11th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle B)

Readings:
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:2-3, 13-16
2 Corinthians 5:6-10
Mark 4:26-34

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of the Readings: The Kingdom of Jesus Christ is the Fruit of the Tree of Hope and Life
God's 6th century BC prophet Ezekiel gave a cryptic message of hope to the Jews living in exile in Babylon.  The prophet had a vision of the day that Yahweh planted a "tender shoot" on a high mountain in Israel that was destined to become a great tree, bearing fruit and offering sanctuary to every kind of bird and winged creature.  Centuries later, the faithful came to recognize that the tree of hope raised high on a mountain in Israel was the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant through the wooden Cross of Jesus Christ "planted" below the summit of Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem.  Every people of every nation under heaven came to receive the gift of salvation under the shadow of the Cross, to be taken into the shelter of Christ's New Covenant Kingdom of the Church and to bear the fruit of righteousness in service to the Lord. 

In today's Second Reading, Paul's message is about the tension between the present and the future.  He reminds Christians that the world is not our home, and we are like those living in exile.  He tells Christians to have courage; the day will come when we will all face divine judgment after which our hope is to be reunited with the Lord Jesus and to become part of His heavenly kingdom.  In the Gospel Reading, Jesus tells two parables to describe the growth His Kingdom from a small beginning into His Kingdom of the Universal Church that gives shelter and refuge to the people of all nations across the face of the earth and offers the hope of a future beyond the present earth-bound life that was won for us by the merits of Christ Jesus on the wooden "tree" that was the altar of the Cross.

The First Reading Ezekiel 17:22-24 ~ The Parable of the Shoot from the Cedar Tree
22 Thus says the Lord God: I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain; 23 on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.  It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.  Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.  24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom.  As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.

In 2 Samuel 7:8-29 God made an eternal covenant with His servant David in which He promised David his throne and his kingdom would endure forever (also see 2 Sam 23:5; 1 Kng 2:4; 2 Chr 13:5; Sir 45:25).  But the Davidic kings became arrogant and took the promise of David's eternal covenant to mean there was no limit to their exercise of royal power and began to think of themselves as the people's masters rather than God's servants.  They forgot God's warning to David that He would chastise the Davidic heirs when needed, like a human father chastises his son (2 Sam 7:14).  That chastisement began after Solomon's failures, when God took ten tribes away from the Davidic heir to humble the House of David (1 Kng 11:11-13; 12:31-39).  God did this to punish the line of David, but not forever (1 Kng 11:39).  The prophecy promises that God will restore Israel under a messianic King from the Davidic dynasty.

The symbolic imagery in Ezekiel's parable:

  1. The great cedar tree is the House of David (verse 22a).
  2. The "tender shoot" is the Davidic Messiah (verse 22b).
  3. The "tender shoot planted on a high mountain in Israel is Jesus on the Cross outside the gates of Jerusalem, a city 2,500 feet above sea level on Mt. Moriah (verse 23a).
  4. The "tree" that grew from the "shoot" is the Church of Jesus Christ (verse 23b).
  5. The "trees of the field" are all the people of the earth (verse 24a).
  6. To bring low the "high tree"/"green tree" is the humbling of the wealthy, proud and arrogant, while the lifting up of the "lowly tree"/"withered tree" is the salvation of the humble and dispossessed (verse 24b).
  7. It is God's divine will that the Church of Jesus Christ will surpass the Kingdom of David to become a new creation and a new Kingdom that will offer shelter to all peoples of all nations and have dominion over all the earth (verse 24c).

In Ezekiel's prophecy in chapter 17, the "cedar tree" is a symbolic image of the House of David.  The cedar of Lebanon was the greatest of trees that grew in the region, just as the House of David was the greatest of Kingdoms since it possessed an eternal and unconditional covenant with Yahweh.  From the "tree" of the House of David, God will take "a tender shoot" from its topmost branches, meaning from the direct Davidic line (Ez 17:22).  It is similar to the prophecy of Isaiah where he prophesies the blossoming of a branch or shoot from the House of David: But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom (Is 11:1; Jesse was King David's father).  Both prophecies refer to the promised Redeemer-Messiah who is to come from the lineage of the great King David, and both prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth as the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation: "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the House of Jacob [Israel] forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1:31-33). 

