Eleventh Sunday, Year B

The preceding sequence of Gospel readings was constituted by a series of scenes showing Jesus healing the sick and expelling demons. His way of acting with an unprecedented authority, his initiatives, his sovereign freedom of action, particularly on the holy day of sabbath, at first intrigued the by-standers—’Who is this man acting in this manner?’ But this question rapidly began to connote suspicion—’By what right does he take the liberty of ignoring the strict norms that the most pious take such pains to maintain and to impose on all?’ Jesus’ trial had already begun: the accusations of blasphemy and contempt for the Law have begun to be whispered. Mark has led his readers into the midst of the crowd, who witness in silence this beginning of conflict, which forebode grave risks for Jesus, especially after scribes came from Jerusalem to observe for themselves this strange man’s conduct. The way the narrative is handled challenges us, as disciples, to choose our side, to verify or to ratify, with a better appreciation of what is at stake, the steadfastness of our original option. Now in the short sequence over the next two weeks, our Gospel invites us to listen to an excerpt from the teaching given in parables, then, to meditate on this new manifestation of the authority of Jesus, ‘Whom even wind and sea obey.’ (Twelfth Sunday)

After they have followed Jesus from synagogue to synagogue on the by-ways of Galilee, this Sunday’s Gospel suggests the Christians sit down for a while in the attitude of disciples who attentively listen to the Lord’s word so that it may enter their hearts. The two short parables read today deal precisely with the burial of the word and the condition of its growth.

The kingdom of God began on the day the ‘sower went out to sow.’ In the gospels, this refers to Jesus and his ministry. This does not mean that, before him, the word had not yet been sown; provided the soil has been prepared—ploughed and harrowed the word was sown; the whole of the Old Testament testifies to such an interpretation. But, with Jesus’ coming, the last sowing of the season is taking place. Now is the time of sprouting and growth, after which will come the harvest and the storing of the fruits in God’s granary on the day of judgement. Therefore, as we are admonished in the beginning of this discourse in parables, we must attentively listen to Jesus’ teaching.

The parable of the seed growing by itself places God at centre stage. He is there in the beginning to sow the field, and there at the time of harvest, when he wields the sickle in the field, that is, at the time of judgement evoked by these two images. Meanwhile, the soil and the seed do their mysterious work; the seed germinates and grows, one, ‘knows not how’ ‘night and day,’ whether the sower sleeps or wakes. As often happens in parables, we may notice here some details that do not fit the situation described. Any farmer knows that after having sown the good grain, one cannot remain idle and be content with waiting for the earth to produce of itself ‘first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.’ Jesus also knows this, as we see in the parable of the sower. We must further work the earth or at least prevent the weeds from overrunning it. But the focus here is not on this point. We do not hasten the growth of a developing plant by looking at it, rather, we are faced with the mystery of the transformation in process: a seed is buried in the ground and soon sprouts, becoming in a few weeks a long stem with a heavy ear, if the sower has selected quality seed. ‘This is how it is with the kingdom of God’—the seed carries within an extraordinary force of fecundity beyond any comparison.

God, therefore, trusts the seed. He knows that it can produce up to one hundredfold. His inaction does not imply any lack of interest for the outcome of the sowing, as if it were going to happen automatically; still less does it imply any sort of fatalism. ‘Happen what may!’ If the harvest is bad or poor, he will attribute it to the soil’s lack of fertility. There are ‘The ones on the path……Satan comes at once and takes away the word sown in them’; the ones who have no root; the ones who let’ worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things’ choke the word, and it therefore bears no fruit. Accounts will be settled in due course, at the ‘harvest.’ The present resting of God is like an implicit exhortation to watchfulness and an appeal to everyone’s responsibility. Any questions regarding this divine discretion will, perhaps, be answered by a second parable.

God is not absent and distant. Invisibly, he ensures the growth of the work in all those who receive it’ with a generous and good heart.’

