Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

By Father Paul Nord

Sunday Scripture

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Response: Psalm 92:2-3, 13-16; Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

This vision of the prophet Ezekiel occurs after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonians. The Israelites felt despair that God would allow this, apparently because of their sinfulness. Afterwards, many Israelites lived in exile in Babylon, far from home. Thus Ezekiel’s prophecy includes both calls for repentance and the promise of God’s future salvation. Today’s reading is about God’s future salvation — a cause of hope.

Prophetic texts often use imagery to powerfully communicate a message. Here “a tender shoot” is taken from a cedar and planted “on the mountain heights of Israel.” It grows to “become a majestic cedar.” This will demonstrate God’s power and providential care: “All the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree.”

For the Israelites in exile, this cedar imagery gave them hope that God would plant them anew “on the mountain heights of Israel.” This prophetic image of a growing cedar foretold that God would allow their people to flourish again after the destruction of Jerusalem. Our reading both begins and ends with strong affirmations that this is a promise of God: “As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.”

Next is Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Paul says that “while we are [now] at home in the body,” he would prefer to “leave the body and go home to the Lord.” His reason for this is “we are [now] away from the Lord.” Paul is contrasting two types of “home” — in the body versus with the Lord. To have faith in Christ is to consider the life to come with Christ as our true “home.” And yet, we feel a natural sense of attachment to our present bodily “dwelling” as a temporary home. Paul’s deep longing for new life with Christ causes his attachment to this life to seem insignificant.

But Paul’s most important desire is “to please him (Christ).” Therefore Paul accepts God’s will whether he should live or die — “whether we are at home or away.” Paul ends this section with a reflection that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” When we do, we will be judged by what we “did in the body, whether good or evil.” Thus however much time we are “at home” in this earthly life is God’s will for us — until He might grant us to enter our heavenly home with Christ.

Two more things should be observed. First, Paul twice says: “We are (always) courageous.” Second, Paul says: “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Both of these indicate that while we are “at home” in this life, we must rely on God’s grace to guide us and give us courage. However long we might live in this body, it is God’s will that we endure all suffering with Christian hope — striving to love as Christ loves us.

The fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel begins with “the Parable of the Sower” — who sows seed everywhere — on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and on rich soil. Only the seed sown on rich soil produces fruit. Jesus privately tells his disciples that he is explaining “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11) with this parable. Jesus further explains that the seed is “the word” given by God.

After the Parable of the Sower (and Jesus’ explanation) is today’s gospel (4:26-34). Jesus continues with two more examples of “seed” imagery. Both of these are explanations of “the kingdom of God.” In the first section, Jesus describes a man who “scatter(s) seed on the land.” Jesus emphasizes that the seeds sprout and grow when the man is asleep and without his knowing how. Then the man “wields the sickle” when the harvest comes, although the grain has grown primarily due to God’s providence instead of the man’s effort. From this, we can conclude that the kingdom of God comes by God’s action, not by our action. And yet, when the kingdom of God does come, we will rejoice in the harvest. 

Further, the time of the harvest is not in our control. In the New Testament, harvest imagery often refers to Christ’s second coming — when the kingdom of God will come in its fullness — new heavens, a new earth. Jesus’ parable likely suggests that we need to patiently await the day of God’s salvation — although we do not know how long it will take.

In the second section, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed which “is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.” Jesus contrasts the smallness of the seed with the largeness of the mustard plant when it has grown. From this, we can conclude that the kingdom of God — like a small seed — might not be seen or noticed at first. But over time, the kingdom of God comes in its fullness and becomes that which is most important. There is further imagery of “the birds of the sky” dwelling in the “large branches” and “shade” of the mustard plant. This indicates that many people will find a home in the kingdom of God. Some commentaries suggest this specifically refers to the Gentiles because — like migrating birds — believers in Christ Jesus will come from every corner of the earth.

Today’s gospel ends by emphasizing that Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables — but to his disciples, he explained his meaning in direct language. This could be connected to Jesus’ warning that his followers not tell others that he is the Messiah — after Peter professes Jesus to be the Messiah in Mark 8:29. Jesus does not fully reveal himself or the arriving kingdom of God during the early days of his ministry. But Jesus boldly reveals himself as the Messiah when he is questioned by the high priest (Mark 14:61-62) before his crucifixion. Jesus especially shows that he is the Messiah — and the Son of God — through his resurrection, which displays God’s power over death.