Holy Spirit

ACTA COMMENTARY on THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY

ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK    Download >>> Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Yr B




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READINGS

A reading from the prophet Ezekiel                                  17:22-24

Responsorial Psalm                   Psalm 91:2-3. 13-16.  R/. cf. v.2

A reading from the second Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians  

5:6-10

A reading from the holy Gospel according to St Mark       4:26-34                    



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Of course at Mass our readings begin with the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament, then move to a reading from the many letters in the New Testament, and so to the Gospel reading. But occasionally in our study and reflection on the readings it might be helpful to go backwards.  So let’s start with Mark and make our way back to Ezekiel, the most startling prophet in the Bible.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to St Mark       4:26-34  

And [Jesus] said , “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

  And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

The Gospel of the LORD

                 

  The first question that crops up when we come to today’s Gospel in our Lectionary is the introduction “Jesus said to the crowds”.  The impression is that we are listening to a short address to the crowds.  But this is not the case.

We know that Mark calls Jesus “Teacher” more often than the other three Gospel-makers. Yet he gives us far less teaching than the other three.  Indeed, you would not be far wrong if you said that most of the teaching of Jesus is presented in chapters four and thirteen of the Gospel’s sixteen chapters.  Strangely, our Gospel reading today ends with this perplexing sentence:

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.                           Mark 4:33-34                               

     

  We need to go back to the start of the sermon that contains “many such parables”, in order to appreciate the dramatic setting of today’s Gospel, and to lament that almost all of it is not to be found in our Lectionary.   Picture for yourself:

Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow …                                 Mark 4:1-3

  In other words, Mark wants you to picture the scene, to join the very large crowd gathered about him.  You are sitting on the shore of the lake as Jesus climbed into a boat and sat in the prow as if it were a pulpit.  Everybody grew quiet and he began to teach you many wonderful things by telling stories, familiar stories about farmers sowing seed.  And yet the way he told them you and everyone around were lifted beyond yourself to another story, another kingdom, another experience.  How did he do that? What was he getting at? What was he trying to explain to you? What was the message of Jesus?



THE MESSAGE OF JESUS



What was the message of Jesus?  What is the message of Jesus? If you were to summarise, what would your answer be?  Love? Justice and Peace? Love God/Love your neighbour? Obey God? The Ten Commandments?   Something else?

  According to Mark’s Gospel Jesus was baptised and heard the voice of God speaking to him.  He was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit, and then emerged to begin his work. This is what happened next:

Now after John was handed over,

Jesus came into Galilee,

proclaiming the gospel of God,

and saying,

“The time is fulfilled,

and the kingdom of God is at hand;

repent

and believe

in the gospel.

Mark 1:14-15

There you have it.  That is the message of Jesus.  This is the gospel of God. Just three simple  sentences:

The time is fulfilled,

                             and the kingdom of God is at hand.

Repent and believe in the gospel.



It is easy to explain these sentences.  Everyone knows sentences exactly like them:

Tea is ready!

Come and get it!

There’s a thief about!
Watch out!

The ship is sinking!
Man the life boats!

The kingdom of God is at hand!
Repent and Believe!



The first bit in each of these units expresses a fact.  The tea is on the table. There it is. Like it or lump it, there it is.  Now if you don’t want to hurt your mother, or to insult your neighbour who invited you for a cuppa, you go in.  If you dismiss the warning that there’s a thief about and your house is robbed, you know who to blame. If, more seriously, you are on the Titanic, and you ignore the warning that the ship is going down, and order another gin and tonic, at least you will have plenty of ice.

In other words, these sentences have a FACT followed by a RESPONSE.  You can RESPOND or IGNORE. However, if you respond appropriately you will be the better for it.  The choice is yours.

Now consider,

THE FACT

The kingdom of God is at hand!



Whatever this means, it is a fact. The teaching of Jesus begins with a fact: The kingdom of God is at hand!  To this fact, he points to the only sensible response:

THE RESPONSE

Repent and believe!



Before we explore the meaning, just realise that most parables of Jesus are like this, even if they are quite long.  A few examples. First, one from Matthew:

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant

in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one of great value,

went and sold all that he possessed, and bought it.    

Matthew13:45

Now put this into FACT/RESPONSE mode:

A FACT

A Priceless Pearl!                 

A RESPONSE

Buy it!

It works even in long stories.  Take an exceptionally long parable, the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32:

FACT

You’ve got a very understanding father!

