What is God trying to tell us today with these images of planting and growing? That first reading of a few verses from the prophet Ezekiel seems pretty straightforward: God is going to take a shoot from the top of a cedar and plant it and watch it grow into a big tree. So what? Well we need to look at this prophecy in its context. The context was the exile in Babylon of the leaders of the Jewish people. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had deported the Hebrew king Jehoiachin to Babylon and placed another, Zedekiah, on the throne in Jerusalem. But Zedekiah tried to get support from Egypt to restore the state of Israel. When Nebuchadnezzar found out about this, he reacted swiftly and violently and that was the end, for the time being, of the Hebrew monarchy. That was about 609 B.C.
What we have heard this morning is a message of comfort delivered through Ezekiel to the exiles in Babylon. God is faithful to his promises. Despite the military and economic catastrophe which had befallen Israel, God had no intention of abandoning his people, he would indeed honour his promises. Let them be faithful to their part of the covenant and God would be faithful to his.
This gospel has two growing-seed parables. I expect we’ve all had the experience of planting and watering seeds and then, after a while, seeing the first shoots emerge from the earth. We may have put the seeds into the earth, we may have poured the water – yet we know that we have not caused the seeds to germinate. Or, as the gospel says of the farmer: Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how he does not know.
There is a touch of story-teller’s exaggeration in the parable of the mustard seed. The seed itself may be tiny but the resulting shrub is nothing special. The important thing is that the seed does grow and the plant produces its fruit. Notice that Jesus introduces each of these parables with the words the kingdom of God is like … And the second concludes with the assurance that he spoke to the people in parables because parables were what they could understand.
In what way then is the kingdom of God like a growing plant? There are at least two similarities. Firstly, it starts in a small way and grows a lot bigger. If we compare the Church today with the band of believers in Palestine at the time of Our Lord’s ascension, the growth has been enormous. If, on the other hand, you compare the Church today with the total population of the world, you see at once that there is still a lot of room for further development.
Just as we do not know exactly what causes a seed to germinate, we do not know exactly why some people believe in the gospel. It seems likely that God presses the button which sets off the process of germination. And faith too is a gift of God. I can believe that everyone is born with a predisposition to religious faith – but it is necessary for that faith to be proposed and expounded to them. That is why Pope Benedict has launched a “new evangelisation” of Europe. We might add that it is just as necessary in Australia and in other parts of the developed world.
If we can see the hidden power of God in the growth of plants, we might also recall that Jesus’ own power was only visible intermittently during his earthly life. Indeed it seemed at the time of his crucifixion that he was altogether powerless. Yet we know that he rose glorious and immortal from the tomb. Let that contrast reassure us in our moments of doubt.
I’m not sure that we’d all agree with St Paul when he assures the Corinthians – as we heard in the second reading – that: We are always full of confidence when we remember that to live in the body means to be exiled from the Lord, going as we do by faith and not by sight – we are full of confidence, I say, and actually want to be exiled from the body and make our home with the Lord. Paul seems pretty sure of himself. Perhaps we are not so sure of ourselves. There’s the challenge of the Last Judgement. School exams, university exams, driving tests, intelligence tests – they have all caused us enough worries. How will we fare in the most important test of all?
When he was Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hume sometimes contributed to the “Thought for today” spot on BBC radio. I remember once hearing him predict that our final judgement would be like whispering confidences into the ear of a loving father. Nothing to worry about! God knows all about the good – and the bad – we have done. Trust God and discover the immensity of his love for you. (Quentin Howard)