Proper 6

June 14, 2015
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Reading 2: 
Psalm 92:1-4,11-14
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17
Reading 4: 
Mark 4:26-34
By Paul Nancarrow

Proper 6

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

June 14, 2015

 

Ezekiel 17:22-24

Psalm 92:1-4,11-14

2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17

Mark 4:26-34

 

A common theme running through the passages assigned for this day is unexpected, inexplicable, God-given growth.

 

That theme centers on two parables set side by side in Mark 4:26-34. The "seed growing secretly" and the "mustard seed" parables may have come from separate sources in Mark's material or different occasions of Jesus' teaching; they have been put together here because of the common keyword "seed," and the commonality allows each to influence the interpretation of the other.

 

The first parable rests on the simple fact that we do not really know how seeds grow. In Mark's time people had no knowledge of DNA or genetics or the biochemistry of replicating cells; no one put seedlings under microscopes to study their morphology; children in elementary school science classes did not plant beans in paper cups or between sheets of glass so they could watch root and shoot burst from the seed and grow. Even today, even with detailed analytic knowledge of the processes of growth, there is still an element of unpredictability in how a seed will grow, whether or not it will flourish, what particular characteristics will manifest from its general genetic code. There is a core of mystery to growing seeds. Yet the mystery is still reliable: someone scatters seed on the ground, "and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how." Even without knowing how the seed grows, one can rely on the fact that it grows, and when the seed in its mysterious process comes to fruition, the farmer can reap the harvest. What matters here is readiness: even if the seed's growth is inexplicable, even if the exact moment of the seed's ripening is unpredictable, the faithful farmer must trust the process and be ready to respond when the moment is right. Just so, the reign of God, the actual occasional realizations of God's aims for right-relationships and mutual well-being, cannot be explained or predicted; but faithful disciples will trust that God's aims are at work in the world around them, and be ready to respond to fruitful moments as they arise.

 

The second parable is also about seeds growing unexpectedly and inexplicably, but it shifts the focus from the fact of growth to the expanse of growth. The mustard seed is used as an example of growth that is out of all proportion to its origin: a tiny seed produces a very large shrub. Here again, with our modern knowledge of DNA, we might rightly enough point out that the size of the seed is itself no indication of the size of the bush coded in the genes. But even such an analytical approach cannot entirely dampen the sense of surprise that so much growth could come from so little a beginning, and it is that surprise on which the parable turns. Though the seed in itself is negligible, it produces a shrub big enough to provide shelter, "so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." Just so, occasions of realizing God's aims, occasions of revealing God's reign, can seem small and inconsequential in their beginnings; but realizations of right-relationships for mutual well-being superject their attainments of value beyond themselves; they create patterns of occasions that increase progressively the real possibilities for greater realizations of justice and peace within their societies. All kinds of aims and newly emerging occasions can find a sheltering environment in such social patterns of right-relationships, so that their own accomplishments of relationship and well-being are increased. The faithful can offer their own acts of realizing God's reign, even in seemingly small ways, to contribute to the growth of such patterns of divinely aimed justice and peace.

 

Now if one parable draws attention to growth as a reliable mystery, and the other to growth as unpredictably abundant, together they admonish and invite the faithful hearer to be ready to respond to occasions of God's reign whenever they come, however they appear. Whether it's the farmer with the sickle, or the birds of the air looking for nesting places, the images focus our attention on moving in to the environment where God's justice and peace are taking shape, and contributing our own creative activity to their greater realization. While the original growth comes from God, and cannot be earned or forced or coerced by any human action, yet the full growth of God's aims into the world cannot be accomplished apart from faithful creaturely action; and the discernment to see God at work in small things, and the willingness to join God's work even in small ways, are necessary elements of a faithful life. Through such small, initial, seeding steps the larger acts of faithful transformation can grow.

 

The Ezekiel 17:22-24 passage is chosen to go along with the second parable in the Mark reading – which is only fitting, since the mustard seed parable itself is a kind of ironic homage on the Ezekiel prophecy. This small poem about a tender sprig becoming a lofty tree comes in a chapter full of references to "trees" and "eagles" and "vines" as allegories of empires, kings, and displaced peoples. Historians and commentators debate on how the somewhat obscure elements of Ezekiel's allegories map onto the known history of imperial rivalry between Babylon and Egypt and the attempts of the kings of Judah to play the superpowers against each other. What is important to this poem is that Ezekiel is writing to people wearied by conquest and exile, and is assuring them that, even as emperors plan their intrigues and campaign their conquests, God acts, and God's action is definitive. God and no other will take a tender sprig from the top of a lofty cedar, a scion from an outworn imperial ambition, and God and no other will plant it in Zion, "on the mountain height of Israel." Because this is the work of God's mercy and purpose, and not the work of ambition or conquest or politics, the twig will flourish, it will "produce boughs and bear fruit," and the boughs will cast shade in which "every kind of bird will live" and will find security to build nests and raise young. The reign of God's scion in Jerusalem will not conquer others and bring them in forcefully, as do Babylon and Egypt, but will be an invitation of peace and shalom, well-being, into which peoples will come with joy, just as the birds in the poem are not captured and caged but build nests for themselves where they feel safe and sustained. This act of God to establish a different kind of "cedar" on "the mountain height of Israel" will demonstrate to all other kingdoms and empires, "all the trees of the field," that God alone is the source of security and flourishing, that it is not imperial edict or armed power that determines the lives of peoples, but only God who will "bring low the high tree, make high the low tree; dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish."

