Thus says the Lord GOD:Ezekiel 17:22-24
I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.
And all the trees of the field shall know
that I, the LORD,
bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
wither up the green tree,
and make the withered tree bloom.
As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,Mark 4:30-32
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
If you were listening closely today at Mass, you may have found yourself asking: “didn’t I just hear this?” during the Gospel reading. But no, there wasn’t a mistake – in her wisdom, the Church has us read these parallel texts together in order to give us a deeper understanding of Jesus’ familiar parable and of the kingdom of God.
Jesus is the key to all Sacred Scripture, and with this in mind, we see just what God promises through the prophet Ezekiel in today’s reading, taken from an extended allegory in which a cedar represents the people of Israel:
“I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar / from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, / and plant it on a high and lofty mountain; / on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.”Ezekiel 17:22-23
This tender shoot is Christ, born from the people of Israel, and God plants Him on the mountain heights at Calvary. In His crucifixion, Jesus is physically planted and raised above the ground, but He is also glorified by His act of complete obedience to the Father and self-emptying love.
“It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, / and become a majestic cedar. / Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, / every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.”Ezekiel 17:23
Glorified in the resurrection, Christ bears fruit in the Church, and people of every nation are brought to faith in the One True God.
In Mark’s version of the parable of the mustard seed, we see the same language about branches and birds. And if the tender shoot from Ezekiel was really Christ, then perhaps we should consider the mustard seed to be the same. Jesus tells us “…when [it] is sown in the ground, [the mustard seed] is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants.” Laid in the tomb after the humiliation of the cross, Jesus appears to be the very lowest and least. But through this humiliation comes the resurrection, and in rising He reveals Himself to be the greatest of all: God made Man. As the Church is born from His wounded side and later sent forth by His gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ “puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its [His] shade”.*
As Christians eager to help build the kingdom of God, perhaps we are accustomed to using the parable of the mustard seed to show that even the smallest act of faith can eventually grow into great works for the Lord. But if we aren’t careful, it is quite easy to make ourselves the center of that lesson. How often does our humble effort to spend just a few more minutes in prayer, do one more kind thing for someone else each day, or begin giving time to a parish ministry conceal a sort of ambition to eventually be recognized for our personal holiness, selflessness, or leadership? How often do we ask God for His mercy and forgiveness, but silently take pride in our growing acknowledgement of our lowliness? How often do we brush aside compliments for a small good thing we’ve done, but mostly because we expect to do greater and more compliment-worthy things later? How often do we make the mustard seed – which becomes the largest of plants – simply ourselves, and the kingdom of God simply our own works?
But the kingdom of God, once sown as the smallest seed but now the largest of plants, is Christ Himself. Through today’s readings from Ezekiel and Mark’s Gospel, we are reminded that Jesus – by accepting the greatest of all humiliations and the lowest of all places – became the mustard seed that, once sown, now puts forth its huge branches for us all. But as the words of Ezekiel tell us, this plant will bear fruit, and we can be the fruit of Christ’s resurrection through our baptism. As fruit adorns a tree but will rot away or be eaten on its own, our own acts of selfless love adorn the perfect love of Christ when we seek to glorify Him rather than ourselves. Our faith and good works must be united with the love poured out on the cross, and that means they must be self-emptying, seeking only the eternal good of our brothers and sisters and the glory of God. This is only possible with gratitude. Recognizing the beautiful and unparalleled gift we have been given in Jesus, the only response is to give thanks – by receiving Him in the Eucharist, by using what we have for the good of all, and by trusting that His teachings and those of His Church are always given for our benefit.
In this way, the parable of the mustard seed challenges us to follow Christ with a humility that imitates His own. The almighty and eternal God took on our humanity and chose to die for our sake, and no act of faith, obedience, or sacrifice on our part can ever compare with that love, lived perfectly to the end. If we respond to His love with faith, however, we can be united with Him as part of His Body, our obedience to the Father and works of charity adorning His. We cannot ourselves be the mustard seed and become the largest of plants, but Christ invites us to be part of Him as He does so, and this is the greatest thing we could ever be, a more wonderful call than we could ever imagine.
*The reading of the branches of the mustard plant as the Apostles spreading out over the world is from Theophylact of Ohrid’s commentary, accessed as part of the Catena Aurea of Thomas Aquinas.