Readings:Ezekiel 17:22-24Psalms 92:2-3, 13-14,15-162 Corinthians 5:6-10Mark 4:26-34
Agricultural images are familiar throughout the entire Bible, and from the beginning of the Bible, when God said “let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees that bear fruit” (Genesis 1:11), we are accustomed to viewing God as the loving gardener who tends His garden the earth, an extension of Eden. We could easily digress here and ask the question how well have we done taking care of His garden, the gift of His loving hands, but we will leave that “climate” question until another time.
The great prophet Ezekiel begins our liturgy this day with the image of God “tearing off a tender shoot” and planting it “on a high and lofty mountain,” where it can “bear fruit” (purely figurative since I am not aware of cedars bearing any “fruit”), and become so “majestic” that “birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.” Note the magnanimity of the prophet, citing God’s concern for birds of all kinds! It is the kind of love found in God’s only Son, Jesus, who brought the salvation of His loving father to all peoples, saints and sinners alike. The tree planted on the lofty mountain is intended for all people to see, to give glory to the God who nurtures all life and cares for all things.
The tree’s majesty is not because of its species, because it is a cedar. The tree’s majesty comes from the fact that it was planted by God. It is to God, the psalmist tells us, that we should give thanks, for what God has so firmly planted, and what God has so lovingly nourished, is deserving of praise “at dawn” and “throughout the night.” “The just one shall flourish like the palm tree,” the psalmist proclaims, “like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow. They that are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall bear fruit even in old age…. declaring how just is the Lord, my rock, in whom there is no wrong.”
There is a great deal of agricultural imagery in the Bible, and Jesus is seen in the gospels using such imagery to help His disciples understand something about the kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate. We do not look to the gospels for precise horticultural information, as today’s gospel from Mark so clearly shows. Mark’s rudimentary understanding of how scattered seed just grows while a person goes about their daily business, points to what we already know, that it is God who gives the increase. Like the tender shoot planted on the lofty mountain in Ezekiel that grows into a majestic tree, so, too, the kingdom of God grows in our midst “while we sleep and rise night and day.”
Nowhere is the lack of horticultural expertise more obvious than in Mark’s use of the mustard seed and its resulting bush. Mark should have taken a cue from Ezekiel and used his “majestic cedar,” for it is not true that a mustard seed “is the smallest of all seeds on the earth,” and it doesn’t grow into “the largest of plants” putting forth large branches “so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” We are told that mustard bushes are gangly weeds, and no birds would build a nest on limbs incapable of supporting even a small amount of weight. If Mark was not trying to be deliberately deceptive, then what could possibly be the point that Mark was trying to make?
While we cannot be sure of what the author of the gospel of Mark intended, we can glean something about what today’s liturgy, with its varied readings, might be trying to say to us, for as our second reading from Paul reminds us, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” As we have already stated, the majesty of Ezekiel’s cedar is not because of its height, but it comes from it being firmly planted by God. Perhaps Mark’s mustard plant imagery reminds us not to be confused by appearances, and just as the stately cedar can be part of God’s kingdom, so, too, can the gangly mustard bush, if planted by God, serve to further the kingdom of God.
Jesus made it clear in His earthly ministry not to be confused by appearances. While the religious elders of His day pretended to be holy, they did not possess a holiness whose origin was in God. Indeed, Jesus found more love in an adulterous woman than He found in all of the Scribes and Pharisees. The kingdom Jesus came to establish could more readily be found in tax collectors and sinners, than in the so-called religious leaders of His day.
Our Church today is terribly divided, not unlike the political climate we live in. Factions prevail. Even the Pope, who use to enjoy the privilege of being viewed in a most positive light, is attacked by members of his own Curia. It is especially hard at times to see the kingdom of God at work in the flawed human beings around us, just as Mark presents to us an image which hardly seems worthy of being connected to God’s kingdom. Yet, as Paul reminds us, we “walk by faith, and not by sight,” and it is with the eyes of faith that we are able to distinguish those things firmly planted and nourished by a loving God, from those things which should have no part in His kingdom.