The Prophet Ezekiel condemned the pride of a generation whose pride suffocated and displaced the growth of God’s presence amongst his people. He likened their arrogance to the mighty cedars of Lebanon, trees that rose to the heavens, but whose stature blocked out all competing vegetation. The prophet continued this imagery to describe the humbling that would enable God’s presence to flourish amongst the people. “From the highest branch I will take a shoot and plant it myself on the high mountain of Israel. It will sprout branches and bear fruit and become a noble cedar. Every tree of the field will learn that I, the Lord, stunt tall trees and make small ones grow.”
The imagery spoke of a changed environment that called forth a multiplicity of life, enabling it to bear fruit and flourish. Like Israel, we must become the tiny shoot that flourishes in God’s presence. In the humility of repentance we surrender the pride that hinders his grace, thereby enabling virtue to bear fruit in our lives.
Jesus continued the imagery of growth to describe the Kingdom of God. He spoke of the seed that, once sown, seems hidden and forgotten. “A man throws seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing.”
The image calls us to a patient trust in the Christ whose presence is sown in the hearts of the faithful. We long for lives that are perfectly formed in his likeness, and frequently become discouraged when this is not achieved overnight. The image reminds us that growth comes not from ourselves, but from Christ, whose presence is hidden in our lives. When we trust in him rather than ourselves, he gives growth to the holiness for which we long: “First the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” Our pride demands instant perfection, and when we cannot achieve it we are tempted to give up. Holiness and virtue, like the fruit of a seed hidden in the ground, are grown from a patient trust in God’s presence.
Jesus intended the parable of the mustard seed as a similar encouragement to the sometimes faltering faith of his disciples. The mustard seed “at the time of its sowing in the soil is the smallest of all the seeds on earth”. Pride is competitive, and it is scarcely surprising that it should tempt us into believing that, in comparison with others, our own faith is so diminutive as to be insignificant.
The image of the mustard seed moved the focus from our own insignificance, real or imagined, to the power of Christ’s presence at work within us. What we shall become rests not in ourselves, but in the tiny mustard seed that represents God’s power to transform our lives. “Once it is 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 branches.”
We are frequently impatient with ourselves, our society, and, at times, our Church. We are impatient for a growth, for a perfection that seems to lie beyond beyond our grasp. May the Lord, who explained the parables to his disciples when they were alone, speak to our hearts. Then we shall know the humility that enables his Kingdom to grow.