Homily for 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Ezk 17:22-24; 2 Co 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34
13 June 2021
It’s the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. It’s four months since we had a Sunday in Ordinary Time. Our liturgical calendar has been crammed week to week with Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, and all those other solemnities like Ascension, Trinity, and Corpus Christi.
We’re presented in today’s gospel with two very ordinary, very simple parables about the kingdom of God. These are parables Jesus used when ordinary people asked what this kingdom of God is like. In Chapter 4 of Mark there are three simple parables. First, there’s the parable of the sower who goes out to sow. You know it well: some seed falls on the edge of the path; some seed falls on rocky ground, some falls on thorns, and some, but only some, falls into rich soil – growing tall and strong, producing good crop, yielding 30, 60 and 100 fold.
Later come two even simpler parables. They’re the ones in today’s gospel. The farmer scatters seed but then her job is done for some time. She sleeps, she wakes, and all the time the seed is sprouting and growing. Only when the crop is ready does the farmer once again have work to do – reaping because the harvest has come. Not just the disciples, but everyone in the crowd has a job to do, planting the seed and reaping the harvest. Not even the disciples play any significant role in growing the crop. Like everyone else, they sleep, and they wake, and they see the growth, not knowing how it occurs.
The third parable is about the mustard seed which is such a small seed. But once it is sown it is the biggest shrub on the farm and ‘the birds of the air can shelter in the shade’.
What could be simpler? We are invited to plant the seed and to be on hand when the crop is ready. And the smallest seed might just produce the biggest plant with multiple purposes including the provision of help to birds of all shapes and feathers.
Hearing the word, accepting it, and then bearing fruit: this is the threefold progression of responding to the word. The scripture scholars John Donahue and Daniel Harrington say:
The calls of the disciples in Mark convey a threefold structure. They begin with a call or summons that is heard, and that then issues in following or “being with” Jesus; this in turn is followed by preaching, teaching, and healing. True discipleship is engagement with the life and following the way of Jesus, which will yield a bountiful harvest. [The parables] function as a warning against false discipleship: superficial hearing manifest in an initial and rootless enthusiasm, seduction by wealth, or failure in persecution. They also function to encourage the community in the face of failure and persecution. Growth is taking place; initial failure is not the whole picture. Jesus is powerful in word and work; he comes to rescue his community even when they are lacking in faith.
The threefold progression need not be linear. There are times when we are doing all three. But all three are necessary for the kingdom to become a reality. We need to hear the word. We need to accept it. And we need to play our part in having it bear fruit.
Reflecting on these two simple parables these last few days, I have been pondering two letters. The first was the letter to the editor published by my 93-year-old father, disturbed by our government’s treatment of the Tamil family of asylum seekers whose 4-year-old daughter Tharnicaa had to be evacuated from the Christmas Island detention centre to Perth. My father asked: ‘Are other Australians ashamed, as I am? How can Australia, proud of our freedoms, respectful of all our peoples, and insistent on human dignity, inflict cruelty on Australian children as a means of achieving a goal of government policy? The cruelty suffered by Tharnicaa – Australian-born and now in a Perth hospital – is not an unintended consequence of a general policy; it is cruelty inflicted on a child deliberately as a warning to others not to come to Australia by boat without a visa. Tharnicaa has committed no offence; she presents no danger. Cruelty is being inflicted upon her to punish her parents who came by boat without a visa and thus to discourage others from breaching one of our immigration policies.’
He concluded: ‘It would be a cruelty obnoxious to Australian values to deprive those children of their parents and it is cruelty obnoxious to Australian values to isolate them with their parents to discourage future people smugglers. Basic and important Australian values are at stake. They must not be discarded by a show of heartlessness towards Australian children.’
His erstwhile parish priest thought my father’s letter was “cogent and spoken with the universal compassion that comes with age”. It was also spoken with the sophistication of one who has spent a lifetime wrestling with ideas about values in a democracy committed to the rights of all while at the same time responding to the popular will.
Having spent 17 years serving on the nation’s highest court, my father is well used to pondering the role of values which might then inform legal principles setting limits on government power and providing guidance for judges shaping the law or constraining the government to act according to statute. In the Mabo case almost 30 years ago, he spoke about the contemporary values of Australians. He spoke of the “values of justice and human rights (especially equality before the law) which are aspirations of the contemporary Australian legal system”. Just two months later, he and his judicial colleagues heard a case brought by Cambodian boat people who had been held in detention for 2 ½ years by the Hawke-Keating Labor Governments. Parliament had made a law authorising temporary detention of boat people “only until the departure of the vessel(s) from Australia or “until such earlier time as an authorised officer directs”.’ The government burnt the boats and told the court that the temporary custody could then continue indefinitely because the boats would never be departing. What are Australian values? What are the principles we can derive from those values?
We Australians who are Christian are living in that middle moment of the parable. The seed has been planted. The kingdom is growing and expanding, we know not how. But if we are to reap a rich harvest, we need to espouse and enact values which yield principles, policies and even political outcomes which accord respect and dignity to that Australian child Tharnicaa presently in a Perth hospital.
There was another stirring letter during the week. You will recall that Cardinal Reinhard Marx, aged 67, Archbishop of Munich submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Francis the week before. Marx felt a failure in dealing with institutional responses to child sexual abuse. He told the Pope: “I feel that through remaining silent, neglecting to act and over-focussing on the reputation of the Church I have made myself personally guilty and responsible.” The Pope wrote back telling him to get back to work.
Pope Francis told him, “The whole Church is in crisis because of the abuse issue. Furthermore, the Church today cannot take a step forward without assuming this crisis. The ostrich policy does not lead to anything, and the crisis has to be assumed from our Easter faith. Sociologisms, psychologisms, are useless. Assuming the crisis, personally and communally, is the only fruitful path because a crisis does not come out alone but in the community and we must also bear in mind that a crisis comes out better or worse, but never the same.”
Francis observed: “The reform in the Church has been done by men and women who were not afraid of going into crisis and allowing themselves to be reformed by the Lord. It is the only way, otherwise we will not be more than “reform ideologues” who do not put their own flesh at stake.” 
Let’s hope that all those who will be participating in our forthcoming Plenary Council will have a well-thumbed copy of this letter in their satchels. In a time of crisis such as our Church is presently enduring, we take heart that the smallest seed can grow into the largest plant in the garden and that in time it can provide shelter to birds of all shapes and feathers. There’s always the risk that the small mustard seed will perish. We must hope and pray that it takes root again in our garden sprouting the signs of the kingdom in our midst. The scripture scholars remind us: “Growth is taking place; initial failure is not the whole picture. Jesus is powerful in word and work; he comes to rescue his community even when they are lacking in faith.”
 Gerard Brennan, Letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2021
 Mabo v Queensland (No.2), (1992) 175 Commonwealth Law Reports 1, 30
 Chu Kheng Lim v Minister for Immigration, (1992) 176 Commonwealth Law Reports 1, 21
 Letter of Reinhard Cardinal Marx to Pope Francis, 21 May 2021, available at https://www.erzbistum-muenchen.de/cms-media/media-55270420.PDF
 Letter from the Holy Father Francis to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munchen Und Freising, Santa Marta, June 10, 2021 available (but not in English) at
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).