June 13; 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

11th OT2 20 21God is still in charge

This entire year has plunged many into an existential crisis. Plans have been disrupted, some even cancelled, anxiety levels have escalated as we struggle to comprehend and navigate a future that remains uncertain. One thing that many have learnt during this year is that, we are not in charge. Before this, we had bought into the myth that through hard work and a can-do (Malaysia Boleh) attitude, we can control our own lives. We can master our own destiny, captain our own ship, and set a course for the future. But we’ve realised that control is an illusion. The good news is that God is still in charge. You just need to get out of the way.
Today’s gospel treats us to two parables instead of one: the parable of the growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed. You may have heard it explained to you that parables are short stories which our Lord likes to tell His audience and how we wished that all our priests would confine their homiletic material to similar anecdotal wonders, instead of meandering off into some inexplicable theological maze where everyone gets lost. This is the popularly held view. But though their content seems simple and the message simpler still, they actually do contain something far more profound. That is why the learned of Jesus’ time often found difficulty in comprehending His message and why our Lord had to explain the meaning of these stories to His own disciples, who should have known better.

Pope Emeritus Benedict explains that through parables, our Lord “shows how the divine light shines through in the things of this world and in the realities of our everyday life.” The whole of creation is a revelation of God’s mysteries, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. I’m reminded of the words of Elizabeth Barret Browning who wrote:

“Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God,

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

The Greek word “parabole” means juxtaposing, placing side by side, making a comparison. And that is basically how we learn. We compare things that we already know with new things that we are getting to know. On the surface, the parables are simple enough for a child to understand. They make spiritual realities accessible by conveying them in concrete images, instead of theoretical abstractions. But paradoxically, these parables have a mysterious dimension, a hidden depth of meaning that is not always easy to grasp and that comes to light only upon thoughtful, open-minded and faith-filled reflexions. Therefore, the parables both conceal and reveal the mystery of the kingdom, depending on the disposition of the hearer. More importantly, parables elicit a response. We cannot remain neutral in the face of a parable, they are not just nice stories to be enjoyed, but they provoke thought and challenges the listener to a decisive response to our Lord and His message. You will either love Him or hate Him.

Let us consider the first parable in today’s passage. This is a parable which is only found here in Saint Mark’s gospel. Unlike the more familiar parable of the Sower and the Seeds which focuses on the different kinds of soil, this parable highlights the intrinsic power of the seed. The sower in this parable literally scatters his seeds and then goes about his daily routine with little care for “how his garden grows.” He has such confidence in the power of his seed that he doesn’t seem to fret over the outcome of his planting. Slowly, imperceptibly, the seed begins to sprout. For the man in the story, life is a mystery as our Lord explains, “Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know.” The man does not know how it is happening, neither is he in control of the process. He understands that God is ultimately in control and he just needs to get out of the way.

With this parable, our Lord explains that the Kingdom of God is a divine work, not a human achievement. God brings about its growth, which at times is imperceptible. Sometimes we grow impatient and we attempt to hurry things along, but our efforts can never determine the time and condition of the final outcome which is in the hands of God. We can only cooperate, but we cannot control or hasten the arrival of the Kingdom by our efforts, any more than the farmer can harvest his grains at a time of his own choosing. The lesson is that we should place less confidence in our own ingenuity, efforts or machinations, but more in the Lord. Saint Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth” (1 Cor 3:6-7). The parable serves as an encouragement for those who think their efforts are fruitless, and a warning for those who think they can bring about the kingdom by their own programmes.

The next parable is more familiar - it is the parable of the mustard seed. Because the Kingdom is a divine reality and not a humanly engineered utopia, it cannot be defined or contained in human categories. It can only be understood by using analogies that force the listener to think and ponder at a deeper level. In this second parable, the emphasis is on the smallness of the mustard seed. A mustard seed is insignificant in comparison to the glorious kingdom. The contrast is meant to be a hyperbole, a literary exaggeration, e.g. “I’m so hungry I could eat an entire horse.” And so, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” when “sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.” The outcome is also another hyperbole because a mustard plant can never grow into a huge tree. This tree sounds like the cosmic tree spoken of by the prophets (Daniel 4:10-12 and Ezekiel 31:6). This tree signifies the new heavens and new earth, it points to the resurrected life of the age to come. And it all starts with a mustard seed. The growth of the kingdom will not be due to human efforts but entirely driven by God’s hidden power.

So, back to the question: “who’s in charge?” If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, is that we are not in charge. As long as we hold onto our illusion, we are setting ourselves up for a major disappointment – we will continue to be fearful and anxious. When we choose to trust God, though, He transforms us into people who find our strength and our confidence in Him rather than in ourselves.

The parables are also important reminders that the growth of the kingdom can be hard to trace, detect, or measure. So many grow impatient and despondent when they are unable to detect any significant or visible change. But God often works quietly and in a hidden manner, but His hand remains firmly on the wheel. This is the paradox of Christ’s kingdom—a mysterious mix of visibility and hiddenness, glory and humility, power and weakness. But why is this the paradox of the kingdom? Because this paradox matches Christ’s cross. He had to appear defeated in order to be victorious. He accepted humiliation at the moment of His glorification. He had to die in order to win for us eternal life. And though it may seem, that His enemies were in control, He was, is now and will always be in control. So, don’t be deceived into thinking that God is doing nothing about the mess that we are in. He is doing something and He is always in charge. Let us just stop whining, stay out of the way and let Him do His job.