June 13, 2015

Homily for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 14, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH 

Christ preaching to his disciples and others,
Willian Brassey Hole, c. 1900's
(Click here for today’s readings)

When a child asks you what an unfamiliar word or expression means, you may well find yourself beginning the explanation with, “Well, it’s something like...” You start with something the child already knows, in hopes of providing the appropriate insight. This is a natural and quite universal teaching method; recognizable images and interesting stories have always sparked understanding.

It should not amaze us, therefore, that Jesus used this approach so often, thirty-two times that we know of, in three Gospels. Surprisingly, there are no parables in John, and only four of Jesus’ parables occur in all three of the other Gospels.

Some of the parables have a moral, such as, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart,” at the end of the parable of the unforgiving servant. In other cases the evangelist gives us the explanation that Jesus himself gave in private to his disciples.

Today, however, we are left to our own devices. What exactly the two parables tell us about the Kingdom of God is subject to some interpretation. Most commentaries see them in terms of the mysterious and extensive growth of God’s Kingdom from simple beginnings. That seems obvious enough, though I have found very different explanations on the Internet.

Today’s reading from Ezekiel is more vague. It is the concluding section of a rather long passage that begins with God’s words to the prophet: “Son of man, propose a riddle, and tell this proverb to the house of Israel.” We get the general sense, nevertheless, that whatever it means it must be something favorable to God’s people.

Riddle, proverb, parable—all can leave you wondering what is really being said. That’s a good thing. They make you think. They take you beyond the concrete and literal meaning of the words.

With respect to the Parable of the Mustard Seed, one encounters commentators who point out that it is not in fact the smallest seed. That is totally beside the point. Jesus is simply saying, “Look how such a tiny seed produces such a tall plant. It’s like that with the Kingdom of God.”

A mustard seed will measure from 1 to 3 millimeters in diameter. (There are 25.4 millimeters to an inch.) The mustard plant can be as high as 9 feet. There is another large plant that has a seed that is only 4 millimeters long and 1 millimeter wide. That plant is usually at least 150 feet tall; some are over 300 feet. It is the Giant Redwood tree. Jesus could have used that example, if he or his audience had ever visited California.

Of course, we have in English our own equivalent of the mustard seed parable, a proverb that we use to inspire trust in persons who are frustrated with inauspicious beginnings of ambitious plans. It reads: “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” In today’s first parable, the man who scatters seed on the land clearly trusts that it will produce a harvest, “he knows not how.”

St. Paul writes, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Our Christian life is sometimes like a proverb or a parable, it can feel like a riddle, not only because we don’t fully grasp the content of certain doctrines, but also because we cannot see clearly where our faith is taking us. Trust is essential for those seeking to enter the Kingdom of God.

John Henry Newman expressed it this way:
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
Now Newman was a brilliant author and poet and theologian. Perhaps you are not. But with a little thought and effort, I’ll bet you could come up with your own do-it-yourself proverb or riddle or parable to say what the Kingdom of God has to do with your life, and what your life has to do with the Kingdom of God.

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