(See the readings for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 13)
The Eagle and the Child is a pub in Oxford, England. It is located near the famous university. A small group of professors of literature and philosophy started meeting here in 1933. They would gather and compare notes and ideas of things they were working on, many times on simple scraps of paper. Each would have a turn reading something then getting feedback from the others.
One of the members was named John. He was a professor of languages and philology. He liked to write fantasy stories. He would share the stories or the characters and describe how they were developing. Another professor was Clive, an English professor. He would also share his ideas on stories he was developing. The two were greatly influenced by their faith which inevitably manifested itself in their work.
The sharing of ideas and the interchanges these professors had while gathering for lunch had a huge impact later in life. Had anyone walked in and saw them gathering they would probably just think it was a group of men having a conversation. The group actually had a name for themselves, the “Inklings.” As time went on the two mentioned above became writers, essayists, and novelists well appreciated among both intellectual and popular readers. They were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Jesus offers us the parable of the mustard seed in today’s Gospel passage. The smallest of the seeds he says grows into the largest of bushes. He uses this as an analogy for faith. The thing he does not say, but it is certainly implied, is that it takes time. The growth that occurs does not happen instantaneously. It happens over a long period of time. Most of the time we would not even notice growth.
Maybe in the beginning after the seed is planted and within a few weeks we start to see some green coming out of the dark soil, then we watch it develop into a plant. However, after that initial growth we might see it day to day and not notice anything happening. Yet it is growing day by day and with time will grow into a large bush. Jesus says it will become so large that the birds of the air will find shade under its branches.
Jesus uses the image of the mustard seed as an analogy for the Kingdom of God. The kingdom may be considered God’s plan or his way or his vision for life. God is the King who is all good, all wise, all knowing and all loving. The seed analogy can be likened to a person who through faith accepts God as their king. As they do this the Kingdom of God starts to be realized in them. In other words, it starts to grow and develop. The growth is real and present but may not be seen for a long time. Nonetheless God is working in, and even through, that person and community.
One of the things the parable of the mustard seed helps us to recall is that God is always at work, he is patient and consistent. On our part we are called to have faith in him and to trust. When Jesus introduced the topic, he offered another image using seeds. He says: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”
The point he is making is that the seed grows even though our senses cannot provide the answer to how it grows. In other words, just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not real. The sower scatters the seeds with the hope that they will sprout, take root and grow. We might say they do this with faith. St. Paul, in the passage from Second Corinthians (second reading) gives us the phrase “we walk by faith not by sight” — faith that God is working in our lives even though we may not see it. He is ever-present, drawing us into his life and helping us to grow in his love. Day by day we might not see what is happening but over time the fruits of his work become abundant and bountiful.
The group of academics gathered in a pub had no idea what the future would hold for them. They gathered as friends and colleagues, shared their ideas and hopes, and learned from each other. The seeds of some of the greatest literary works of the last century laid hidden in these conversations. It is like the mustard seed of which Jesus speaks. The Kingdom of God grows and develops within and among us. It may begin as the smallest of seeds but it grows strong and large, providing fruit for all to share.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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