The slow, mysterious growth of the Kingdom
(Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34)
Introduction to Mass
The readings today emphasise that God's Kingdom or God's rule is a matter of God's activity more than ours. If we are open to God and willing to wait patiently while his grace takes effect, we will gradually be brought under his influence. If we plant the seeds, Christ says, God will produce the fruits, at the individual level and at the wider social level.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
God's Kingdom was the central image of Jesus' preaching during his ministry on earth but it wasn't an image that he had invented himself. It was a symbol with a long history in the religious thinking of the Jewish people, an image with many different layers of meaning.
For one thing the Chosen People had a strong sense that because of their special Covenant with God, he, and only he, was the real or ultimate sovereign of the nation, rather than any human king. The Chosen People understood this even when they had their own monarchy - and indeed the prophets criticised the monarch for falling short of the standards of God's kingship.
This is partly what we get in the first reading today. The prophet Ezekiel conjures up a rather picturesque image of God's kingship or rulership of his people.
Ezekiel reminds the people that God is their sovereign - something they were always in danger of forgetting or overlooking - and he informs them that God wants to see the nation display certain characteristics: their society is to be a spacious, peaceable, hospitable shelter for everyone. These are the qualities that God will impart to the community, if they're open to him.
Examples of bad kings and oppressive rulers were very familiar to the Jewish people. Kings were often dictators who lived luxuriously and occupied themselves with their own power and glory. If the monarch was tyrannical and oppressive, the whole machinery of government was permeated with corruption and violence, and the whole of society suffered, especially the poorest and weakest sections. People lived without rights or any guarantee of freedom from injustice.
God's Reign was pictured as the complete opposite of the reign of these corrupt earthly kings. His "rule" arose out of the basic facets of his character, his holiness, his justice, his favouritism towards the poorest and weakest members of society.
In the first reading Ezekiel gives us a clear sense of these priorities. "I am the one," God says, "who stunts tall trees and makes the low ones grow, who withers green trees and makes the withered green".
God reverses worldly values and structures. The rich, the powerful, the successful in worldly terms have no place under God's Reign. But the poor, the powerless, the humble are those who belong to God and will be welcomed into his company.
Ezekiel is appealing to his fellow-believers: if you truly want to acknowledge God as king then you have to make society conform to God's rule. If society fails to embody justice, harmony, practical concern for the welfare of all and measures to eliminate exploitation and misery, then it's falling short of what God wills, and God won't be satisfied until the features of his reign are made much more obvious in the community.
Turning to the gospel we find Christ preaching his own distinctive vision of God's Kingdom.
By way of parables Jesus presents the Kingdom as the power or the energy of God which takes root in us and begins to grow and expand slowly and imperceptibly - and by a force outside our own control. He proclaims God's Reign as the life-force of God, the influence of God's grace, which changes individuals, relationships and situations so long as people are open to it and rely on it.
On the one hand Jesus describes God's rule as something which we don't bring about by our efforts and activities. He describes it as an energy that comes from God, not from us. Our role is to be open and receptive to it, and even to wait patiently while it's impact takes effect. The land produces the crop "of its own accord" Jesus says, without any action on the farmer's part.
But then on the other hand our attitude to God's Kingdom isn't meant to be completely passive. We have to be willing on our part to co-operate with God and with the impact he makes on us, and Jesus puts that idea across with his references to the farmer preparing the land and sowing the seeds - and eventually harvesting the fully-grown crop. God will never take root and grow in someone who isn't fundamentally open to him or refuses to invite him in.
But the other important point in Jesus' parable here is that when we open ourselves to God's influence it's impact doesn't usually show itself immediately and obviously. God works on us and changes us slowly and imperceptibly, and it's usually only by a very gradual process that he removes our sinfulness and selfishness and produces the features of his own character instead: holiness, justice, love.
The Kingdom in this sense takes shape within our personality or character as individuals, but God's Reign also has an impact on social relations and community life. This takes us back to what Ezekiel was implying in the first reading: that God's rule is something which affects the whole moral atmosphere of society, not just individual people. God's Reign means fostering the values of holiness and justice and love in the structures of society, so that the whole ethos of society encourages the best aspects of human nature, not the worst and the lowest.
When he was inaugurated, Pope Benedict remarked on the different types of desert that exist now in modern society: not just the desert of material poverty, which is certainly a growing problem globally as well as nationally, but the emotional and spiritual desert that results from a purely materialistic vision of life. Our efficient, wealthy, consumer society hasn't produced a great sum of human happiness: we're more aware of a worrying strain of hopelessness, ugliness, violence, the increasing denial of human dignity at all sorts of levels.
In these circumstances, where the moral values of society actually have a corrupting effect on its citizens, we have every reason for holding fast to that central symbol of Jesus' preaching, the Kingdom of God, and for deepening our understanding of its various layers of meaning. As things get darker and bleaker in society at large we have to return all the more faithfully to our own source of light and hope: the way of the Kingdom.
That's what the readings this Sunday point us towards.
God works on two levels: he transforms people as individuals, draws them into his life and moulds them in the shape of his own holiness; and also, when people are open to him, he transforms the atmosphere of the community so that our vocation to live in communion with God is easier to discern and easier to embrace.
The imagery of the readings today invite each of us to commit ourselves to that: to think how we might receive the seeds of the Kingdom, in the concrete circumstances of our own lives, and to co-operate patiently with God as he brings them to full grain, as he surely will if we are willing and welcoming towards him.