At the time of the writing of our first reading (Ezekiel 17:22-24) the empire of Babylon, west of Israel, has taken many of the aristocracy from Jerusalem as captives and now controls their land. Ezekiel himself is in exile in Babylon and writes to help his people through these difficult times. He is a bit of a poet or even mystic, and uses allegories for what he understands God wants him to say. Here he uses the image of a tree, and encourages the people, though their pride has deserved the trouble they are in, with the expectation that a messiah will come from their race who will make them great again and as grand as they could wish. A sprig from the failed tree will grow into a new all-embracing tree; the self-assured will be replaced by the lowly. God uses this exile to encourage the development of synagogues and community worship rather than focus on central Temple sacrifices and to suppress the sense of superiority. We think of the birth of Jesus and the hymn of Mary “… He has put down the mighty from their seat and exulted the humble…” (The Magnificat).
The NT book called the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians appears to be a collection of excerpts from as many as four separate letters from Paul, but it is still, for us, the Word of God. In 2 Cor 5:6-10, Paul was obviously addressing some particular problem his addressees had. You might confidently think, he seems to say, that the next life would be preferable to the present – your future, true home to your situation here and now – but for now you had better get on with this life here, pleasing God as best you can and as you should. We should note that the word ‘body’ that he uses carried with it the connotation of presence in the world, so its use here does not necessarily imply a belief which many Westerners have, in two parts to a person, a body and a soul; it refers rather to our presence in this world in contrast to our being as it will be in the after-life – the world to come. Paul is saying that although we have both confidence and hope for the world to come, we should concentrate on living in the right way here and now. These words are not just for the early Christians that he is addressing, but, as the word of God, also have something to say to us.
The Gospel reading is from Mark 4:26-34. The whole chapter is a collection Mark has made of parables he has heard that Jesus told, but by the time of his writing they have been preached and adapted to new situations, and Mark now intends them for his readers – and they have something to say to us. The message originally from Jesus to his first hearers, has to be changed for different audiences in order to convey the same basic meaning. It is like the simple equation M = W r C, (Message arises from Words related to Context); if C changes then W must change as well to produce the same M. The two parables that we have read today are suited to a local farming community. In general the first recommends patience with life, as God is really the one in control of things, just as the farmer leaves the crop to grow once it is planted. The second takes up the well understood experience, that the very tiny mustard seed grows, most surprisingly, into a large vegetable bush – rather like Ezekiel’s tree it will be a shelter for many. Big things can come from small beginnings. To a large extent we still understand the basics of crop and seed growth so it is up to us individually and as a community to see what these parables might say to us today in our particular situations.