Fr. Bryan Howard
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – 17 June 2018
Today’s readings teach us that appearances can be deceiving, and that the Lord can take something that seems to be small and insignificant and make something great come out of it. We are that small and insignificant thing, and the Lord wants to make something great happen within us, but He can only do it if we cooperate with His work. If we are full of ourselves, then we won’t have any room left over for the Lord, so we must empty ourselves and ask God to fill us back up.
In the first reading, the Prophet Ezekiel is talking about the Kingdom of Israel. At the time He’s speaking, the 10 Northern tribes had been conquered by the Assyrian Empire, the people taken into exile and scattered, and foreigners settled on their land. Now, the two tribes that are left have been attacked and defeated by the Babylonian Empire and are on the brink of defeat. Ezekiel says that right now, they are like a little branch that’s been torn off from the tree, but the Lord will plant that branch and make a large Cedar grow from it, thus restoring the Kingdom. He says, “And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom.”
In the Gospel Jesus uses something even smaller, a seed, a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds. The mustard seed grows into a great plant and all the birds of the air find shelter in its branches. The seed represents the Church, which started out small and insignificant, just 11 apostles, Mary, and maybe a few others. They had no money, no power, and no important people, as the world counts it, but God made the Church grow, underground, as it were, and today it’s the largest religion in the world and all peoples are welcomed under her roof.
In many places the Church still seems weak and insignificant, like the Middle East, China, Vietnam, and many other places where Christians are persecuted. Remember, there have been many times throughout history when the Church seemed on the brink of defeat from tyrants like Nero, Diocletian, and Emperor Henry V, and the various Muslim invasions of Europe. Those tyrants and their regimes are now nothing more than footnotes to history, but the Church is still here, not because the leaders of the Church were so wise and good, but thanks to the grace of God.
The idea of the little seed that becomes the great plant might remind you of something else that Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus is the seed. Jesus was born as the son of a poor carpenter, who couldn’t even get a room at the inn, not the son of a wealthy nobleman. He lived His life in obscurity before starting His public ministry. He didn’t seek fame, in fact He told people not to tell anyone about the miracles He performed. He didn’t try to overthrow the government, but He allowed Himself to be crucified with common criminals. He emptied Himself and was planted, or buried, in the ground, but He rose again on the third day in glory. He showed us that we must also empty ourselves by making ourselves small and humble, then one day we too will arise in glory, the glory that only God can give. If we try to take it for ourselves, then we will lose it forever, but if we follow Him, and take up our crosses, then He will bring us into the Kingdom of Heaven.
I recently read something that illustrates my point. This story was recorded by St. Justin Martyr, who was born about the year 100 A.D. and lived just 20 miles or so from Nazareth. He knew the descendants of people who knew Jesus before He started His public ministry. The story was passed down that Jesus was a carpenter and He specialized in making yokes for Oxen. For a poor farmer, an ox might be the most expensive thing they own, like a piece of heavy farm equipment today. If the yoke wasn’t fit just right then it would rub on the ox’s shoulders and create sores, which might get infected and kill the ox. Jesus had the reputation of being the best with animal collars and yokes, and people would come from all over the region of Galilee to have their animals fitted for collars by Jesus. This is how we empty ourselves. In whatever you happen to be doing, in how you treat your family, how you treat strangers, how you do your job, how you pray, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, do it to the best of your ability, do it with love and compassion, and do it so that it makes a worthy offering to the Lord.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.