June 17, 2018 — Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“I think that I shall never see…A poem lovely as a tree.” That is the opening stanza of a poem by American poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer. We know Kilmer better as a poet, but in his time he was also considered to be a great Catholic apologist. He was often compared to his English counterpart G. K. Chesterton. Clearly Kilmer had a great fondness for trees that is Biblically sound.
Trees have always had significance in the Bible. They are first mentioned in the second Book of Genesis with the “Tree of Life.” Along with mountains and the sea, trees are bigger than we are; they stand when we fall, and they endure when we pass away. Yet, unlike the sea and the hills, we can muster the power to overcome trees. We can chop them down and put them to use.
In today’s readings trees are significant from a number of standpoints. One of our problems in Biblical interpretation lies in our inability to see the world as charged with the power and glory of God. We decide that, for example, the “tree of life” means something in particular. Yet, we can feel trees and smell them in many instances. Trees are important in today’s readings.
The First Reading from Ezekiel makes reference to a tree to be planted by God: “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.” This is Ezekiel’s version of the prophecy by Isaiah: “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch will grow out of its roots.” In other words, from something that was thought to be dead, God promises to bring forth a wonderful and productive growth — Jesus.
St. Paul offers another perspective of being a branch or a limb from a tree. The Body of Christ, the Church, can also be compared to a tree with many branches, perhaps each serving a different purpose, but all combining to produce the whole. That is what we as a Church are like and why each of us in his or her own way is important to the total. It is all held together by the Holy Spirit.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s life gave him great confidence, a confidence he feels we should share. When Paul writes, “We are always courageous,” we must realize that the Greek word translated as “courageous” can also be translated as “confident.” With the confidence he had, Paul knew that God was at work within him. Paul reminds us often that this confidence comes from the realization that we are to “set our minds on things above, not things on earth.
Thanks to the Lord we are part of the Body of Christ, what might be termed the great Tree of Life.
At the Heart of our Gospel Reading from St. Mark is the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Speaking of this seed, Jesus says, “But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches.” Our Lord and Savior is the perfect teacher. It was through parables that He was able to present profound spiritual truths. His parables were often intended for simple people, but also to an agrarian population — that is, people familiar with agriculture and agricultural terms.
The mustard seed and mustard plan were something that would have been familiar to most of His listeners. As is the case with everything Jesus said, scholars have studied and examined and developed opinions on what He meant. The mustard seed was not the smallest seed, and the plant it produced was not the largest, but yet even to this day there are wild mustard plants over ten feet tall near the Jordan River. Jesus was most likely referring to black or white mustard seeds and plants. Mustard, as we know it, was made by grinding the seeds.
There were three important features of the mustard plant that the Lord knew his audience would understand — the small size of the seed, the large size of the plant, and the rapid germination and growth of the plant. That is part of the importance of all trees and large plants as they tend to come from seeds, perhaps not always tiny ones, but they come to life and they grow. That is what is supposed to be happening to us as well.
The last stanza of Kilmer’s famous poem about trees is the most telling. It is, “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.” Only God can truly make us what we are to be and what we are called to be.