Ez 17:22-24 • 2 Cor 5:6-10 • Mk 4:26-34
Beginning when he was in high school, Jerry worked for a church camp during his summers. The camp was considered far out in the country, and it was rather rustic. The caretaker who lived year-round at the camp, was a country man, wise with practical knowledge, and he loved to needle the boy who came to work at the camp each year. Summer after summer, almost every day, the caretaker would find a way to ask the younger man, “Let me borrow your pocket knife.” The young man would say that he did not have one, at which the caretaker would always shake his head in fake disgust and say, “City Boy!” The young man said it was the caretaker’s way of telling him that there was more to know than “book-learning.” Book-learning taught many important things, but practical knowledge—like having a pocketknife when working in the country—was just as important.
In today’s Gospel we witness the wry humor of Jesus, a type of humor that made his listeners look at things in both different and new ways.
Ezekiel tells us of the magnificent cedar tree standing tall “on a high and lofty mountain.” The cedars mentioned in the Old Testament were the Lebanon Cedar that grows in the mountains of the Mediterranean region, Israel being part of its habitat. It is an extremely tall tree, growing upwards of 130 feet. Compare that to the American Sequoia, the tallest tree in the world, that grows as tall as 270 feet. The Lebanon Cedar grows only at high altitudes, anywhere from 3,300–6,500 feet above sea level.
The wood of the Lebanon Cedar was used for many purposes during the early centuries, especially for shipbuilding. The Pharos of Egypt prized the wood. The Palace of David and the Temple of Solomon were built from its wood. The fragrance of the wood masked many awful smells.
Ezekiel preached in the southern kingdom of Judah. He did his best to call the people to authentic worship, something abandoned by their kings. He prophesied the fall of the kingdom. When Babylon conquered Jerusalem and took its leading citizens into exile, Ezekiel was among them. In today’s passage, Ezekiel offers hope to the exiles. One day God will take a sprig of the cedar tree — a remnant of the people of the kingdom — plant it, and see it grow to its majestic height once more on the tallest mountain, the tree being a metaphor for the House of David. Ezekiel alludes to the Tree of Life in Genesis, noting that life will return to the tree’s branches. His words are addressed to desperate exiles whose future seemed terribly bleak. Not only did Ezekiel give the people a vision to hold onto, but also he promised justice. The promise that the Lord will “bring low the high tree” and “wither up the green tree” was a warning to the rich and powerful. Wealth and power are fleeting. The power of God will be seen throughout the world when God raises up the powerless and humbles the powerful.
There is no doubt that this vision was in Jesus’ mind when He likened the kingdom of God to a mustard seed that grows into a large plant. The mustard plant is a shrub at best. It grew like kudzu in the American South. It was almost unstoppable once it started to grow in gardens and fields.
Like most of Jesus’ listeners, the listeners in today’s Gospel passage were people who had to grow their own food. They, like Jesus, would have been familiar with Ezekiel’s promise to the exiles of old that the kingdom would one day be like the majestic cedar. Although we might not catch the humor — Middle Eastern humor is not western humor — Jesus had likened the kingdom of God to a weed! His listeners would have caught the humor and the message.
The kingdom of God was something different from what they had always imagined. Using the proverbial mustard seed, which is in fact very small, especially when compared to the mature plant, Jesus made it clear that, while the kingdom had started very small, it is unstoppable. The very mention of God’s reign as being a “kingdom” was clearly in opposition to the “kingdom of Rome” that was no less an oppressor than Babylon centuries before.
We must not let our “book-learning” get in the way of learning about God’s kingdom. It is more than we think. When we lose hope about the effectiveness of the Church in the world, do not forget the cedar! TP