Like a Mustard Seed
I once saw a simple pendant the size of a small marble. It was clear plastic and in the middle was a tiny mustard seed. I was, of course, reminded of the parable found in today’s gospel, and I wondered at the possibilities that this tiny speck might hold. But when you think about it, everything comes from some kind of tiny seed, even each one of us did. Cosmologists tell us that the universe itself developed from the tiniest subatomic particle. The marvel of it boggles the mind. Just imagine — all of that potential packed into something that is too small to be detected even with our most powerful instruments. This is precisely what today’s readings would have us consider. With great poetic insight, both the reading from the prophet Ezekiel and the passage from Mark’s gospel draws on the seed metaphor to demonstrate the astonishing miracle of natural growth and the equally astonishing mystery of hidden potential.
The majestic cedar described in Ezekiel’s fable began as a tender shoot cut from the topmost branch of another tree. It took years to grow into the magnificent tree that it finally became. As is the case with all living beings, the growth was incremental, so gradual that in all probability its progress went undetected. The lofty mountain upon which it was planted may well have been the most challenging place for new seedlings. With little or no protection against inclement weather, its growth could have been compromised and its very survival placed in jeopardy. However, this was a shoot from a cedar, the hardy tree that thrives on mountaintops. Most likely the tender shoot was actually strengthened by the weather of the high altitude. Then, when it had grown, it added majesty to the mountain, and it served as home for all of the birds that ventured to the heights.
The prophet adds another very interesting theme, that of reversal:
…bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
wither up the green tree,
and make the withered tree bloom,
This cedar seems to be replacing other trees, trees that may have taken upon themselves a status and sense of entitlement that was not intrinsically theirs. These trees are now displaced and humbled while the imposing cedar rises to prominence and is sought out by the birds as a safe haven. Ezekiel used such imagery when talking about the restoration of the nation of Israel. Though it had been humiliated in defeat and exile, God would build it up again. This in itself is an encouraging message.
The parables that we read in the Gospel of Mark have a similar meaning. The seed that is scattered in the field and the mustard seed that is sown in the ground are very insignificant. However, they carry great potential within themselves. Their growth is not an overnight phenomenon, but when they do reach their full potential, overcoming all obstacles, the first yields a bountiful harvest, and the second becomes the abode of the birds of the sky. Jesus employs these parables to describe the reign of God, the new way of living that he came to proclaim. This way of living begins in very ordinary circumstances with apparently insignificant acts. But these acts are pregnant with extraordinary potential, and this potential gradually matures until it has spread itself far and wide.
Just as plant growth is imperceptible, so the development of the reign of God often escapes our awareness. In fact, as Paul tells us today, while we are living in this life, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Therefore, we should not misunderstand. There is a definite difference between plant growth and the development of the reign of God. We may have to wait a long time, but eventually, we will be able to see the plant’s progress. On the other hand, time alone will not reveal the action of God in the world today. We need eyes of faith for that. But then if we have eyes of faith, we will recognize the reign of God struggling to be realized in our midst everywhere and at all times, and we will not have to wait for a culminating event.
Where will we find the reign of God? Where should we look? We will find it unfolding in our homes whenever we are patient with or forgiving toward those with whom we live. We will recognize it in the helping hand extended to us at school or at work, in the gentle and healing touch of health caretakers, in the strong arm of those on whom we depend. We will appreciate it in the honesty with which financial or business transactions are conducted, in the willingness of others to provide for us in our need, in the courage of women and men who place themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. The reign of God is like an insignificant seed, overlooked by most, but cherished by those who know that it is brimming with potential.
Sr. Dianne Bergant, CSA
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Old Testament Studies