By Father Donald Dilger
First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Response: Psalm 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Gospel: Mark 4:26-30
The prophet Ezekiel was among the first Israelite exiles, 8,000 of them, taken to Babylon in 598 B.C. He was a young priest, probably among the temple clergy. He received the call to be the Lord’s prophet in 593 B.C. At the time he was living among the exiles in a village by the River Chebar in Babylon. There he received his commission to be watchman for Israel, those in exile and those still in Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. His last oracle is tentatively dated 571 B.C. The collection of oracles from which today’s first reading is taken consists of allegories, metaphors, and symbols of judgment against the infidelity of Israel. Chapter 16 immediately precedes our reading, and can be classified as “For adults only.” Tentative date of today’s reading: 587 B.C. The Babylonian army is about to destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and bring the end to the Kingdom of Judah. Though it was late to again warn against infidelity (idolatry), as watchman for Israel (Ezekiel 3:17), he must speak or the Lord will hold him responsible for not warning sinners, Ez. 3:18-21. At the beginning of the oracle, which he must make public, the Lord addresses him as “Son of man,” (Human Being! or Du Mensch!). Not very personal but the Lord’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8).
Our reading is a sequel to an allegory about two eagles. The first eagle had planted a cedar and a seedling grapevine in fertile soil. The vine grew and spread its branches. The first eagle is King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and his army which forced the surrender of Jerusalem, resulting in the first wave of exiles, 598 B.C. The vine was left to grow, as Nebuchadnezzar set up a government headed by another king of the line of David, King Zedekiah. The vine started growing in the wrong direction. It grew toward a second large eagle with huge wings. Meaning: Zedekiah broke his oath of fealty to Nebuchadnezzar and appealed to Egypt for help. The first eagle will return and destroy the vine it had planted. Meaning: The King of Babylon will return and destroy Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. Thus the events of 587-586 B.C. resulting in the major exile to Babylon. Here our reading begins. It is an oracle of hope for the exiles. The Lord himself will plant a tender shoot of cedar. It will grow and become majestic. Birds will rest in its branches. Both the previous destruction and the new plant are the work of the Lord. “As I, the Lord have spoken, so will I do.” Connection with today’s gospel: like the cedar that grew and sheltered birds, so the mustard plant will grow large and shelter birds.
Psalm 92 picks up from the first reading the concept that what is planted by the Lord will grow and flourish. In the second set of verses we read, “The just one shall flourish like the palm tree. They who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall bear fruit even in old age. Vigorous and sturdy shall they be.” (An inspiration to ailing elders!) It is a psalm of thanksgiving, as we see in the first lines, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praise to your name, Most High.”
In the second reading we see Paul debating with himself whether it is better to die and be with the Lord, or to continue to live and “be away from the Lord.” That thought must occur to many suffering from limitations of age and illness. Most people however, no matter what their condition, cling to the basic inclination — self-preservation instilled into us by nature. Despite belief in the glory that is to come, we go to any expense or effort, as Paul phrases it, to keep “away from the Lord.” Go figure!
As we resume the Ordinary Sundays, the liturgy directs us to Mark’s parable chapter. A parable makes a comparison. It can be short or long, a saying, a story, a riddle. Parables in our gospels often begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . . .” The problem is that the gospels give us no definitive definition of the meaning of “kingdom of heaven.” It can be the afterlife, the ministry of Jesus while on earth, the work of the Christian community. One basic meaning: the kingship, the rule, the sovereignty of God and its recognition. There are two parables in today’s gospel. The first gives a story of a farmer scattering seed on his land. Life goes on, day after day, night after night, yet through it all the seed germinates and grows, but the farmer does not know how this takes place. When the grain is ripe, he wields his sickle (a short curved cutting blade on a handle), and completes the harvest. What does it mean? The parable was spoken quietly to the disciples by Jesus. It is clear from the gospels that the disciples were in a hurry to initiate the kingdom of God as they understood it — a religious/political/geographical kingdom in Jerusalem with Jesus as king and themselves in powerful government positions.
The parable cautions that the kingdom of God does not operate by human ambition. It is internal, growing secretly, until it is a pervading influence guiding its citizens or whole society to live under God’s rule. The growth of the kingdom depends on God’s action, which can be hidden, slow, imitating the nature God created — like the seed growing secretly from germination to harvest. In the second, parable the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Though it is a very small seed, it grows into a large plant, so large that birds can shelter in its branches. Mustard is an annual herb grown for its flavoring. Varieties can range from two to six feet. It grows rapidly and can be invasive, taking over a garden or field. Thus the kingdom of God can invade a person or society or even a nation which recognizes the sovereignty of God and lives accordingly. When the kingdom of God invades us and overwhelms us, we no longer follow the impulse to do evil but substitute good for evil. An example: an enemy has done us wrong. Our fallen nature wants to take revenge — evil for evil. At the moment of possible revenge, conscience impels us to do good instead of evil. The kingdom of God rules!