will take His exiled people from Babylon and replant them in Israel, the land of their fathers.  Today's extract is also a Messianic prophecy in which God says that he will raise up a descendant–a sprig from the lofty cedar, David, who will, nevertheless, be the glory of Israel. As Jesus describes the ordinary mustard shrub, grown into a size large enough so that “the birds of the air can make nests in its branches,” his words echo a similar description found in the first reading (Ez 17:22-23). In Ezekiel’s text, it is the tiny sprig that grows into a new, branched, fruit-bearing majestic cedar, far greater than the tree from which it was taken, in which “every kind of bird will live,” an image used both here and in other Old Testament texts (see Ps 104:12; Ez 31:6; Dn 4:9-21), to suggest the future inclusion of the Gentile nations in God’s eternal plan. Jesus’ use of a mustard plant for origin of the resulting Kingdom instead of a great cedar suggests both the humble beginnings for the great power that is to come and its welcome of the “little ones” of the Lord as its members and rulers.  Mark’s community would have recognized the mustard plant as appropriate for Jesus’ own earthly ministry. The Messiah came as an itinerant teacher/rabbi who gathered a few ordinary people to be his disciples. Jesus’ incarnational presence was like that of a mustard plant, not an imposing cedar. He was not a Messiah of towering strength with great political, financial and military power. Yet the Divinely ordained growth of that small beginning resulted in the same kind of exponential growth and presence—inviting all the “birds of the air” to make their nests within its branches.

The second reading (2 Cor 5:6-10), explained:  St Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that his constant desire and motive in his earthly life is, and in his Heavenly life will be, to please God. In this, Paul wants them to imitate him in striving to please Christ is that everyone must “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” (v. 10). What we believe about the future should affect our lives today. The knowledge that Paul possessed an eternal house in Heaven allowed him to have a positive attitude toward life's adversities. Paul's cheerfulness stems in part from knowing that as long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord. Death for him is not an enemy but a friend. This is because death, or being away from the body, means being at home with the Lord (v. 8). For Paul, to “live by Faith” is to walk in the realm of Faith. [“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).] Paul teaches that the Divine judgment is a certainty, not an option. Nor is this judgment to be taken lightly. Paul's intention is to remind the Corinthians that all those who serve Christ will have to give an account of what they have accomplished for the Lord, not of how they have increased their own reputation (5:12). Even the Corinthians are not exempt from this Divine scrutiny and assessment. How will we be judged? According to Paul, we are to receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. It is not clear here whether this judgment will occur at death or at the Parousia. Paul does not say, one way or the other.

Gospel Exegesis: The context: Jesus' disciples were feeling discouraged. Sure, crowds were gathering to hear their teacher, but there was little evidence of progress and a lot of evidence of resistance. Jesus had been talking about the Kingdom of God, the time when God's reign would be manifest upon the earth, and people would live in conformity to God's will. It was apparent that it wasn't happening then. It would be even more difficult at the conclusion of Jesus' ministry for his disciples to believe that the Kingdom of God had come any closer to being a reality. They would be a small, discouraged group of fugitives without a leader. Now was the time to provide them with a message that would give them hope in times of discouragement and sustain them in the face of future persecution. Hence, Jesus told them the parable of the mustard seed. His words have a message, not only for his original disciples, but for us as well. The first parable concludes with an allusion to Joel 4:13; the harvest is the Day of Judgment

The Kingdom parables or seed parables: The Kingdom of God for Pharisees was reached by the exact observance of the Mosaic Law. The Zealots saw the Kingdom as a political state established by force of arms with God as supreme ruler. The Essenes despairing of the society of their day imagined it as heralding the end of the world, and so they withdrew to Qumran and elsewhere, in the Dead Sea wilderness, to await the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God as God’s rule in human lives begun here on earth and completed in Heaven. The Kingdom Jesus speaks of is not the afterlife but an expression of how God wants the world to be and live. Jesus’ “Kingdom parables” in today’s Gospel point to the Kingdom as a Divine act rather than a human accomplishment. They call on man to be patient with the delay of the Kingdom in coming. They are called “Kingdom parables” because they announce, “the Kingdom of God is like . . .” After the parable of the sower in the fourth chapter of Mark comes the parable of the harvest (4:26-29). Here, Jesus describes the farmer planting the seed and harvesting the crop, but not even knowing how the seed secretly sprouts and grows. The third parable in this chapter is the parable of the mustard seed (4:30-32). The consistent factors in all three parables of response in Mark 4 are: the word of God is like a seed; God alone can give the growth; and great growth is possible in God's Kingdom. We are called to do what we can do -- plant and nurture. God will do what only God can do -- produce the growth. In the second and third parables, the comparisons Jesus makes are startling in their simplicity. The kingdom of God, the great future presence of the Divine, is likened to a small seed, a dried up kernel of potential. But the actual development from seed to stalk to ripened grain all occurs outside any influence by the sower. The grain’s growth occurs “by itself” without any observable cause. Clearly, God’s providential power ordains the growth of seeds into harvestable crops, both in Leviticus and here in Jesus’ parable. This Divinely ordered growth gradually brings the small seeds to fully ripened grain heads, ready for harvest. The Kingdom that grows to full fruition under God’s power will be ready for its completion and fulfillment at the moment determined by God for judgment.

