Commentary on the Readings
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – June 17, 2018
Upon awakening we look at the ripe ears
We have the impression of witnessing a rapid decline of Christian values. We see man trying to get rid of the idea of God, placing himself as the ultimate point of reference, as the measure of all things. He makes himself the arbiter of good and bad, absolutizes the realities of this world, and retains the faith as almost an obsolete aspect of life. This is secularism, a phenomenon that has remote historical roots, but has reached its heyday in our time. How so?
In the search for causes, there are those who attribute responsibility to the increasingly fearful priests. They avoid to recall those truths which, in the past, when the churches were full of worshipers, were the recurring themes of catechesis: the judgment of God, eternal condemnation, the devil, the punishments.
The truth is otherwise: today we are paying for the consequences of evangelization and catechesis which—without wanting to apportion the blame to willing preachers and catechists of the past—was unrelated to the word of God.
The future is in our hands. The church has regained consciousness of the treasure that the Master gave: the Word, seed is waiting to be spread throughout the world in abundance, so that faith may again flourish on new bases and on a sure foundation.
Who today, with difficulty, is spreading around the world this precious seed, will not see the ripe ears, but at least the stem, yes, he can ask the Lord to be able to see it.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Just a grain of wheat that disappears into the earth brings forth much fruit.”
This prophecy was given by Ezekiel in a particularly dramatic moment in the history of Israel. Jehoiakim, the last offspring of the dynasty of David, was defeated, captured and deported to Babylon.
The national disaster has shaken the faith of many Jews. The Lord has promised David an eternal dynasty. How could the Lord allow Jehoiakim to be plucked out of the throne in Jerusalem, like a tree uprooted by a hurricane and dragged far away by the crashing waves of a river? Has God failed in loyalty that he swore to his chosen one?
To this agonizing question Ezekiel who is among the exiles in Babylon responds with an image. The family of David—he explains—is a magnificent cedar that a barbaric and ruthless woodcutter, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, cut off and torn to pieces.
But God does not lie, never denies his promises. Here’s what he will do! He will go to Babylon, from the destroyed cedar of David’s dynasty, he will take the last bud and will replant it on a high mountain in the land of Israel (v. 22). This fragile and almost lifeless sucker, will grow up to become a huge cedar and birds of all kinds will find shelter and nest in it (v. 23).
The promise is, to say the least, stunning. With the image of the birds of the air, the prophet alludes, in fact, to none other than the vassal kingdoms of the immense Assyrian Empire (Ezk 31:6). These—he assures—one day will pass under the dominion of Israel. They will be all subdued, as in the time of David.
When he uttered this prophecy, Ezekiel probably dreamed of a rapid restoration of the Davidic monarchy, but the years will pass and his expectations will be dashed.
In this situation the expectation of a messiah was taking shape with greater clarity. He will be a shoot of David’s family destined to fully realize God’s promises to his people.
At the appointed time the prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus, the shoot of the great cedar that God planted on earth. He is the expected descendant of David. The birds that find refreshment in the shade of its branches represent all the people, first subjected to the power of evil that made them slaves. The branches, in turn, may indicate the welcoming arms of the Christian community.
This reading is an invitation to trust in God, always, but especially when our expectations seem vain and hopes dashed. He is the one who usually “makes the lowly tree tall and the dry tree to bloom” (v. 24).
The terms used by Ezekiel remind us of Mary’s song: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up those who are downtrodden” (Lk 1:52). They remind us, in particular, of the total work of God: the resurrection of Christ. From the tomb where death reigned supreme, he has given rise to life. If he has made such a miracle, he will turn any defeat into victory.
We have already said in the past few Sundays that Paul, now advanced in years, was beginning to feel tired. The sufferings he had endured, persecution, betrayal of friends, lack of understanding of many fellow believers had marked him in body and spirit.
In the first part of today’s passage (vv. 6-8) he compares his condition to that of the exile: he feels like an alien in this world, living away from his homeland, with the thought always turned to home that awaits him. He wants to be forever with God and with Christ. He knows that to achieve this full and definitive life, he must pass through death, but this thought does not scare him.
In the second part (v. 9), he realizes that his desire to leave this world could be understood as an escape from the difficulties, sufferings, his accountability to the Christian communities born from his preaching. So he concludes, as long as the Lord wants me to leave this body, I will give the best of myself.
In the last verse (v. 10), he recalls, using the traditional image of God’s judgment, the value and the critical importance of life in this world. The future life will not be born from nothing. It will spring up from what each one has sown in this life. No one will be rejected by the Lord, but the ability to accept his infinite love will be different for each one and will depend on the better or worse “gestation” lived in this world.
Can the growth of God’s Kingdom be accelerated?
Jesus responds to this question with a short parable. A little gem, conserved for us by Mark, is the first part of today’s gospel (vv. 26-29).
It is divided into three parts of different extent, corresponding to the three phases of agricultural work: the sowing (v. 26), the growth of the seed (vv. 27-28), the harvest (v. 29).
The first and the third, that is, in which the work of the farmer is described, are minimized, “he scatters the seed upon the soil” (v. 26) and “he takes the sickle” (v. 29), nothing else.
The central one which occupies two-thirds of the parable is much more developed. The narrator clearly wants to draw all the attention on the time of growth. For this. he forcefully avoids emphasizing the work of the farmer and deliberately ignores activities that these normally do even after sowing: protection, re-cleaning, irrigation of fields. Jesus is anxious to emphasize one thing: the irresistible force of the seed that, when thrown into the ground, grows by itself.
