The more we come to know God through study and prayer, the more we realize his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways his ways (see Isaiah 55).
What we assume God would do is so often challenged by how the events of our lives actually unfold. Today’s readings draw us into this mystery of God’s complete other-ness.
In Jesus’s time the Jewish people were awaiting the Messiah, or Anointed One, who would liberate them from the captivity of the Romans. They were looking for a military warrior who could defeat the enemy by strength of arm and raise up the Israelites to ﬁght alongside him.
But God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus came and wasn’t a military leader, but rather a teacher, healer, and friend. He consistently allowed people to walk away from him when his teachings were too hard. Jesus wasn’t concerned with numbers—he chose only twelve men, not an army. And starting with a kingdom the size of a mustard seed, the Church has grown all over the world.
This reading is the answer to a riddle that Ezekiel, at God’s command, tells in the ﬁrst part of the chapter. The riddle involves a cedar whose top has been taken by an eagle, and whose seeds have been planted. Those seeds start sending out roots in the direction of a diﬀerent eagle, resulting in problems for the new plant.
The answer to the riddle recounts a series of events in Judah’s history (see 2 Kings 24–25). In punishment for the sins of its kings, Judah was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (eagle #1). King Jehoiachin of Jerusalem and most of the leaders (topmost branches) are taken back to Babylon. One member of the royal house (the seed) is set up in Israel to be head of “a humble kingdom, without high aspirations” (Ezekiel 17:14). However, this man, Zedekiah, breaks the covenant with Babylon by accepting overtures from the Pharaoh (eagle #2). This sets oﬀ a chain of rebellion that results in destruction for Jerusalem and bitter punishment for Zedekiah. Thus God casts down the mighty, the one who seeks to exalt himself by rebellion.
Jehoiachin, however, who submitted to God’s punishment, is eventually released from prison and treated well in Babylon. It is through him that the kingly line of Judah will continue. This is where today’s reading focuses, as God promises to take a branch from the top of the cedar (the kingly line) and transplant it back to the mountain of God. This is the Messiah, who is often described by the prophets as a branch. Thus God exalts the humble who submit to his judgments.
Knowing this backstory we should take warning and comfort: warning to submit to God’s plan, and comfort that God is able to work through humiliating circumstances.
Paul writes about the paradox of the Christian life. We need the gift of fortitude, which comes from the Holy Spirit, to face this paradox. Our bodies are on the earth, and we do not see Jesus.
Though our faith brings us near to Jesus, we are still away from our true home. This is why the Christian life is one of mortification, a process of dying to self, which takes us to Jesus completely. Courage is needed, but it is not a courage born of our own efforts. Rather, it is given to us by the Holy Spirit, whose other gifts include joy and hope. In fact, St. Paul doesn’t say that we need courage; rather, he says that we are courageous.
Though our bodies are weak and will eventually die, we nonetheless “aspire to please [God].” And through our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we are actually able to earn a reward from God (or to merit everlasting punishment by refusing his grace). For “we must all appear before the judgment seat . . . so that each may receive recompense according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.”
Paul’s words manifest cheerful resignation to the designs of God. He does not gloss over the diﬃculties of the life of faith, but he is not discouraged by them. God’s gift of free will allows us to assist in the work of our salvation, but we must allow him to work in and through us if we are to bring forth good fruit.
God’s ways are far beyond our comprehension, and yet God wants to share his life with us. Jesus is the Word made Flesh, and he teaches about God’s ways in human terms. One way he does this is through parables. These stories often are drawn from common experience and are easy to remember. At the same time, they contain a kernel of mystery. Ideally, these parables will bring us to the feet of Jesus for further explanation.
The two parables of today’s Gospel draw from the common experience of farming or gardening. The first highlights the relative insignificance of the human effort involved in the important work of growing food. So much happens without our being aware of it. The farmer has to trust that the earth will perform its work, and the members of God’s Kingdom must trust in God to fulfill his promises.
The mustard shrub parable highlights the small beginnings of the Kingdom and its generosity. The little seed barely draws attention, but eventually it becomes a refuge of shade and strength. Likewise, the Kingdom of God, the Church, began with Jesus’s disciples, and now it embraces millions. Even today, the Church is often dismissed as irrelevant, yet she always emerges as the pillar of truth.
Please watch the short Opening the Word video reflection for today’s readings at StMichael.FORMED.org
Digging Deeper: Childlikeness
The Catechism teaches us that Jesus himself “asks for childlike abandonment to the providence of our heavenly Father who takes care of his children’s smallest needs: ‘Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” . . . Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all’ ” (CCC 305).
This logic of the Gospel directly contradicts our American ideal of self- sufﬁciency. As a culture, we’re embedded with an unholy self-reliance that inﬁltrates our faith life and makes us believe that we have to earn God’s love. This can keep us from true communion with God and with others. God offers his love freely, and when we remain like dependent children, we are able to receive the love from our good Father.
Reflections reprinted here with permission from Augustine Institute.