Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year B 2018 at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church, St Marys
17 June 2018
Sisters and brothers,
“From Little Things Big Things Grow”. You probably know these words from one of Australia’s most inspirational songs. The phrase was originally intended for the indigenous struggle for land rights and reconciliation. These days, it is better known in advertising campaigns such as AustralianSuper.
In our Biblical tradition, there is also a strong emphasis on the way God uses little things to make big things happen. It warns us against looking down on small beginnings, insignificant events and people which may lead to the fulfilment of God’s purpose. Whereas success and power trump failure and weakness according to the logic of popular culture, it is vulnerability, powerlessness and smallness that win the day according to the logic of the Bible.
In the first reading, we hear a hopeful message from the prophet Ezekiel who ministered during a very tumultuous time in Israel’s history. The golden era of David and Solomon was over. Israel became a house divided and a pawn for much more powerful kingdoms such as Babylon, Egypt and Persia. They experienced shocking violence, war, invasion and occupation. Their faith was tested to the extreme limits.
Yet, in the midst of this prolonged despair, the prophet instilled them with a message of hope. He uses the metaphor of small shoot which is similar to Isaiah’s image of the stump of Jesse, in order to describe the revitalisation of Israel. “I will plant it (the shoot) myself on the high mountain of Israel. It will sprout branches and bear fruit”. The shoot here refers to God’s faithful remnants who remained steadfast in the midst of adversity and who in turn formed the nucleus of Israel after the exile. It was out of these faithful remnants that God’s Anointed would emerge.
Following the prophetic tradition, Jesus in the Gospel speaks of the kingdom against the background of popular expectation of great pomp and circumstance. Already, he had experienced a chilly reception from his own townspeople. Last Sunday’s Gospel episode dealt Jesus with a very unpopular homecoming. It was a disappointing reality check after the initial success in his ministry of preaching and healing. It was also a sober lesson for those who followed him. They should be under no illusions about the kind of Messiah he was and what it meant to be his disciples. The Gospel of Mark makes clear that Jesus is a Suffering Messiah.
Today’s episode reinforces the notion that there is something fundamentally counter-cultural about Jesus and what he stood for. The kingdom, for instance, does not manifest itself in size, in success and in power. Instead, it is found in the smallness of the mustard seed, in in the poverty of the widow’s mite, in the rarity of the pearl or in the insignificance of the yeast. These images are essentially counter-cultural. In other words, they challenge the prevalent attitude about greatness, success and power. Jesus teaches something quite radical through these parables. He teaches that God’s Kingdom though begun in dishonour and ignominy will reach its fulfilment in a way that defies human expectations.
Sisters and brothers,
We live in a time, which in many ways is not unlike that of God’s people in exile. The rise of anti-asylum seekers abroad and at home, the mistrust of civic and religious institutions, of global economy et cetera are indicative of the sense of fear which is as powerful today as it was for the Israelites living without the certitudes of the past. Ezekiel reminds us through the symbol of the shoot that we must learn to not to lose hope in the face of adversity; we must learn to live the fallow time deeply and humbly. Jesus similarly challenges us to work for the coming of the Kingdom even if the desired result is not yet in sight.
This week, another asylum seeker died by suicide in Nauru, bringing to 12 the number of asylum seekers who have died in offshore detention centres. Those who are left alive continue to face the same despair that drove their fellow detainees to the edge. How can we as builders of God’s Kingdom not be troubled by these tragedies? How can we as citizens of a nation, which can do much better than this, remain unmoved. In Jesus, we meet up with a God who frequently asks us what we are doing for the least of His brothers and sisters. We might not be able to do great things for them. But we know God can bring our acts of communion and solidarity to fulfillment just as he causes the mustard seed to grow and bear fruit.
We are living in a time of diminishment as far as the church’s size and influence are concerned. But if the kingdom is like a mustard seed, then the size of our institutional church is not as important as the quality of our witness. In a world of changing values and a crisis of trust, we must adhere to the constant message of faith, hope and love for all; we must continue – as Pope Francis maintains – to be a church where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the Gospel. And as long as we embody that vision of church in our practice, we become a lighthouse for the world. May we learn the art of vitality in smallness and increase the quality of our faith and relationship in this fallow time.