This coming Sunday the Church returns to “Ordinary Time” – not ordinary as regular and everyday, but from the Latin meaning to count. We celebrate the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings, especially the first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel and the Gospel from Mark, each make use of parables. The New Testament scholar, Charles H. Dodd (d. 1973) gave the Church its most classic and enduring definition of a parable: “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
For example, at first glance, both Ezekiel and Mark appear to be offering their readers some agricultural or horticultural information. But, as is the character of the parable, there is further, yet to be discovered meaning beyond the images of trees and seeds. Those who, in faith, accept the invitation of the parable to look beyond the words and images will find therein a message about the reign of God.
Ezekiel describes the lopping off of a tender shoot from the top of a cedar. Planted on a high mountain, it struck roots and grew into a majestic tree. The Marcan Jesus relates the manner in which a farmer goes about the task of sowing and cultivating seed. He “knows not how” the seed grows, steadily and surely, until it has become a great crop, ripe for the harvest. The key to understanding this Marcan parable and Ezekiel’s imagery is to realize exactly who is responsible for the growth of both tree and seed, namely, God. Perhaps these parables are intended to challenge the attitudes of those who work professionally in the Church for the sake of the kingdom. While each has a definite contribution to make, no one person is so absolutely necessary that the kingdom will fail in his/her absence. The kingdom will grow and develop without our knowing how it happens and in spite of all our faults and foibles because it belongs to, originates in and is ever attended by God.
In the second reading, St. Paul understood this very well and was content to give of himself, without stinting, for the sake of the reign of God. Nevertheless, as important as he was in establishing a network of churches, Paul did not think that the success of the kingdom depended solely on him. Content to do his best, he left the rest to God, and rather than pray for a longer lifespan so as to further develop his ministry, or fret at the fact that he wouldn’t always be around to “call the shots”, he longed to be at home with God.
Closer to our own times, another great minister of the reign of God has offered us his balanced perspective concerning his respective role in God’s great plan. Pope John XXIII who initiated the process of putting the church in touch with the twentieth century once said, “The feelings of my smallness and my nothingness have always kept me good company.” After John XXIII called for a Second Vatican Council, the enormity of the task at hand began to weigh upon him and rob him of sleep. . . So many people, so many issues, so many concerns, so much work to be done. Peace and restful nights finally came to the pontiff when he admitted, “Listen Lord, this church is yours, not mine. I’m going to sleep.”