 

Jesus' parable of the mustard seed is exactly this kind parable of reversal, in which the unexpected and seemingly inconsequential – a tender sprig, a mustard seed – becomes the center of flourishing for many "birds." But Jesus' slantwise reference to Ezekiel takes the reversal even farther: here the new thing planted is not a sprig of cedar, a scion of a noble tree, but is a bush, a shrub, a weed of the common flora of Palestine. Set in appostion with the parable as it is in this lectionary, the passage from Ezekiel can be seen to be not only about empires and nations, whether ancient or contemporary, but also about God's will to reverse all forms of domination and oppression, God's will to create places of flourishing and mutual well-being for all kinds of creaturely communities, from the global to the national to the civic to the neighborhood to the interpersonal – even to the society of occasions, memories, hopes, aims, fears, and aspirations that make up an individual human soul. God's will for well-being can work with even the tiniest, most fragile shoot of possibility, and grow from it the sheltering environment for greater and yet greater aims of peace.

 

Psalm 92:1-4,11-14 is selected – and these verses of the psalm in particular are selected – to parallel the theme of the Ezekiel passage. This is made especially clear by the phrase "cedar of Lebanon" in verse 11; but the whole set of images of trees that grow and flourish clearly echo Ezekiel and Mark. Here it is especially emphasized that it is "the righteous" and "those who are planted in the house of the LORD" who will "flourish like a palm tree" and "flourish in the courts of our God": the prospect of being "green and succulent" and "bearing fruit even in old age" is not a human accomplishment, but is an unexpected and inexplicable gift of growth that is meant to reveal to all "how upright the LORD is." It is because of this unmerited but generous gift that the psalmist can "give thanks" and sing "you have made me glad by your acts, O LORD; and I shout for joy because of the works of your hands." The poem invites us to consider the psychological and spiritual link between gratitude and receptiveness, and the capacity for right-relation that leads to flourishing.

 

2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17 is the only passage in today's lectionary that does not mention trees or shrubs or seeds; but it still talks about unexpected and God-given growth. The key here is in "regarding" people and situations "from a human point of view." This is an unfortunate translation choice on the part of the NRSV translators; the NIV doesn't do much better with its "from a worldly point of view." The phrase in the original Greek is "according to the flesh." Paul typically uses the word "flesh" (sarx) in a very special sense; it is not equivalent to "body" (soma), nor does it refer to materiality as such, but is used to cover an entire range of appetites, desires, drives, patterns of behavior, habits of feeling, and recurring choices that contribute to a tendency to resist God's will and God's grace. The sarx is what tends to block us from genuine giving-and-receiving love in freedom; the sarx is what makes us look to our own self-interests rather than the interests of others; the sarx is what undermines us so that we know the good but find ourselves unable to do it. To know "according to the flesh" is then not simply equivalent to "a human point of view," because the sarx is precisely what prevents us from embracing the fully human life, the human life as God would have it, that we see in Jesus. To know "according to the flesh" is a truncated knowledge, a limited regard, because it regards people and things and events strictly in terms of how they will satisfy or frustrate self-centered appetites, strictly in terms of fear and greed. Paul claims that he once knew Christ in this way, strictly as a threat to his project of Pharisaical purity, reduced to a mere counter in Paul's own needy moves to secure himself. But those who are "in Christ" no longer see others in this way, no longer regard the world in this limited scope. Instead they know the "confidence" and "love" and "conviction" that come from living not for the self but "for him who died and was raised for" all. Being able to regard the world not "according to the flesh" but "in Christ" makes a "new creation": the individual is renewed by the enlargement of regard and expanded capacity to love; but the world itself is also expanded, the whole Creation is also renewed, because it now contains more loving action through the actions of the renewed individual. This is a personal and a cosmic gift of growth, and it all comes through the unexpected and immeasurable love and grace of God.