All the readings for this Sunday are about God’s enigmatic messages that are delivered to a skeptical audience …or perhaps not even listening.
Just before today’s first reading begins, Ezekiel says that God’s message will come in a riddle or parable. The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel. (17:1-2)
That first lesson from Ezekiel 17:22-24 seems upbeat. Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.
This positive message comes relatively early in the Babylonian exile. Jerusalem has been overrun, king Jehoiachin, David’s heir, has been taken captive and murdered, the leadership of the country have been turned into slaves and the temple in Jerusalem which was looted will soon be destroyed. Moreover, Ezekiel had told them that ‘they had it coming’ for abandoning their worship of God and not abiding by the covenant.
Despite this terrible situation, God delivers a message through Ezekiel that he will reestablish the kingship of David. The sprig from the lofty top of a cedar is a symbol of the Davidic dynasty that will rise again. From such a small remnant, God promised a flourishing tree. In the circumstances, Ezekiel’s message of hope must have seemed like a fantasy to some.
In the reading from 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 Paul defends himself to a community that has become more oriented to glory than to living out the gospel and skeptical about Paul’s claim to be an apostle. It seems that others have come after Paul and emphasized that the people have been saved, and they downplayed the need to follow the instructions of the gospel. They also attacked Paul’s messages and said that he wasn’t a ‘real’ apostle.
In this morning’s epistle Paul says that, while there will be glory in the future for the faithful, we have to live faithfully, in the present moment… while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, 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.
Paul reminds his community that each person will be judged on whether they lived according to the gospel…all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
Yet Paul’s use of contrasts – in the body, away from the body; we walk by faith, not by sight;at home or away– probably caused people to pause to figure out what he was really saying. They were already skeptical about his message. His puzzling references may have given them pause.
In Mark’s gospel, (4:26-34) one of the two parables for the day has Jesus telling the crowd, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth 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 except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Listeners to Jesus’ parable may have wondered: in what way is the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed. Does it grow? Is it a place for birds? Is it green? Are there many trees or just one? What, exactly, does the seed symbolize?
Jesus’ parables were enigmatic. They left his listeners, including his disciples, trying to figure out what they meant. Later, he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Yet the genius of parables is precisely that they leave the listener to wonder and interpret the meaning for themselves. Like a mustard seed the parable takes root in the mind and grows with the effort to understand it.
So it is with the whole of scripture. The stories, psalms, poems, accounts of mystical creatures, Jesus’ own teaching, life and death are open to interpretation. We receive them then think about what they tell us, what message we are to draw from them. Certainly we do so with the guidance of faith and the church as an interpreter, par excellence. Nonetheless, it is left to us to determine the significance of the scripture for our own lives.
· Is there a passage from scripture that you turn over in your mind? (What is the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden? Why are snakes both symbols of evil and the source of cure? What does Paul mean by the judgment seat? What do the beasts in Revelation signify? What does Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed mean?) If so, then you are engaged in part of what God wanted us to do… thinking about his message.
· How hard was it in Ezekiel’s day to think that God was still ‘running the show’ when Israel’s enemies had defeated them, forced them into slavery and destroyed the temple? How hard is it today with despots running nations, never-ending wars and conflicts, environmental disasters and mass slaughters?
· What do you make of the fact that both Ezekiel and Jesus chose trees as a symbol of the Kingdom of God? Does it suggest a reverence for natural creation? Does the power to grow something large out of a small twig or a seed tell us something about the Kingdom? Where do you see hope for regeneration?