The kingdom of God is ‘like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But, once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.’ When one thinks of it, the kingdom of God began in a puny manner. In a relatively obscure province of the Roman Empire, for some three years, a man, surrounded by a handful of Galileans, walks through the region preaching and working miracles. The popular enthusiasm that he arouses for a time does not prevent him from being betrayed by one of his own and condemned to die on a criminal’s cross. Bewildered by this tragic end, not knowing what to think, those whom Jesus had chosen and called apostles try to drop out of sight. The announcement of their Lord’s resurrection, far from reassuring them, adds to their confusion, as unexpected, good news they cannot believe. The risen Christ’s apparitions give them the assurance that the crucified one is alive. But he leaves them again. Then comes the event of Pentecost and the beginning of a wonderful adventure. Christian communities sprout throughout the entire Mediterranean world—even to Rome—as a result of preaching by the Eleven and those who join them. Among them is a recent persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, who will become the apostle, Paul. The minuscule seed in a corner of the earth has become in a few years the Church that gathers believers of all races, peoples, and tongues.

The development of the Church and the spreading of the Gospel will not always continue at such pace. There will be all sorts of crisis, often so grave that they will seem deadly. Paganism will be reborn out of its own ashes, even sometimes in a land sown for a long time with the word of God, covered with trees that once bore marvellous fruit; beautiful gardens will become deserts again. Gloominess, fearful withdrawing into themselves, if not despair, will sometimes threaten the oldest Churches, which in time will see their adherents’ numbers shrink.

‘With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.’ The conclusion repeats what has already been said after the parable of the sower: ‘And when he was alone, those present along with the Twelve questioned him about the parables.’ Jesus explains why he uses this teaching device. ‘To those outside’ who have ears but do not hear, parables remain enigmas; this is what explains the meagre success of Jesus’ teaching and the incomprehension he suffers. This fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘They may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.’

Jesus, therefore, did not teach in parables because everybody immediately understands the form of the language, i.e. As we might speak at a child in telling them stories. Everyone has learned that parables are not the simple little stories they appear to be. We need perspicacious minds to comprehend their deep meaning, not perspicacity of intellectuals—’the wise and the learned’— but that of simple ones, in the evangelical sense of the term, the little ones who are open to God’s things, to the mysteries God reveals to them. To penetrate their meaning, we must listen to them or read them with the desire to be taught like a disciple, by the light of the Spirit, in a climate of prayer.

In Mark’s Gospel, the teaching in parables pertains to what has been called ‘the messianic secret.’ Jesus addresses himself to everybody, to the crowds. There is no problem as long as his teaching is received as rather general and standard, as confirmation of what is already known. It is quite another thing when we suspect that it implies a novelty that runs counter to accepted ideas, well-established ways of judging and acting. This strange newness upsets us, especially when it concerns the religious domain. We become defensive and either cease to pay attention to the teacher or argue against him. ‘By what right does he speak in this manner?’ But the simple ones, those free from prejudices are struck with Jesus’ authority in words and acts, and they react differently. They perceive that Jesus knows the secrets the kingdom, the secrets of God. They put questions to him and Jesus explains everything to them in private. The parables then cease to be enigmas for the disciples; they reveal to them ‘the mystery of the kingdom of God.’ As to the ‘secret’ that is thus unveiled to them, they must not jealously keep it for themselves or for a few privileged initiates. ‘What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.’ ‘For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible’ ‘Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’

The rapid expansion and the vast diffusion of the Gospel must not fool us; there remains a great deal to do before the sown word may germinate everywhere. The slowness of the germination and the rejection of the word must not dishearten us. Our time is that of patience, not that of harvest and accounts. We must believe in the hidden fecundity of the word: a minute seed will grow beyond all hope. However, this certitude is not meant to generate or justify a lazy fatalism. We are journeying in faith, without seeing, but we must be confident that we can apply ourselves to please the Lord. Then the power of the Gospel will unfold in us and around us, even if we cannot accurately appreciate its extent. Here we have an absolute certainty because it is founded upon God, who scatters the grain in his field. Amen.