Sunday, June 17, is the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:2-3, 13-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34
How often do we hear that “people never change”?
There is a sense in which the maxim “people never change” is true: If you are fundamentally incompatible with someone, you shouldn’t marry them hoping that they will become a different person. No, he won’t be nicer to your family once you’re married; no, she won’t be less prone to anger after the wedding.
But there is also a healthy sense in which it isn’t true: If you are already married, you should never give up hope that your spouse will grow as a person. What we should say isn’t that “people never change,” but that people change in God’s time, with God’s grace. That is very different from never changing — even if it can be every bit as frustrating.
Today’s Gospel explains how grace and change work in the Kingdom of heaven. The farmer will “sleep and rise night and day; and through it all, the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord, the land yields fruit: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”
Elsewhere, Jesus describes a seed dying so that it can rise. So it is with virtue: We have to suffer and get encouraged for the good and discouraged for the bad — over and over again. And slowly but surely, we grow.
It is clear in Jesus’ image of the mustard seed who is responsible for this change — and it isn’t us. We bring the smallest amount of faith to the process, and his grace — which come to us in confession, in the Eucharist, in times of prayer, in acts of mercy and love — shapes us a little more each day, often imperceptibly.
So we can take hope in what Jesus says: We can change, and so can our loved ones. However, change doesn’t happen suddenly — it can take years.
But Jesus’ advice is never meant only for individuals, because we don’t exist as individuals. We exist in community with others. The readings also tell us that societies can change, with God’s grace, in God’s time.
The first reading applies a tree metaphor to a nation. In the language of ancient Hebrew allegory, the “strong cedar” is a kingdom. God will take a shoot from it and plant a greater tree, so that birds of all kinds will flock to it. The birds are the people of other nations. Here, God is shown to be planning something new. Christians rightly see the Church in this image of a sprout of Israel growing up to welcome others, just like Christ’s mustard tree.
“I, the Lord, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom,” says the reading. This happened to mighty Israel in the time of apostasy that Ezekiel experienced. It happened when Rome fell, when it was brought low but preserved in Christianity. It will also happen in America. If America turns from God, it too will find itself “brought low” while a lowly tree grows strong.
In each of those metaphors, Christians, true to God’s principles, flourish despite the decline and fall of the great nation they are a part of.
We may think of our own culture as terribly decadent. But it is important to realize how Christian values have already made it a much better place than it would have been without Christ. Our medical care is a beacon to the world, and our service to others helps the downtrodden all over the world. Even the virtues that we sometimes exaggerate — like tolerance and non-judgmentalism — are Christian ones.
St. Paul tells us how we are to behave as we wait for change — personal or communal. “We aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away,” he writes.“For we must all 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.”
One day God will judge us. He won’t just look at a few sins or a few good deeds. He will judge everything that we did throughout our lives. Like the slowly unfolding plant, like the seed becoming a mustard tree, we are called not to do great things, but to live each small moment with love. We are called to grow in little acts each day. God, who is very patient and not at all in a hurry, will bless us in his time.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.