Stop Being a Control Freak: (Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)

(Sunday’s Readings: Ez. 17: 22-24; Ps. 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; II Cor.5:6-10; Mk. 4:26-34)

It’s June now and most of us are trying to get rid of dandelions. They’re all over the place. Most of us hate them. I’ve long since given up on trying to kill them. I figure the way nature works, they’ll be gone in a month or so anyway.

What bothers me are “trees of heaven.” The hill behind my house on Jackson Street is now filled with them. Some people call them “stink trees.” I cut them down one spring, and the very next, they’re back, more than ever. They just won’t go away. They want to take over and create their own forest. As I’m cutting them down, I imagine them laughing at me. “Your chain saw can roar and smoke as much as it wants,” they seem to be saying, “It makes no difference. We’ll prevail in the end.”

Today’s Gospel reading caused me to think of dandelions and trees of heaven – and some other things as well. It really makes three points. The first is about God’s providence, the second is about those “trees of heaven,” and the third is about Jesus’ teaching method. He taught in parables which help us understand God’s providence, the processes of life, and the inevitably of the Kingdom of God and its mystery.

The first point about God’s providence brought to mind Sir Arthur Eddington. He was a physicist who did his work before the middle of the 20th century.  At the end of his life, he remarked that after all his time and effort, he knew only one thing. “Something unknown,” he said ”is doing we don’t know what.”

In parable form, Jesus says something like that in today’s Gospel. Farmers sow seeds, he says, and then some mysterious force takes over and brings them to fruition. The farmer sows the seed; nothing else is required of him, but to reap the harvest.

“Don’t worry,” is the implication. There’s no need for you to push the river; no need to control. God is in charge. After you’ve done your best, Eddington’s “Something Unknown” takes over. And the outcome is the very best possible. Inevitably, that outcome will be the Kingdom of God whether we want it to come or not.

Central to Jesus’ parable is the notion of faith as “letting go” so that God’s work might be done in God’s own time. That’s so hard for us to accept, isn’t it? Just looking around the world, watching the news, thinking about our own lives, our marriages, our children, most of us find that counsel incredible. We’re convinced we have to get to work, not waste a moment, and clean up the mess.

Yet today, Jesus implies that acting like a control freak is exactly the wrong strategy in life. It leads to unhappiness, nervous breakdowns, discouragement, and to a negativity that brings others down. Jesus was not about any of that. He was about kindling hope not giving in to stress and worry.

Jesus was able to avoid that kind of negativity because he had a guiding vision. Once again, he called it the “Kingdom of God.” That vision held, as today’s Parable of the Farmer and the Seed suggests that God is in charge and so it’s foolish for us to worry and fret.

But what is God up to? Jesus surprises us with his answer. (And that brings me to the second point of today’s Gospel – stink trees.) Jesus says God’s Kingdom is like a mustard tree. That’s like saying it’s like a tree of heaven or a dandelion.  

I say that because, I’m told the mustard tree really isn’t a tree at all. Scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan says it’s a plant that’s more like a weed. We don’t like weeds, do we – those dandelions again? We don’t recognize them as beautiful or powerful. But they could be seen that way – and probably should be. Deep down we know they have a part in the earth’s ecology. Birds come to the mustard tree (or the tree of heaven), and make their home there, Jesus reminds us.

As for power, have you ever seen a weed move a rock? I have. I think that’s what Jesus meant (with his typical hyperbole) when he said, “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain move from here to there and it will move.” Compared to the mustard seed, a rock of almost any size is like a mountain. Weeds are beautiful; they are part of God’s plan; weeds are powerful. Learn from them Jesus seems to be saying – inevitably, I think, with a mischievous smile.

But learn what? That what we see as small and weak, what we see as negative is all part of the plan. See beauty in what the world sees as ugly. Small is beautiful. But whether you do or not is irrelevant in terms of God’s will. It will be done in any case. You can dig up the dandelions, spray them with Roundup, or cut down those pesky trees of heaven. You can’t stop that Something Unknown from doing we don’t know what.

And that brings me to the third point of this morning’s Gospel – the power of parable. They can turn our worlds upside down. They surprise, delight, confuse, disturb, challenge, or comfort. They’re meant to make us think more deeply and to stimulate discussion. That’s the case with today’s Parable of the Farmer and the Seed, as well as with the Mustard Plant.

Above all, the power of parable is illustrated in the case of Jesus himself. Jesus, after all, is the best parable our tradition holds.  He was a seed sown 2000 years ago that continues to bear fruit today. But he and his message were also like a weed. He wasn’t a Cedar of Lebanon, but more like that mustard plant. Like the rest of us, Jesus lived such an extremely limited life, but he accomplished everything.  

Think about it. We believe Jesus is the very presence of God. Yet in the world’s eyes, he did absolutely nothing with more than 90 % or his life. We know nothing of what he did with his life till he was about 30. And then, history records, he did a few relatively insignificant things in an insignificant part of the world.

Not only that, what he did eventually do all ended in failure. He evidently thought the Kingdom was coming in his own lifetime. But here we are 2000 years later, and not a sign of its arrival as far as we can see.

…  As far as we can see. Our trouble is with our limited vision. We’re expecting God’s Kingdom to be the “Cedar of Lebanon” referenced by Ezekiel in the first reading. It won’t be like that, Jesus says. With a smile, he suggests, it will be something small – even something we see as undesirable, ugly or failed – even like our own lives.

Our perception forgets about the Kingdom vision that was so central to Jesus’ life. In modern terms, we might say, we only see a small part of life’s computer screen – that lower right hand corner for example. We see maybe an inch or so of a screen that’s 21 inches big. On the huge part we’re not seeing, God is up to all kinds of things we’re not aware of – that we can’t be aware of or even understand.

Something unknown is doing we don’t know what. All we have to do is our best at whatever task life has given us, and then get out of the way. That’s what Jesus seems to be telling us this morning.

What do you think? Can we accept that Good News? Can we recognize God at work in the mustard plant, in the dandelion, in the tree of heaven?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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