The gospel for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) comes from Mark 4 which contains some very memorable parables:
- Parable of the Sower (vv.1-9)
- Purpose of the Parables (vv.10-20)
- Parable of the Lamp (vv.21-25)
- Parable of the Seed that Grows Itself (vv.26-29)
- Parable of the Mustard See (vv.30-34)
Apart from the Olivet Discourse in Mark (13:3–37), the sacred author’s grouping of parabolic material in Chapter 4 constitutes the largest unit in his Gospel devoted entirely to the teaching of Jesus. Included are three parables of growth: the sower, the growth of the seed, and the mustard seed. Each of the three reflects upon sowing, growth and harvest-elements which illumine the character of the Kingdom of God signaled by Jesus’ presence among them. Yet there is a climate of unbelief that swirls around Jesus: many simply do not appreciate Jesus, the Jewish leadership seems bent upon destroying him (3:6), and he has been accused of forming an alliance with Beelzebul (3:22). Still, the parables not only reflect the situation all around Jesus, more importantly they point to the inevitable and ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God.
There is certainly a great deal that can be said about Jesus’ use of parables, but as William Lane  points out, especially in the agricultural parables, Jesus is pointing out that the natural order and the life of people is intrinsically like the redemptive order of God. That is not simple analogy, but a real correlation because both arise from the purpose of God – both reflect God’s intention and desire.
This week on the news there was a segment on the likely future for the old growth forests of California (Redwoods, Sequoias) that were devastated by the wildfires of 2019 and 2020. Would they recover? Patricia Sanchez notes: “Great trees, massive living giants, deeply rooted in the earth, their boughs stretched wide across the horizon offering leafy shelter to myriads of birds, have been a favorite subject of poets and artists for centuries. Dendrochronologists (scientists who can discern the age of trees and the climate they have endured by reading growth rings) continually fascinate the public with their discoveries. For example, the oldest living tree, a bristlecone pine called Methuselah, has been estimated to have lived for 4,600 years in the California White Mountains. A redwood tree, 364 feet tall with a girth of 47 feet is reputed to be 3000 years old. A recently felled Sequoia was calculated to have been a seedling 271 years before Christ. Damaged by a forest fire 516 years later, the tree was fully healed and healthy again within a century.” So much growth while generations slept; growth arising from the purpose and desire of God.
Because of its strength and endurance, the great tree, with birds in its branches, became an apt symbol for the great empires which held sway over the world. The toppling of a tree or the lopping off of its branches was a way of describing the demise of an empire; the rooting of a tree or a branch signified the ascendancy of another power. That is what unfolds in the first reading from Ezekiel. In the lifetime of Ezekiel, Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzer had “snapped off” the top of the tree of Judah when the took the King and the leading citizens into captivity. Within a generation Babylon’s power gave way to Persian dominance. The Persian King Cyrus, returned the next generation of seedlings to be planted in Jerusalem. They had another chance to flourish.
Ezekiel promised that there, under the watchful care of God, the shoot would grow into a mighty tree and extend its branches in welcome to “every winged thing.” Later in his career, Ezekiel would return to this vision to encourage his contemporaries not to lose hope in the future (Ezekiel 31:3-9).
As a prelude to today’s gospel, Ezekiel’s words plant the seeds of hope and prepare his readers for welcoming and understanding Jesus’ parables about the reign of God in the gospel. Regardless of all obstacles, the reign of God will flourish and grow, “without our knowing exactly how it happens,” because God is a faithful and fastidious caretaker.
William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)
Patricia Sanchez, The Sanchez Archives, Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B