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On the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, the Gospel speaks about the Kingdom of God in a way that makes it hard to remember that it is a kingdom we are talking about.
A kingdom is a realm ruled over by a powerful figure. So how is it like a garden or a mustard tree?
“This is how it is with the kingdom of God,” Jesus says in the Gospel, then he describes a man planting seeds and waiting patiently as the seeds sprout, grow and mature to harvest.
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God?” he asks and settles on a tiny seed becoming “the largest of plants and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
So the kingdom of God — his court and stronghold and rule — is like a garden or a tree. How so?
Jesus Christ is the final and eternal king and ruler over the world, the ultimate example of all of all the “kings” who he sent before him. First was Adam, given dominion over the animals and called to tend the Garden of Eden that surrounded the Tree of Life. Next was Noah, meant to gather the animals and preserve them through the flood, who saw hope in the olive branch. Then came Abraham, who staked his claim and called on God by planting a tamarisk tree; then Moses who spoke to God in the burning bush and eventually David, the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” whose kingdom is to last forever.
The kingdom, in other words, is all about restoring the order God gave to creation. We succeed by cooperating with God’s law, his logos, the logic of his universe, and we fail whenever we try to inhibit or thwart his will.
First, apply this to how the kingdom of God reigns in your heart.
The image of grace Jesus uses in describing the growth of plants actually describes how God works all the time. He starts small, and lets development happen in stages — “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”
Think of it like an embryo, beginning at conception, growing slowly, steadily, to birth and then being baptized. Or think of it like a baptized child growing day by day until he or she is big enough to be consecrated, ordained, or married, or otherwise begin to spread the kingdom of God.
Once it is planted in a person through baptism, the kingdom comes gradually, inevitably, strongly, and not by their power. We impede it with inaction, stop it altogether with mortal sin, or we help it along with small acts of faith, hope and love.
The tiny seed of faith we receive matures into a great mustard tree, one that we hope will “flourish like the palm tree” or “the cedar of Lebanon,” as we pray in the Psalm.
And that’s where the Church comes in — or fails to, as the case may be.
St. Peter Chrysologus sees both the corn and the mustard tree of today’s reading as growing in the same garden. “The Church is a garden extending over the whole world,” he writes, “tilled by the plough of the Gospel, fenced in by stakes of doctrine and discipline, cleared of every harmful weed by the labor of the apostles, fragrant and lovely with perennial flowers.”
This is a beautiful image that applies to each of us in the Church. This is also why sins of omission are so dastardly. We all know what happens to an untended garden — there is one in my yard right now. My children planted it, then neglected it. Weeds have taken it over, leaving their plants to fight for sun, water and nutrients. Their failure to erect boundaries for it means that it now looks just like the yard that surrounds it, only worse because the simulacrum of a garden still remains.
This applies in the life of a Christian who lets things slip. Soon our spiritual life is overrun by the weeds of sin, then it is weak, then we look just like unbelievers, or worse.
This also applies in the life of the Church in its hierarchy. When those who have been entrusted with its Gospel, doctrine and discipline let things slip, when they don’t sow seeds in new souls by relentlessly promoting baptism, when they don’t provide the sacrament of confession to the baptized, the Church starts to look identical to the world around it — or worse. It becomes wild, overgrown and ugly.
The real trouble will come at harvest time.
“When the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come,” says Jesus in the Gospel.
St. Paul, in the Second Reading , tells the Corinthians that we are away from home. Our true homeland is in heaven, but now “We walk by faith not by sight.”
What do we see by faith, not sight? The ways to “aspire to please him,” he says, “for we must appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.”
What we do now counts not just for now, but in the “forever” of our true home with God. What we fail to do now is also a failure not just for now, but in the “forever” after death.
If that’s scary, it probably should be. But today’s readings are far more comforting than scary. They show that the Christian life is not our doing, but God’s. What we have to do is cooperate, with small “mustard seed” acts that grow enormous by his grace.
In the end, the only way to be grafted on to Christ is by grafting ourselves onto the new Tree of Life — the cross.
The Prophet Ezekiel in the First Reading recounts how God will “bring low the high tree,” and “lift high the lowly tree.” He will take a “tender shoot” and “plant it on a high and lofty mountain.”
St. Jerome described what this means. “The high tree humbled and the humble tree exalted refer to the passion of the Lord and savior, ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’ And after the resurrection, this very wood was raised high.”
The cross, a symbol of death, humility and shame, is now exalted at the highest point in cathedrals and churches across the world. The more we associate ourselves with the humble tree of the cross, the more we too will be exalted.
We “shall bear fruit even in old age,” says the Psalm, and not only that, but in the afterlife: “They that are planted in the house of the LORD shall flourish in the courts of our God,” it says.
Those who plant the kingdom here on earth will enjoy it in heaven.
Image: Benedictine College students took this picture on a mission trip to Tanzania.