Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate

Weekly Reflections

Weekly Reflection

Gospel Reflection for Sunday June 16th 2024 - 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel Reflection for Sunday June 16th 2024, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time | Mark 4:26-34


Que sera, sera…” the well-known song goes, “whatever will be, will be…” At first glance this week’s Gospel seems to call for this rather fatalistic and pessimistic response. It is almost as if Jesus is saying to us, “Once the seeds of the Kingdom of God are thrown on the ground, regardless of what we do or don’t do, they will grow in their own time and in their own way.” It doesn’t matter what the farmer does. Whether “he sleeps or gets up” the seed will sprout and grow “all by itself.” The farmer has a passive role in the growth of the seed.

Is this what Jesus is saying to us? Surely not! If he is, then we have no act or part in making the Kingdom of God visible in our world. It doesn’t matter what we do, or don’t do, what we say, or don’t say, the Kingdom of God will sprout and grow “all by itself” until harvest time when Jesus will return in glory and the Kingdom will be visible to everyone.

This tiny parable – and it is a tiny parable – could, if we misunderstand it, undo everything that Jesus said and did. “The harvest is rich, but the labourers are few…”; “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…”; “I send you out like sheep among wolves…” –  all of these wonderful sayings of Jesus, become meaningless if this parable is saying what it seems to be saying.

The second parable, that of the mustard seed, is no less perplexing. The mustard seed is small and vulnerable when planted but when it grows it is strong and resilient; so strong and so resilient that the birds of the air can nest in it. Once again in this parable the part played by the farmer, apart from putting the seed in the ground, seems unimportant.

What, then, are we to make of these two tiny parables? How do they fit into the overall mission of Jesus?

A fundamentalist reading of this Gospel will interpret it literally and then can only arrive at a passive understanding of our role in the coming of the Kingdom of God. However, if we take the time to understand how the first hearers of these words interpreted them, an incredibly rich and amazingly relevant meaning leaps from the page at us.

Like us, the first hearers of these words lived, loved, worked, were happy and sad, and finally died in the world they inhabited. If we are to understand anything that Jesus said our first task is to learn something of his world and his society.

The People of Israel believed themselves to be God’s ‘Chosen People’. They were a proud nation with a long history, rich in tradition, ritual and law and populated by great heroes like Abraham, Moses, David and the many prophets. Being enslaved or occupied by a foreign nation was unthinkable for them. After all, it was God who brought Moses to the ‘Promised Land’ and gave it to them. And yet, by the time Jesus was born the Roman Empire had conquered Israel and had ruled with an iron fist for almost seventy years. Jesus grew up in a deeply unhappy and volatile society. Political and religious factions vied with each other to find a way to free their land from occupation. Tension was rising with minor disturbances and local uprisings a constant threat.

It was in 70A.D., (approximately forty years after Jesus died), that Rome finally lost patience with Israel. In that year Roman legions besieged Jerusalem and after a brief but bloody battle the Temple was destroyed and the city burned to the ground.

For the Jewish people the destruction of their Temple was far more than the loss of a place of worship. The Temple was ‘where God lived’ with his chosen people. Going into the Temple meant entering into the very ‘presence of God’.

With the destruction of the Temple the people lost much of their identity and were utterly lost.

Mark’s Gospel was written somewhere around this time of war and awful loss for the Jewish people. The followers of Jesus, who were still practising Jews, were just as bereft as the rest of the people by the destruction of their Temple. They were living in a nightmare. Torture, death and betrayal were all around them.

In addition, the Jewish authorities, looking for someone to blame for the destruction of the city, pointed a finger at the small, vulnerable, group of ‘Jesus’ followers’ living in their midst. The tiny communities of Christians lived, therefore, in fear and terror of both Roman soldiers and their own authorities. St. Paul, remember, began his life persecuting Christians, even being present at the martyrdom of Stephen.

With this as a background, imagine, for a second, being a Christian at this time. In secret and in fear you meet in the homes of other believers to share the memories of Jesus and partake in the Eucharistic meal. Now imagine that at one such meeting a guest is introduced – a guest who brings a written document straight from those who knew and walked with Jesus, the Apostles.

As the guest reads the first parable and then discusses it with the group, you begin to realise that the coming of the Kingdom of God is God’s work and not your work. You are not responsible for the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus sowed the seed and come what may, whether you live or die, the final fulfilment of God’s Kingdom is already on the way. Your only task is to keep faith in the Resurrection of Jesus, and continue by the way you live, to witness to Jesus as the “way, the truth and the life.”

