11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“He spoke to them in parables; but to his disciples he spoke plainly.”
“He spoke to them in parables; but to his disciples he spoke plainly.” These words end the Gospel, but they are still confusing. They seem to imply a time when we won’t need parables, when we won’t need images and analogies to understand God. But even Jesus’ disciples, to whom he spoke plainly, did not grasp what Jesus was doing. Up to his death, they didn’t understand him.
Yet, are not our lives filled with parables, with images that cause us surprise and make us think about God? One parable that many Americans have seen recently is the emergence of billions of cicadas after spending seventeen years under the earth. They create such an incessant cry that it seems like the earth itself is shrieking. We see them emerge, make their noise, and soon disappear again. How strange is this?
But Jesus says lots of things are strange. A farmer goes out and puts seed into the ground. After that, a lot of it is out of his hands. Seemingly out of nowhere, the farmer sees the blade, then the ear, then grain. Who understands how this happens? We certainly know more biology than farmers did in ancient Israel, but the wonder of growth never stops amazing us. We live in a world where all around us are parables teaching us that life is all about growth, and that growth is full of mystery.
In the first reading we hear Ezekiel talk about trees, again as a parable. There may be a great tree that seems to dominate everything, but cannot God take just branch of that tree and plant it somewhere else? And might not that sprout grow bigger than the tree it came from? Growth is the way we know God is working in our lives: the growth of plants, the growth the Kingdom, the growth of faith, the growth of the Church.
Has not God, after all, planted us? Are we not the result of the seed God planted in our hearts, of the love God pours into us, of the community God calls us to be, of the Spirit working within us and between us? Are we not the tree God has planted, tending to grow like the mustard seed, until everyone in need finds nourishment and a place inside God’s family, until everyone is helping everyone else grow?
Paul realized this in the very striking passage we have today. He only speaks like this in a couple of places—when he speaks about his ambivalence about continuing to live. He wants to be home, with the Lord, with life fulfilled and salvation complete. But God gives him a different mission: instead of resting in glory, God wants him to continue working in his Kingdom to help it grow to its fullness.
Are we not, as a church, a parable to the world around us? Do we not cause the world to ask who we are, what we are, and why we are? The world sees us Christians at times looking a little ragged, but it mostly sees us flourishing with a confidence, a faith, which we carry through life. The world sees us reaching upward, but also reaching outward toward them. Are we not called to be the way in which the world finds itself and its meaning? Are we not called to be the tree that gives to others what God has planted in us—life, hope, and security?
The cicadas have come, and they will go. Our spring flower have blossomed and dropped their petals. Our trees have now grown leaves only to lose them in five or six months. But we have come not only from the mystery of the earth but also from the mystery of the heart of God. We bloom, we blossom, not for a season but in the unending time God gives us.