Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Ezekiel 17:22-24
Together with the more usually cited Daniel 4:10, 20-21, Ezekiel's allegory of the cedar tree is a source of 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 Isa 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.
Responsorial Psalm: 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16
This psalm of thanksgiving is preoccupied with the theme of moral retribution. Yahweh is praised for his mighty acts, especially in rewarding the righteous with prosperity, so that they become like fruitful trees. According to the Mishnah, this psalm was used at the morning sacrifice, particularly on the sabbath. It expresses the Deuteronomic theology, a viewpoint that has to be balanced by that of other Works such as Psalm 73 or the Book of Job, which recognize that the righteous do not always prosper and that reward often seems to go to the Wicked.
Reading II: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10
We are still in that part of 2 Corinthians where Paul is defending his apostleship against the attacks of the false apostles. His emphasis on his apostolic sufferings had led him to speak about his confident hope of resurrection. Despite the fact that the gospel is committed to frail earthen vessels, there is no room for despondency. In speaking once more of his hope, Paul drops the metaphor of a “tent” for this frail earthly existence and speaks directly of the body. He can, he says, face the dissolution of the body, already presaged in his apostolic sufferings, with confidence because God will replace it with the resurrection body. And that will be a great gain, for in this present body we are absent from the Lord; we are certainly “in” Christ already as members of his body but not yet “with” Christ (as the false apostles taught, overemphasizing the “already”).
In the letters of his middle period, Paul is coming to take seriously the possibility of his own death before the parousia. This hope of resurrection is not just a dreaming about “pie in the sky when we die” but provides a powerful motivation for life now—to please the Lord. It must be our aim now to please the Lord because at the parousia we will all have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
This belief in a Last Judgment according to our works is not a hangover from Paul's earlier Judaism, nor is it inconsistent with his message of justification by faith and grace alone. Faith must, if it is genuine, work in love. We are responsible for our sins and failures even if our good works are the fruit of the Spirit. If we receive a reward for our good works, this reward is not a prize for good behavior but the fulfillment of our human destiny.
Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
This reading consists of two little parables—the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed—and a generalizing conclusion to the collection of parables in Mark 4. This collection of parables, probably made already at the pre-Markan stage, was concerned with seed and sowing. They are strung together with the formula “And he said.”
Each parable, it will be remembered, contains one main point that is its basic message. The parable of the seed growing secretly seeks to inculcate trust on the part of Jesus' disciples that the kingdom, already hiddenly at work in Jesus' ministry, will, in God's good time, become manifest and be consummated. It is possible that the parable was originally a polemic against the Zealot policy of armed rebellion against Rome as a means of bringing in the kingdom. It is most important to avoid interpreting this parable by emphasizing the idea of growth, appealing though that may be to modern botanical knowledge and modern evolutionary ideology.
The ancients did not understand the process of growth as we do; they thought only of the contrast between the seed and the grown plant or tree. Hence, the basic point of the parable is the contrast between the insignificant beginnings of Jesus' ministry and the final cosmic event of the coming of the kingdom of God.
In interpreting the second parable, that of the mustard seed, the same considerations apply. It does not speak of the evolutionary growth of the kingdom or the church. The only difference between the two parables is that the first emphasizes that the farmer can do nothing to produce or hasten the end of the process, whereas the second emphasizes exclusively the contrast between the small beginnings and the final consummation.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University