RESPONSE

Go home to him!

Now that we have grasped how it works, we must ask what does it mean? Jesus comes into this world and declares as a summary of everything that he was commanded by his Father to proclaim one simple sentence:

The kingdom of God is at hand!

  First, there is plenty of room for misunderstanding.  The kingdom in the declaration of Jesus is not a place on earth.  Nor is it a place in heaven. The greatest of all our prayers will give us the answer:

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth,

as it is in heaven.

We pray that earth may be like heaven. We pray that all humanity, all creation, become what God wants them to be. We pray that the day will come when all humanity sings from God’s hymn sheet.  We pray that all that is good will conquer all that is evil. We pray that the future will be transformed. Here is a poster that proclaims what the kingdom of God means:






GOD RULES!



OK?

The kingdom of God, the rule of God, is, in the life and teaching of Jesus, at hand.  The life of Jesus is given to the world as a sign, a hope, a sacrament, of God’s Presence.  The world is being transformed by Jesus. God has entrusted his intentions to Jesus and to the Jesus community with the sure and certain knowledge that God’s will is and will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  The Church is not the kingdom of God. It is a servant of the kingdom, working with Jesus to bring about peace on earth, goodwill to all peoples. The churches around the world are beacons spreading God’s light, dispelling the darkness of humanity.

So how does it happen? How does the kingdom of God, the will of God, come about?  What’s it like? Can we touch it? See it? Experience it?

 Mostly Jesus explains it in parables.  In other words, he tells stories. We need to get the hang of Jesus the story-teller.

PARABLES

Today’s Gospel reading highlights two of the three parables to be found in Mark’s chapter 4.  Jesus was famous for telling parables and that enrolled him in the Jewish tradition of telling stories to illustrate the story of God.   Of course, parables were part and parcel of Jewish literature in general. The parables of Jesus are famous. So are the parables of Franz Kafka and Woody Allen, to mention two other Jews.

  The great prophet Ezekiel was much given to parables but his reputation was of someone who told tall tales:  “Is he not a maker of parables?” said many who heard him. However, the use of storytelling to make a point was generally held in high regard.  Here’s one parable much admired by a noted wise man:

There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege-works against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city.  Yet no one remembered that poor man.

The philosopher remarked:

But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man's wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.  The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Ecclesiastes 9:14-18

  But the most famous parable in the Bible before we come to the parables of Jesus is about adultery, murder, and death.

  King David lived and reigned over a tiny kingdom about one thousand years before Jesus.  God sought “a man after his own heart … to be prince over his people,” (1 Samuel 13:14) and ended up with David.  The best you could say was that he was good in spots. The story of his relationship with Bathsheba is appalling.

  David’s army was away fighting a local war.  One of his most trusted soldiers was Uriah, a Hittite, a people of what we now know as southeast Turkey.  He was sent back to Jerusalem from the field of battle to report on the army’s progress. But David had seen Uriah’s wife washing herself and had seduced her and she was expecting.  When Uriah reported to David, the King urged him to go home and have a rest before he returned to the fray. Work it out for yourself. Uriah refused, saying that he was not going to enjoy home comforts while his brothers in arms were bearing the heat of battle.  So David sent a note to his commanding general ordering him to put Uriah in the front line, right in the thick of battle. Uriah was killed. This is what happened next:

When the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she lamented over her husband. And when the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.

  Now there was a prophet in the court of King David, a good man and a careful diplomat.  Prophets are people who speak on God’s behalf. God sent him to King David and he told him a parable:

And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him,

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”     

Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.

Nathan said to David, “You’re the man!”

By the way, one son of Bathsheba and David was named Solomon, an ancestor of Jesus.  When St Matthew drew up the family tree of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17) he included among his ancestors the wife of Uriah the Hittite.  Some family!

Parables are strong stuff.

SOWING SEEDS

The parables in Mark’s fourth chapter all come from the land.  They are about sowing seed, even tiny mustard seed, watching it grow, all farming stuff. What happens? Insignificant beginnings, hidden growth, and unexpected and amazing outcomes.  That just about describes Christian progress in this world. It began small. An obscure life in a village nobody ever heard of that ended crucified on a cross, yet came to resurrection.  There were no more than 120 people hiding in a locked room, everyone of them scared stiff. And then there was us.

 

And so to today’s second reading.

A reading from the second Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians  

5:6-10

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

The Word of the LORD.