Just imagine the relief this realisation would bring you. You can relax. The Kingdom is safe in God’s and Jesus’ hands.

Now the guest reads the second parable about the mustard seed. Even as you listen, you recognise that Jesus is speaking about your present situation. At this time of suffering and persecution, of pain and loss, the Kingdom of God seems very far away and so weak that you fear it will die and vanish.

But Jesus is saying no! Once planted, it will, slowly but surely, grow and flourish, becoming so strong and beautiful that it will attract the birds of the air to make their homes in it.

You return home that night feeling liberated and renewed. By dying and rising from the dead, Jesus has sown the Kingdom of God in the soil of the earth, and it is God who is responsible for the final fulfilment of that Kingdom. Your only responsibility is to point to Jesus and say, “Here is the Messiah. Here is the message of eternal life. It may seem weak now, even lost in war and persecution, but it will grow and flourish.”

So much for first century Christians and what these two parables might say to them. Let’s fast-forward two thousand years. Let’s consider our lives, our situations in the world, our own backgrounds and let’s see if, in these parables, Jesus might also be speaking to us.

We live in a world with huge threats to our very existence and with massive social and political problems. There are so many countries which either have, or seek to have, weapons of mass destruction, many of which threaten our survival on this earth. In Ukraine, Palestine, but also in so many other places, there are seemingly unsolvable hatreds and prejudices between cultures and ethnic groups. Hunger, poverty, homelessness, mental health, legal and illegal immigration erupt like volcanoes we can look at, and talk about, but cannot extinguish. Climate change and global warming are beyond critical, yet politicians throughout the world bury their heads in the sand, placing short term wealth and political power ahead of the lives of our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Yet…… in the midst of all these threats and in the face of sin and evil, we Christians offer the life and message of a Jewish carpenter’s son from halfway around the world and from over 2,000 years ago as the solution. We say simply, “Do not be afraid. You seek Jesus of Nazareth. He has risen, he is not here!” (Mark 16:6). We should not be surprised when people say to us, “You must be joking!” or “Get real!” or even “Get lost!”

Last week we saw that even when Jesus himself spoke many people refused to listen – sometimes even his own family! Jesus is not asking us to do anything he didn’t do.

He knew how difficult it would be to ‘grow his message’. It is counter-cultural and flows against the tides of power, wealth and ambition. He told us that we were being “sent like lambs among wolves”, and that “people would insult us, persecute us, and falsely say all kinds of evil against us because of him.”

The Gospel message is not an easy message ‘to grow in our world’. Jesus knew it himself and he told us it would be the same for us.

When Jesus lived the world was small. People lived a local existence rather than the global or cosmic existence we live. Yet, for them, war, death, hunger, poverty, disease and plague (pandemics) were just as real and just as devastating. For the first Christians the destruction of the Temple and the terror of Roman occupation were felt just as profoundly as we feel climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or present world conflicts. The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel are just as relevant to us and our times as they were for those first hearing them.

What the first Christian communities did, and what we must do, is keep on repeating the simple message of the Gospels, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth. He has risen, he is not here!”. Why? Because we believe that somehow, some way, it is going to work. The seed of the Kingdom of God was sown by Jesus, and now, whether we are watching or not, whether we are tending it every moment or not, it is, and will, grow. It grows silently and mysteriously in people’s hearts, and like the mustard seed it may not look like much to begin with, but it will produce a tree which will attract many to its branches. As the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass reminds us, the Holy Spirit, like the dewfall, is present in every corner of our planet. We may not see it but it is happening.

We are not called to take responsibility for the coming Kingdom of God. God, through Jesus, has already begun this process, and God is more than capable of completing it. All we are called to do is point to Jesus, without fear, and say “Look, just like the tiny mustard seed becomes a huge tree, so will God’s Kingdom grow. Stay awake and watch for it…witness to it, gently and without ever losing hope.”

Many thanks,

Brian.

If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at b.maher@oblates.ie


Gospel Mark 4:26-34

The kingdom of God is a mustard seed growing into the biggest shrub of all

Jesus said to the crowds: ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man throws seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, he loses no time: he starts to reap because the harvest has come.’
  He also said, ‘What can we say the kingdom of God is like? What parable can we find for it? It is like a mustard seed which at the time of its sowing in the soil is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.’
  Using many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, so far as they were capable of understanding it. He would not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything to his disciples when they were alone.

 
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