The three verses that we read from the prophet Ezekiel today are the last three verses of an extended allegory in which the prophet tried to describe God’s action against the kings of Israel who had disregarded their covenant relationship with God. The various birds in the allegory represent the foreign kings who will attack and devastate the kingdom of Israel while the trees represent the kings of Israel who will be felled by the foreigners.
Toward the end of the allegory, in the verses that we hear this morning, Ezekiel tells the children of Israel that God is both the agent of destruction and the agent of restoration. While the foreign army commanders and kings might take credit or the fall of Jerusalem, it is God who has used the foreign kings to punish the children of Israel and who will eventually establish a new king, a king who will be likened to a majestic cedar in which the birds will find shade and rest. The oracle ends with a powerful affirmation: “As I, the Lord, have spoken, so will I do.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks in riddles in a similar way, telling a parable about a farmer who is sowing seed and about a random mustard seed. “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.” Again, it is the last words that are important: “he knows not how.” Though the parable of the Gospels seems to be different than the allegory of the Hebrew Scriptures, the message is the same. It is God who makes the seed to sprout. It is God who ripens the grain. The farmer is simply God’s agent just as the foreign kings in Ezekiel’s allegory are God’s agents. Though science has explained how planted seed develops into a great harvest, it is still God who sets the action in motion.
The verse that we sang before the proclamation of the Gospel and the responsorial psalm that we use for today extend the image even further. In the verse before the Gospel, the seed is compared to the Word of God itself which, when planted in people who are receptive to it, bears the fruit of eternal life. We cannot take any credit for its growth. God plants, God nurtures, and God gets the credit for any of the good fruit that it bears. In the psalm, the faithful believer is likened to the cedars of Lebanon, flourishing in the courts of our God. Again, it is God who causes the cedar to flourish.
Metaphors and similes, parables and poems, all the symbolic language that is used in the Scriptures lead us into the mystery that is God the Creator. A good botanist could stand here today and tell us how seeds germinate and produce crops for the harvest. However, the allegories and parables we hear today are not about the seeds or the trees or the plant life. They are about God. God is the one who is at work in our world.
Although God is present in all things, sustaining them and allowing them to follow their natural courses of development, God transcends these natural processes. We use these metaphors to speak about God because our language is limited in its ability to describe who God is and how God acts. God is too big for our language, too majestic for our tongues. God cannot be contained in our language any more than God can be contained in a mustard seed. Yet these images lead us to God. When we sit and think about these images, we can begin to contemplate God. These metaphors help us to understand how small we are and how great God is.
Just as seeds develop slowly, so too, our understanding of God develops slowly. When we are confronted with realities in life that don’t seem to make any sense, these images remind us that just as the farmer doesn’t know how the seeds sprout and grow, we don’t know or understand God or God’s actions. However, each time we sit with these images in prayer, we draw a little closer to the mystery that is God. You may have heard me use this image before, but I think of the mystery of God as a rose. The rose bush produces buds. If we look at the bud every day, we see the changes that it undergoes. We see the flower slowly open. Each day it presents us with a different view, a different type of beauty until it is in full flower. The mystery of God also opens us a little more each time we look at it. This is, in fact, the fruit of contemplation. Each time we approach the mystery of God in prayer and worship, we see a little more, we understand a little better. At the same time, we admit in all humility that we will never be able to understand it fully.
This is why it is so important for us to spend time in prayer, for it is in prayer that we draw close to the mystery of God. The Eucharist presents us with an opportunity to stop and spend a little time with God, a little time with the mystery. Jesus has told us that this time we spend together is the path we take to eternal life with God when the mystery will be fully opened.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator