Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Ez 17:22-24; 2 Cor 5:6-10; Mk 4:26-34
It is like a mustard seed . . . the smallest of all seeds on the earth . . ." (Mark 4:31)
The ordinary action of a woman taking a seat on a bus, in circumstances other than those of the segregated South of the 1950s, would have been totally inconsequential. But in December of 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger, it sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and launched the nation into the Civil Rights Movement. One small action by one previously unknown woman set in motion the whole struggle to begin to dismantle racism in the U.S. Her action, however, was not random or solitary. For many years she had been a member and secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. Much planning and strategizing had been underway before Rosa took action.
In today's Gospel Jesus tells a parable that uses the image of sowing a tiny seed to speak about the way radical change begins. A mustard seed is barely visible, and at first may escape notice when it settles into the soil. When it sprouts, however, it shoots up into a large, vigorous plant that spreads uncontrollably. It cannot be contained in defined plots, but crosses over into fields where it is unwanted. And once it takes root, it is nearly impossible to eradicate. In Jesus' parable this weed that was the bane of many farmers' existence, did not get into the field accidentally; it is deliberately sown.
In Mark's Gospel the mustard seed parable is coupled with another parable that describes the way in which the reign of God comes about over time, seemingly imperceptibly. Once the seeds of God's reign are sown, the one who scatters them goes about their daily work, sleeping and rising, night and day, while the seeds germinate and poke forth their first sprouts. The seeds keep growing and developing until the propitious moment arrives to take action for reaping the full harvest.
God's reign does not come with military might, nor is it brought from the exterior, or imposed on a subjugated people. Rather, it comes through the ordinary, everyday actions of seemingly insignificant people, whose seeds of faith and passion for justice have the power to make hope blossom forth for a transformed world. To plant such seeds takes the kind of courage which Paul urges upon the Corinthians in today's second reading. He speaks of courage to "walk by faith, not by sight," for those who sow the seeds of God's reign do not at the time see the end result. Rosa Parks' courageous action resulted in arrest, loss of her job, and personal hardship, before she had the satisfaction of knowing that she had played a large role in turning the tide for civil rights.
Sowing tiny seeds of hope has unforeseen effects that go far and wide. At the end of the mustard seed parable, Jesus says that all the birds of the sky will dwell in the shade of the mustard plant's large branches. The image is the same as in the first reading, where Ezekiel speaks of the hoped-for messianic time when all nations would be drawn to Israel. They would be like birds of all varieties flocking to the sheltering boughs of a cedar tree. These readings give us courage that no action is too small for sowing God's reign. They bolster our hope that faithful, everyday choices to scatter the seeds of Christ's love unleashes a power that can transform the world.
PRAYING WITH SCRIPTURE
- How are you planting seeds of hope this week?
- Pray for the courage to walk by faith and not by sight.
- What is the harvest of justice that has come from seeds of Christ's love planted by your faith community?
By Barbara E. Reid, O.P., Professor of New Testament Studies, Vice President and Academic Dean
This essay first appeared in Abiding Word. Sunday Reflections for Year B (Liturgical Press, 2011).
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