  

  This second letter of Paul to Corinthians Christians is more reflective than his first.  There he had to deal with serious divisions. These have been remedied, though there are still pockets resisting Paul’s warnings and advice.  So in this letter we meet more of the passionate Paul, remembering his experience as an apostle. He is older and beginning to count the days.  We meet his human side as he reflects on his experience and his coming to old age.

  He wants to be safely at home with God.  As we read last week, he longs to leave the tent of this life to come to the house of God.  He wants, he says today, to be away from the body and at home with the LORD.  Yes, we must give account of ourselves before the judgement seat of Christ but as Paul as so often emphasised, heaven’s judgement seat is not the Old Bailey.

  The second reading may not seem to have much to do with the Gospel reading.  But Paul encountered the fact of the kingdom when he met the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus and when he listened to eager Christians proclaiming Jesus to him in the city of Damascus.   He learned and understood the mystery of the kingdom of God revealed to those who sat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He learned that every life does not end until it ends in the arms of God.

Now we turn to today’s psalm.

Responsorial Psalm                   Psalm 91:2-3. 13-16.  R/. cf. v.2



A Psalm for the Sabbath

R/.       It is good to give you thanks, O LORD.

It is good to give thanks to the LORD,

to sing praises to your name, O Most High;

to declare your steadfast love in the morning,

and your faithfulness by night.     R/.

The righteous flourish like the palm tree

and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.   R/.




They are planted in the house of the LORD

they flourish in the courts of our God.

They still bear fruit in old age;

they are ever full of sap and green,

to declare that the Lord is upright;

he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

R/.       It is good to give you thanks, O LORD.



  Psalm 93 (92) has a title which indicates that it is a song for the Sabbath.  If you read the whole psalm in your Bible you can count the number of times LORD is mentioned - seven times.  God is mentioned seven times to call to mind the story of God’s creation of the world in six days, and “on the seventh day the God rested from all the work that God had done:

 

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Genesis 2:1-3

On the Sabbath, in our Sunday worship, it is good to praise the LORD for what God is.  It is fitting that occasionally we acknowledge that God’s steadfast love forever surrounds us.  That everlasting love is faithful; it does not weaken and it does not fail. There are no “buts” to God love.  The words that leap from Psalm are praise, sing, proclaim, gladden, joy, and lashing of beautiful (and expensive) perfume.

As the seed that God sows on this earth through the service of Jesus amongst us will yield, not thirty, not sixty, but a hundred fold, so everything about God’s kingdom is plentiful.  Love, mercy, and forgiveness overflow. Everything and everyone planted in the house of the LORD will grow as tall as the cedars of Lebanon.  Even old folk will be full of energy and freshness.  For everyone is eternally bouncy in God’s hands.



And finally we come to today’s first reading.



A reading from the prophet Ezekiel                                  17:22-24

Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.                                     Ezekiel 17:22-24



Ezekiel, a prophet and a priest, was exiled to Babylon (modern Iraq) in 597 B.C. when the little kingdom of Judah was overrun by King Nebuchadnezzar.  Jerusalem and its Temple (God’s dwelling place) were destroyed. Ezekiel’s long book is full of the tragedy. Why did it happen? Why did God allow it to happen?  The answer is depressingly obvious to Ezekiel. Because the sinfulness of rulers and people, because they deserted the covenant God made with them, God let disaster come upon them.

  But it was not to last forever.  Indeed God would go into exile with them.  They would not lose God’s Presence. In exile God would ready them for a repentant return.  God’s covenant was this:
                                  I will be your God,

and you will be my people.

The people had lost faith.  God did not.

  So by God’s mercy a restoration is promised.  For the sake of his good name God determines to restore what is left of the exiles to the land of Israel and build a new Temple, a new home wherein God will dwell.  In chapter 37 Ezekiel has a vision of a valley of dry bones. He asks: Who can make these bones live?   The answer is the one in today’s passage from the great prophet.  The One who can take a sprig of a cutting and make out of it a cedar of Lebanon is the one who can rebuild the Temple.  Or, for that matter, make dry bones live.

~                    ~ ~

So the readings today, back-to-front or front-to-back, each in its own way speaks of renewal, of reinvigoration, of new life.  The common denominator is that slowly but surely God is putting his seal on our world. Jesus is the centre-point of an eternal plan to ensure that in the end God reigns.  OK?

Joseph O’Hanlon

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