Parable of the mustard seed: The Parable of the Mustard Seed was taught in rhetorical hyperbole because the largest of mustard plants, even under ideal conditions, can grow only to a height of about 15 feet. A tree, whose large branches offer a sanctuary for birds, was a familiar Old Testament symbol for a mighty Kingdom, which would give shelter to the nations. The tiny mustard seed, growing to be a tree, symbolizes Jesus’ offer of refuge and life in God’s Kingdom. Here, Jesus uses a shrub coming from a tiny seed (Jn 12: 24)) to represent Kingdom growth, consistent with other tree/Kingdom references (Ez 17:23 and Dn 4:11-21). While the first Kingdom parable (vv 26-29) is found only in Mark, the second comparison Jesus makes concerning the Kingdom, the parable of the mustard seed, is found also in Matthew 13:31-32, Luke 13:18-19, and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (20). The picture painted in the Parable of the Mustard Seed by Jesus is of the humble beginnings of the Church experiencing an explosive rate of growth. While growth itself was the primary focus of the first seed parable, the mustard seed comparison emphasizes the contrast between tiny beginnings and tremendous endings. The mustard seed was proverbially used to describe something of minuscule proportions (see Matthew 17:20), in first century culture. Likewise, the resulting mustard plant was well-known as a large, fast-growing herbaceous shrub, and one that could be quite invasive if left unchecked in the garden (see Pliny, Natural History, 19, 170-171). Birds are naturally attracted to the taste of the mustard seed. Matthew identifies the birds of the air as "the wicked one" (http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/bible.show/sVerseID/23544/eVerseID/23544 Mt 13:4, 19). Mark connects them with “Satan”(Mk 4: 4, 15), and Luke links them to "the devil" (http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/bible.show/sVerseID/25251/eVerseID/25251l (Lk 8:5, 12). These "birds," demons led by "the prince of the power of the air" (http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/bible.show/sVerseID/29232/eVerseID/29232 (Eph 2:2), have continually tried to infiltrate the Church. Upon the unsuspecting early Church, Satan moved quickly to implant his agents in it to teach false doctrine while appearing to be true Christians.

 The mystery of growth: Only Mark records the parable of the seed’s growth. Using the mini-parables of the growth of wheat seeds and mustard seeds in the field, Jesus explains the nature of the growth of the Kingdom of God or rule of God in human beings and human societies. In the case of both wheat and mustard seeds, the initial growth is slow, mysterious and unnoticeable. But within days a leafy shoot will emerge, and within months a mature plant with numerous braches and leaves, flowers and fruits will be produced. The growth is silent and slow but steady, using power from the seed in the beginning and transforming absorbed water and minerals in the later stages. Growth doesn't take place because of our understandings or manipulations.  It is God's initiative that brings forth growth. We need to be patient and not give up, because sometimes growth takes longer than we expect. God works in ways we don't understand

Mysterious but steady growth of the Kingdom of God: Jesus explains that the kingdom of God grows this way in human souls. The Kingdom of God is the growth of God’s rule in human hearts that occurs when man does the will of God and surrenders his life to God. The seed of Faith lies dormant within each of us. When we permit him to nurture it with tender loving care, it grows miraculously into gigantic proportions. The growth is slow and microscopic in the beginning. But this seed grows by using the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us through the word of God, the Mass, the Sacraments and prayer. Finally, God’s rule in the human heart transforms individuals and communities into God’s people doing His will in His kingdom.

The message of the parable: is quite simple and direct. The reign of God will grow to its fullness, despite all obstacles. Those who accept Jesus as their God and Savior will accept his rule in all areas of their lives, with the help of the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. The Church of Jesus Christ had a tiny beginning in the work of an obscure teacher and a pitifully small group of ordinary people. But one of the proofs of the Divine origin of the Church of Christ is its growth from such a very humble beginnings. No wonder the Church has become the greatest of all shrubs, the world-wide Church that welcomes people of all races and nations into her folds, celebrating the marvel of growth!

A parable of encouragement: The parable of the mustard seed is a word of encouragement for us. Things might not be what you and I want them to be, but there is still hope. God works in mysterious ways. God is still with us even when our efforts are frustrated, because He is the source of growth. Growth often starts out small like a mustard seed and then blossoms into something huge.  

The second thing these words of Jesus do is to remind us that while we are called to do something, we are not called to do everything. We scatter the seed, but the growth is up to God. The same process works in the Christian life. We practice daily prayer and Bible reading. We find ways to be of service to others. We pledge money and time to the Church and charitable purposes. We join the people of God at the altar regularly. These are some of the seeds that God uses to mold and shape our lives in love, peace and hope. But the shaping happens at God's own pace and as we are able to cooperate with Him.

Life messages:   1) We need to cooperate in the growth of God’s Kingdom: The Kingdom of God is the growth of God’s rule in human hearts that occurs when man does the will of God and surrenders his life to God. The seed of Faith lies dormant within each of us. When we permit the Holy Spirit to nurture it with TLC (tender loving care), it grows miraculously into gigantic proportions. The growth is slow and microscopic in the beginning. But this seed grows by using the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us through the word of God, the Mass, the Sacraments and prayer. As we learn God’s will from His words and try to put these words into practice, we participate in the growth of God’s Kingdom on earth, a growth which will be completed in our Heavenly life. But since we need the special anointing of the Holy Spirit to be doers of the word of God, let us offer our lives before God every day, asking for this special anointing.

2) We need not get discouraged: Since the acceptance God’s rule by human beings is a very slow process, there is the danger of discouragement and hopelessness among preachers, evangelizers and believers. The conviction that growth of the Kingdom of God is the work of the Holy Spirit with our humble cooperation should make us optimistic in continuing our work of bearing witness to Him. We can all plant tiny seeds in the form of words of love, acts of encouragement, deeds of charity, mercy and forgiveness. Parents and teachers can plant a lot of seeds in the minds of their children and students. The Holy Spirit will touch the hearts of the recipients of these seeds sown by us and will effect growth of the Kingdom in their souls and lives. As the apostle Paul once said of his ministry, "Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:7). (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

14 June 2018, 12:25