Ezekiel's prophecy is proof that God had not forgotten His eternal covenant with the House of David.  The "tender shoot" that is Jesus the Messiah, will be "planted" on the "high and lofty mountain" of Moriah in the city of Jerusalem where the wood of the Cross of Jesus the Messiah will become a "tree of hope".  The Cross is not a sign of death but a sign of life that "puts forth branches and bears fruit", and "birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs" (Ez 17:23).  Now the imagery turns from the wood of the Cross to the Kingdom of the Church which will become a refuge and shelter for people from every nation on earth.  The same wording referring to refuge for "all the birds of the air" recalls the birds seeking salvation in Noah's Ark in Genesis 7:13-14, the many nations that were part of Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom in Daniel 2:38, and Jesus Parable of the Mustard Seed in Mark 4:32 (today's Gospel Reading).  The Kingdom of the Messiah will be a new Creation and a greater kingdom than the one ruled over by the Babylonian king.  In the prophet Daniel's vision of the final 5th and everlasting Kingdom he prophesied: ... the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever (Dan 2:44). The kingdom won by the "tree" of the Cross is the 5th everlasting, Davidic Kingdom which has dominion over all the earth and in which all peoples of all the nations of the world will be invited to seek shelter.  It is the Kingdom of the Church in which all who thrive within the "branches" of her faith communities will bear the "fruits" of righteousness in service to the Davidic Messiah who is the Son of David and the Son of God.

Responsorial Psalm 92:2-3, 13-16 ~ Give Thanks to the Lord

The response is: "Lord, it is good to give thanks to you."
2 It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praise to your name, Most High, 3 to proclaim your kindness at dawn and your faithfulness throughout the night. 
Response:
13 The just one shall flourish like the palm tree, like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow.  14 They that are the planted in the house of the LORD shall flourish in the courts of our God.
Response:
15 They shall bear fruit even in old age; vigorous and sturdy shall they be, 16 declaring how just is the LORD, my rock, in whom there is no wrong.
Response:

According to the title, "A Psalm: a song for the Sabbath", this is a thanksgiving psalm to be recited on the Jewish Sabbath.  Certain of the psalms were recited or sung each day of the week by the Levites during the Temple liturgy (Mishnah: Tamid, 7.4).  Psalm 92 contains seven uses of the Divine Name, suggesting a link with the seventh day of creation and therefore its use on the Jewish Sabbath in recounting the joy of the righteous worshipping in the Temple of the Lord (verse 13). 

The psalmist makes an offering of praise in the liturgy of the Temple's morning and afternoon worship services.  The sacrifices of the afternoon liturgical service burned on the sacrificial altar all through the night (verse 3).  Comparing the righteous to healthy trees, the psalmist says that it is because the just worship in the Temple of Yahweh that they flourish, receiving the spiritual nourishment they need from being in the presence of God.  The cedars of Lebanon in verse 13 were known for their beauty and strength.  They were used in constructing the Temple, and mentioning them provides a segway into the next verse expressing the desire to remain in the Temple in close proximity to God.  Like healthy trees, the righteous bear the "fruit" of righteousness even in old age, because God never fails the righteous (verses 15-16).    

The Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 ~ Have Courage as you Prepare to Join the Lord
Brothers and sisters: 6 We are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight.  8 Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.  9 Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away.  10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.

St. Paul reminds Christians that the world is not our home and our bodies are only temporal vessels, since our destiny is to be reunited with Jesus in Heaven.  And yet, while we are still part of this earthly existence, it is important that we work to please Christ in our words and deeds, because the day will come when our actions will be judged for good or for evil.  On this topic, Vatican II advises us to consider our obligations to the earthly Jerusalem of the Church and to the heavenly Jerusalem that is our future home, and exhorts "Christians, as citizens of both cities, to perform their duties faithfully in the spirit of the Gospel.  It is a mistake to think that, because we have here no lasting city, but seek the city which is to come (cf. Heb 13:14), we are entitled to shirk our responsibilities, this is to forget that, by our faith, we are bound all the more to fulfil these responsibilities according to the vocation of each one (cf. 2 Thes 3:6-13; Eph 4:28) [...].  The Christian who shirks his temporal duties shirks his duties toward his neighbor, neglects God himself and endangers his eternal salvation..." (Gaudium et spes, 43).

In verse 7 Paul speaks of our faith that guides us and shows us the way as we make progress toward eternal life.  Verse 10 addresses the reward or punishment given at the Particular Judgment and is ratified at the General or Last Judgment at the end of time.  Judgment is based on the person's merits gained during his life on earth, as Jesus described the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.  St. Paul exhorts us to do everything we can in this life to please the Lord God and to be prepared for our meeting with Him in the next.

