11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B

1st Reading – Ezekiel 17:22-24

Ezekiel’s allegory of the cedar tree is one source for the imagery of the mustard bush in the gospel reading. The cedar stands for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy after the exile. The shoot or twig (see Isaiah 11:1) refers to a descendant of Jehoiachin, the last Davidic king before the exile. The beasts and birds represent the nations of the earth. This indicates that the prophecy expects the kingdom after the return from exile to be more than just the mere restoration of the status quo before the exile; in fact, it is to be the realization of the messianic kingdom. It is therefore legitimate to say that this prophecy finds its ultimate fulfillment in the kingdom of Christ, of which the church on earth is a foretaste. (R Fuller, http://liturgy.slu.edu/11OrdB061712/theword_indepth.html)  

The cedar forests of Lebanon enjoy the unique distinction as the oldest documented forests in history.  The cedars made a special contribution to the development of the Phoenician civilization by providing the timbers with which they developed their famous sea-going merchant boats -thus becoming one of the first, if not the first, major sea-going trading nation in the world.  The Phoenicians transported the cedar to Egypt, until Egypt conquered Lebanon and gained direct access to the forests, which were highly prized for building temples and boats.  Later the Babylonians took a similar interest in the cedars and obtained them for use in building the fabled city of Babylon.  The expansion of the Roman Empire into Syria and Lebanon had a detrimental effect on the cedars until the Emperor Hadrian installed markers around the boundary of the remaining forests and declared them as Imperial Domain.  In modern day Lebanon, the legendary cedar is still revered and remains prominent in the minds of all Lebanese. The cedar is featured on the national flag, the national airline, Government logos, the Lebanese currency and innumerable commercial logos. (http://www.shoufcedar.org/)

2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10

For all his yearning for the life to come, Paul does not despise this life.  He is, he says, in good heart.  The reason is that even here and now we possess the Holy Spirit of God, the first installment of the life to come.  It is given to the Christian to be citizen of two worlds; and the result is, not that he despises this world, but that he finds it clad with a sheen of glory which is the reflection of the greater glory to come  (Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series, p. 205-6).  Isn’t this hopeful?  We must look for the good.  Life is in the decisions we make.  Right now.  We must live in the present, but with a foot in the future, knowing we are accountable for our actions.  What we do makes up who we are, and affects others around us.  Does this stir something up in you?

The Gospel – Mark 4: 26-34

The seed symbolizes the word of God.  It doesn’t take much effort to understand how a word can be planted in the mind.  That’s precisely what Jesus intends to do – plant a word in us to make us think about the mystery of life and growth.  Listening to his word, in turn, obligates us to witness to and proclaim it.  Otherwise the seed grows old and sterile.  But how does this really work?  Jesus skips the details.  First the farmer broadcasts the seed over the land, then he whiles away night and day, during which the earth produces a harvest “he knows not how”.  Once the harvest is ready, the farmer loses no time to reap it.  Sometimes we can’t easily access growth in ourselves, in our society, or the progress of the Church toward the kingdom.  Jesus wants to alleviate disappointment at the lack of visible growth or progress in the spiritual life by telling us that, without any outward intimation of it, there’s bound to be a glorious finish, (J. Fichtner’s Many Things in Parables, p. 11-12)

The combination of the prophetic cedar and the proverbial mustard seed is almost comic.  Cedars did not even grow in Israel.  They had to be brought from Lebanon.  But mustard bushes could grow up in anyone’s field.  Here’s your national destiny, then – a mustard bush.  Not as grand or glorious as the cedar, but consider what happens to all the dilemmas about the rule of God and national destiny if the nation is a mustard bush.  It still can shelter the birds.  The rule of God in the world is only a problem for those who think that his people have to be “top cedar”.  This reduction also has significance for Jesus’ own ministry.  Willingness to stay with the small scale, the people and natural processes of the village, makes it possible to point to the presence of God’s rule in a context which is quite unmessianic – messianic hopes tended to be cast as great cedars, not bushes.  Jesus is taking on the most serious questions people had about God’s rule over the world and the destiny of those who knew themselves to be his chosen people.  God’s rule does not have to appear in the grandiose; a mustard bush will do just as well, (P. Perkins’ Hearing the Parables of Jesus, p. 87-88).

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