Dear Friends in Christ,
This Sunday the Church celebrates the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The themes of the “tree”, of growth and of abundance are all intertwined in the readings today. One of the difficulties we may have in getting the full impact of these texts is that we generally live in times of great abundance – and you could say wasteful superabundance – such that we are so used to well-stocked grocery store shelves, shopping online for anything and everything on a whim, and the credit and debt cycle that lock us into the system, that it can be difficult to appreciate the real hardships people living in Biblical times went through – famines, floods, droughts, invasions, unpredictable economic cycles. The readings today ask us to enter into a world without much security or assurance, where nature dominated and the mood of the neighboring warrior nation could determine the future of the community. Perhaps one way that we can open our hearts to these readings is to look into one’s own life and ask where the struggles are, or how you respond to not-knowing something, to the unpredictable, to issues related to trust in God and responding to tragedy and hardship in life – Do I react in anger? Depression? Do I think I deserve something better than what I’ve been dealt with? These are the kinds of questions these readings raise, and the response by the Word of God is to challenge us to look at the things in our lives that make us feel vulnerable, unsure, shaky and sad as opportunities for growth and for faith.
The reading from Ezekiel describes the oracle of the Lord to restore the faith of Israel which had been corrupted. The “cedar” symbolizes the faith of the nation that has been degraded by sin, corruption and compromise. The people had given in, little by little, to the temptation to be “successful” like the surrounding pagan nations. But this proved to be deadly, and the faith died out, except for a remnant. Now the Lord will raise up a “new shoot” to grow out of the old tree which will bring new life to the people. Ezekiel reminds us how fragile faith is – it can flourish in one generation by wither away in the next through neglect and corruption. Usually the mechanism for this involved buying into “the Big Lie” that as long as I have security and safety, I really don’t need God, at least not on the terms He gives us in His Commandments. Everyone else seems to be doing fairly well going their own way, so what’s the big deal? But Ezekiel reminds us that indeed God acts in ways that often defy our perspectives and agendas, to the point that we can miss the big picture. For him, having true faith means having an attitude of seeing the “big picture”, of sniffing out the false promises of worldly gain, of really asking one self if you are being deceived. It means faith and personal faithfulness and integrity go together, and that God is bringing about “new growth” from the dying and the corrupted elements in society and religion.
The Gospel follows on this and shows us that Jesus is the fulfillment of this “new growth” prophesied by Ezekiel. Yet even in Jesus’ generation – and ours as well – there is a skepticism and doubt about whether this is true and whether He is the Truth. The tree and growth theme is fulfilled: God is the patient farmer who plants the seeds and patiently waits until harvest time, and then there is a fury of activity when the harvest arrives. He has planted the faith in and through His Son and now we are waiting for the final harvest. The seeming inactivity and passive phase of the kingdom is both puzzling and troubling – Why doesn’t God seem to be doing anything? The faith and humble waiting go hand-in-hand in this parable, and Jesus is teaching us that this is an important aspect of following him. He is responding to the questions of the Jewish leadership who asked for some definitive signs or confirmation that He truly is the Messiah. But none were forthcoming. What kind of faith is this then? And what God would do this, where we have to wait through His seeming inactivity? The slow-growth, humility and the feebleness of the whole process is what the kingdom of God, and the Church and our faith is all about. As Jesus is rejected more and more, there is also the apparent inactivity of God with Jesus until he is all alone on the cross. But just as there is apparently nothing going on while the seeds are growing, only to be followed by the full bounty of the harvest, so it will be in the kingdom that has been planted in our hearts and in our Church community.
The harvest is the judgment of God on our lives, and we must cultivate, nurture the growth of and prepare for the harvest: “The soil produces of itself first the blade, then the ear, finally the ripe wheat in the ear. When the crop is ready he ‘wields the sickle, for the time is ripe for the harvest.’” Let us not misinterpret this time of God’s seeming distance from us as a way to conclude that He’s not there or doesn’t care. There is something about being human and about the mystery of faith that humility and waiting lead us to God. Growing pains and glory go together. God who gave us the beginnings of faith will also be its end.