The Gospel of Mark 4:26-34 ~ The Parables of the Seed that Grows Itself and the Mustard Seed
26 He said, "This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land 27 and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.  28 Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  29 And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come."  30 He said, "To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it?  31 It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.  32 But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade."  33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.  34 Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

Mark 4:26-29 ~ The Parable of the Seed that Grows Itself
26 He said, "This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land 27 and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.  28 Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  29 And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come."
This "kingdom parable" is told only in Mark's Gospel, and it may be recalled by St. James in James 5:7-9.  The focus of the parable is the seed's power to sprout and grow "of its own accord" after the sower has liberally scattered his seed.  It is a mystery to the farmer how this happens, and the farmer cannot control the growing process.  In this modern age, scientists can provide chemicals to increase the yield and can describe what happens in seed germination and growth, but the root cause of germination and growth still remains a mystery.

In Jesus' parable, three stages are listed in the growth of the seed:

  1. The blade appears
  2. Then the ears appear
  3. Finally there is the fully developed grain

When the grain is fully developed, it is time for the harvest and the farmer is ready with his sickle to reap the crop.  In the Bible "the harvest" represents the symbolic image for the Last Judgment (see Joel 4:13; Mt 13:39-43; Rev 14:14-15).  This eschatological "harvest" is composed of all human beings of every age of mankind who will face two judgments.  When one dies one faces an Individual or Particular Judgment where each person will be rewarded according to his works and faith (Mt 16:26; Lk 16:22; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23; Heb 9:27; 12:23; CCC 1021-22).  But there is also a Last or Final Judgment that all humanity will receive at the end of time when Christ will return in glory "to judge the living and the dead" (Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed; Mt 25:31-46; Jn 5:28-29; Acts 12:15; 1 Thes 4:16; 2 Thes 1:8-10; CCC 681, 1038-41).

Symbolism in the Parable of the Seed that Grows Itself
The land The Kingdom of God (the Church)
The seed The word planted in the fertile hearts of the children of "light"/children of the Kingdom
The fruit of the seed The good works of Christians that develops and bears "fruit" through the process of spiritual growth and maturity
The harvest The gathering in of souls into God's "storehouse" that is heaven and which ends in the Last Judgment

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014

The growth of the Kingdom of God is a divine act that defies human understanding.  St. Paul will refer to this supernatural phenomenon when he writes about his work and the work of a fellow laborer for the Gospel: I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth.  Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth (1 Cor 3:6-7).

Mark 4:30-34 ~ The Parable of the Mustard Seed
30 He said, "To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it?  31 It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.  32 But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade."  33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.  34 Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.
Jesus uses hyperbole in describing the mustard seed as the smallest of seeds and its plant in full growth as the largest of plants (a mustard plant could only grow as high as 8-12 feet).  This is another "kingdom parable."  The contrast here is between the small beginnings of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and its future expansion to encompass the whole earth, sheltering all who come to dwell in the household of God that is the Church. 

The allusion to the kingdom becoming so large that birds of the sky come and dwell in the shade of its branches is probably a reference to the Prophet Ezekiel's tree in the First Reading (Ez 17:23), the birds of the sky who sought salvation in Noah's Ark (Gen 7:13-14), and the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar in which he saw a huge tree that sheltered "the birds of the sky nestled" and other animals (Dan 4:7-9).  Daniel interpreted the tree and the animals to represent Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom and the many different peoples over whom he ruled (Dan 2:17-19).  The comparison is that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ will offer the salvation of a new Creation and will be an even greater kingdom than the Kingdom of the Babylonians (also see Dan 9:17-19).

Symbolism in the Parable of the Mustard Seed
The tiny mustard seed The small beginnings of the Kingdom (Church) of Jesus Christ
The mustard seed that is planted in the earth Jesus plants the seed of the Gospel in the hearts of all who accept His message
The great growth of the mustard plant The tremendous growth of the Church that is nurtured by the Holy Spirit

The large branches and the creatures that dwell in its shade

The spread of the Church across the face of the earth, calling all men and women of every ethnicity to salvation in Christ Jesus
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014

Jesus' Kingdom is the universal Church that gives refuge and shelter to all people of all nations of the earth who seek her.  It is through the Kingdom of the Church that Jesus has brought about God's Divine Plan of salvation for all who seek His gift of liberation from sin and death from the altar of the Cross.  It is the Cross that is the true "Tree of Life" and the "Tree of Hope" for all peoples.  When we live within the fullness of faith in the shadow of the Cross within her "branches", we thrive, living in the Spirit of Truth and bearing the fruit of righteousness that is pleasing to God in our unselfish love of God and neighbor.

Catechism References:
2 Corinthians 5:6 (CCC 769); 5:7 (CCC 164); 5:8 (CCC 1005, 1021, 1681)
Mark 4:34 (CCC 546)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015