Of the first part of the parable (v. 26) we note a detail: the evangelist does not use the technical term to sow, but tells about a man who scatters the seed, making the almost perceptible farmer’s joyful sweep of the arms and abundantly spreading everywhere the precious beans. The Gospel message should be spread in this way, in profusion and should be launched on earth, not in a defined and limited field, but everywhere, in the entire world. It is the invitation to overcome any exclusivism; no people can keep God’s blessings to itself.
The time for man to stop working comes after the planting season (vv. 27-28). Days and nights follow and the farmer sleeps and keeps watch without being able to intervene in the growth. It is useless to do something, to be restless or worried, the process in place is no longer dependent on him; if he agitates, enters in the field, he’ll provoke trouble, trampling and destroying the tender shoots. He should do nothing but wait. In fact, in silence and in an almost imperceptible way, the miracles starts: the seed sprouts from the earth.
The description of the growth is accurate: the green and tender stem appears first, then the ear and the mature grain. It’s a development that amazes and delights, but cannot be forced. It takes time and patience.
The assimilation of the Gospel message is not immediate; man’s work of inner transformation takes days and years. However, once it has penetrated into the heart, the word of Christ sets up an unstoppable dynamism, although slow. Who has not heard it remains the same.
Discouragement is one of the most common temptations of the apostles of the Gospel. They are often battered if they do not immediately notice some concrete results of their preaching.
The message of the parable is addressed especially to them. If they are certain of having announced the authentic message of Christ, if they have not confused it with the wisdom of this world, if they have not enfeebled the explosive force with the addition of a pinch of good human sense, they must cultivate the deep certainty that the fruits will be abundant.
The season and the abundance of the harvest does not depend on them, but from the ground, more or less fruitful, in which the seed of the word fell.
Paul is the model preacher Paul who declared to the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow” (1 Cor 3:6).
The maturation process should be respected. Who wants to speed it runs the risk of getting caught by frenzy; he is convinced of being able to substitute his own action to that of the Spirit. If he intervenes, he may easily lose control and also uses unfair methods, makes use of coercion, not respecting freedom, bringing into action psychological blackmail.
Those who, since the time of St. Augustine, have come to justify the recourse to the sword to force the conversion, are proving to what aberrations the lack of respect of times of the seeds’ growth lead.
The parable challenges all, parents, educators, leaders of the Christian community who, despite the best of intentions, let themselves be taken by impatience, haste, efficiency, getting, as one result, to appear irritating, aggressive, intolerant.
Most of the recommendations of the masters of spiritual life consist of pressing invitations to commitment, tireless activity, to feverish work. Today’s Gospel recalls another aspect, just as important. There are times when one needs to “sleep”, that is, knowing how to wait, stay calm and to sit and amazingly contemplate the seed sprouts and grows by itself. The fruits will certainly be beyond all expectations. Who is not convinced of this has no faith in the prodigious strength of the word of Christ.
The second parable (vv. 30-32) is also taken from the experience of life in the fields. The farmer sees every day small seeds disappear into the ground and reborn to become stems, shrubs and even large trees.
It is this amazing contrast between the smallness of the beginnings and the greatness of the results that Jesus seeks to highlight the parable of the mustard seed that, according to popular opinion, was the smallest of all seeds. The wonder stemmed from the realization that, from an almost invisible grain, it sprouted and grew, in one season, into a shrub that even today along the shores of Lake Galilee can reach three feet tall.
With this parable, Jesus did not intend to make predictions about the future triumphs of the church that, built by some poor fishermen, would become a solid institution, influential, able to inspire awe and respect even to the holders of political power. The development of the kingdom of God is not evaluated with statistics because, as reported by Luke, one cannot see or quantify; it is located within every man (Lk 17:21).
The seed of the kingdom of God is always small and devoid of the glory of this world; the effects it produces exceeds instead all expectations and in the parable they are presented through images taken from the Old Testament.
The luxuriant growth of the tree evokes the exuberance of life, the fullness of success. Ezekiel compares Assyria, arrived at the apex of power, to a “cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches providing forest shade, with its top among the clouds. It is higher than all other trees of the field” (Ezk 31:3-5).
The shadow that depends on the burning rays of the sun is a metaphor of the protection offered by the kingdom of God to those who enter it (Ps 91:1).
Even the image of the birds that nest is often found in the Old Testament (Ezk 31:6); it represents those who, having given full confidence in the word of God, build their nests in the house of the Lord (Ps 84:4), that is, they set life in harmony with the Gospel values. They will experience the bliss, peace, the fullness of love, the shelter of the shadow offered by the Most High (Ps 91:1).
The parable is an invitation to consider the reality with the eyes of God. People give value to what is great and what appears; they judge the successes and failures of the people according to the accumulated money, the power position reached, titles of honor, prestige and fame. Jesus overturned the scale of values: “Whoever becomes lowly like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4).
Only those who will be made as small as a mustard seed will become “like a tree beside a brook producing its fruit in due season, its leaves never withering” (Ps 1:3).
The parable wants to infuse joy and optimism. One day the wonders worked by God will appear to all through those who, like his Son, will make themselves meek and humble servants of all.
Of the entire Christian message, this is certainly the most difficult to digest. It is no wonder that not everyone can understand it. Nay more it remains an unresolved enigma, not because they do not understand its meaning, but because it is humanly absurd and inconceivable that by becoming smaller, one looks great before God.
The passage ends with a comment by the evangelist: “he explained everything privately to his disciples” (v. 34). Reflection, silence and prayer are needed; one needs to devote time to dialogue with Christ. It is necessary to create a spiritual atmosphere to receive from the Spirit the needed light to assimilate and translate the message of this parable into choices of life.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: