The seed grows: his Kingdom, in his time

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11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: June 17, 2012
Ezek 17:22-24; Ps 92; 2 Cor 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34

“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God?” our Lord Jesus asks. And we hear two parables from him in our Gospel reading today, both comparing the Kingdom of God to the growth of seeds.

In the second parable, the lesson is the great and perhaps surprising growth of that seed. The mustard seed starts very small—about 1/20 of an inch, or 1 or 2 mm in size—but it grows into a bush that can be 9 feet tall, depending on the variety. And so it is with the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells us: no matter how tiny and insignificant its beginnings might seem—in the world, or in an individual person’s life—it will grow to be very large indeed. We should not be fooled by the small outward appearance. As St. Paul reminds us, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Instead, it is the life within that will prevail.

And that life is on display in the first parable as well. This time the seed is for a grain-producing plant, and there is a man who scatters it on the land. And then what does he do to make the seed grow? Nothing! He sleeps and rises. But the life within the seed is at work, sprouting and growing, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. He doesn’t even know how it all works; because, although he sowed the seed, it is the life within the seed that is at work.

And so it is with the Kingdom of God. We notice first that it is his kingdom; it is he who is at work. His wisdom and power are infinite; his love and mercy are without end. Although his workings are often hidden and mysterious to us, they are supremely effective. It is his kingdom, not ours; his project, his life, his gift.

And although he desires our receptiveness and cooperation, this is not the same as handing us the entire project. St. Paul used this same analogy of the growth of a plant in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote (3:6-9): “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth… For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

Perhaps the time I learned this most clearly was while I was in seminary. For my 6 years in seminary were the time when I was being formed and transformed so that I could be all that a priest needs to be and serve in all the ways a priest needs to serve. And there were many dedicated priests and lay professors and sisters in the seminary who worked with great dedication to do this, in classes and Masses and counseling and spiritual direction and supervision and more. So many parts to this! But I think it was during my fourth year that I realized that more was going on. Beneath all the human observable elements, and in addition to them—I began to perceive that the Holy Spirit was moving me and my classmates along the path that he wanted, at his own pace. It was a realization that was both awe-inspiring and reassuring.

For we are indeed God’s project; and if that is the first thing we notice, the second thing is that the growth happens according to his pace. Right in the parable, there is a rhythm to the way that Christ tells it: “sleep and rise night and day, and through it all the seed would sprout and grow.” It is the slow growth of the natural world, which does not change to match our always-connected, multitasking schedules. It is the life within the seed that is at work. But it is the slow, careful work of making a beautiful masterpiece—of making a saint—of you and me and each of those around us.

Surely the perfect illustration here comes from Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Martha, we recall, became burdened with much serving—apart from Jesus, trying to do lots of things for him, but ultimately becoming frustrated and coming to tell him what to do: “Tell [my sister] to help me.” But this is not what Jesus wants; he wants the response of Mary, who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. And so what is his response to Martha? “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

It is all too easy to fall into Martha’s mistake of trying to build and grow the Kingdom as our own project, our own duty, our own accomplishment. This comes from our sinful human pride, from our spiritual immaturity. And its fruit, as with Martha, is isolation; frustration and anger; discouragement; sadness; and hopelessness. If we go down that road and reach that point, may we at least, like Martha, go to Jesus and say, “Lord, do you not care?”

—and allow him to point us to Mary, whose humble trust made all the difference. For if instead we stay with him, and listen to his words and find out what kind of cooperation he desires from us—then this faith leads to joy and peace and hope. For this is the kingdom—his kingdom, at his pace—and what more could we possibly want?

To what shall we compare the kingdom of God? You are God’s field. It is God who causes the growth.Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Or as Mother Teresa is often quoted as saying: “God does not ask us to be successful, but to be faithful.”

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