Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Ez 17:22-24
Ps 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16
2 Cor 5:6-10
Mk 4:26-34

We walk by faith, not by sight. What does St. Paul mean?

Some people think this means ignorance and fantasy. To walk by faith means that Christians close their eyes to the reality of this world and fix their attention on a fantastic future life free of sickness and death. Christians deny cold facts and hard science in favor of fairy tales about a merciful Father-in-the-sky who watches over us and forgives all our sins and restores life to dead bodies. To walk by faith trades vision for blindness, and congratulates itself on a deal well-struck.

Ironically, this dismissive verdict sits loose to historical fact. The thousands upon thousands of hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and schools that Christians have built is hardly the work of men and women who think this world is unimportant. The celebration of creation, especially the human, is a major theme of the unrivaled art, music, and literature brought forth by the followers of the crucified Lord. And Christian beliefs make terrible fairy tales. What fable features men and women who are commanded to forgive their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, who must confess their sins and do penance, who must shelter the sick and defend the unborn? What tale from Mother Goose or Hans Christian Andersen counsels its audience, “Let the dead bury the dead,” “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away,” and “ I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves”?

To walk by faith is not to close our eyes. We see what everyone sees, and we see more.

It’s like those television shows where a person brings something from their attic or cellar, and lays it before an expert. The owner and the expert and the audience all see the same rusty knife or battered teapot or grimy painting, but the expert sees artistry and value that the rest of us do not. Likewise, an engineer can make sense of complicated blueprints, a connoisseur can discern subtle flavors in wine, and a practiced carpenter can tell a handcrafted table from pressboard junk.

Or take the example of children’s artwork. Over the years, my file cabinets and bookshelves have been graced with pages from coloring books and pencil drawings on looseleaf, like those which adorn many of your refrigerators. Mine have been the gifts of nieces and nephews and godchildren. It makes me happy to look at them, but I have no intention of trying to make a profit by contacting an auction house. Once a child gave me a colorful picture which looked like a camel chasing a duck which was eating cookies while riding on a rainbow. She said it was a fire engine. So I’m not blind to the marginal aesthetic value of these works. No one displays a child’s drawings because they might bring great wealth, or because they embody a new style which will set the art world on fire. We see crude lines and misshapen figures. And we see more.

In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel sees what everyone can see: the end is near for Judah. Almost 200 years before, the Assyrians had conquered the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, and taken many of them into exile. Now it is Judah’s turn. Soon Jerusalem will be captured, the Temple of Solomon destroyed, and the people exiled to Babylon.

But Ezekiel sees more. The prophet can read the signs of the time, but he sees other signs, too. He sees the hand of God at work in human affairs, punishing faithless Israel for breaking the covenant, yes, but also offering the promise of restoration. The same mercy which punishes His people will also bring them back from exile. God will replant His chosen people and restore to greatness the House of David:

I, too, will pluck from the crest of the cedar
the highest branch.
From the top a tender shoot
I will break off and transplant
on a high, lofty mountain.

On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar….

Every tree of the field will know
that I am the LORD.
I bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
Wither up the green tree,
and make the dry tree bloom.

As the Scripture scholar John Bergsma writes, “This oracle seems hopelessly optimistic and out-of-touch in light of historical events in Ezekiel’s day. The ancient Near East had seen many nations annihilated and exiled, and many royal dynasties exterminated. But never had it been known for a royal house to be dethroned, exiled—and then re-established.”1 Ezekiel sees by faith what others could not even imagine.

So is it with Jesus’ parable. Someone who is not a farmer may look at a mustard seed and think, “Nothing much can come of that.” But a farmer is patient. He knows that things grow slowly, and that a tree or bush or flower cannot be judged simply by the size of its seeds.

So is it with this Eucharist. The priest speaks the words that Christ spoke and…nothing seems to change. The bread and wine look the same, weigh the same, taste the same. Nothing looks different, yet everything has changed. Faith sees what eyes and scales and microscopes and chemical tests cannot. Jesus Christ is present – body, blood, soul, and divinity.

So is it with us. We walk by faith when we see the poor as more than a need to be met, but as a privileged encounter with the risen Christ. We walk by faith when we recognize the world as more than something to be claimed and used, but also a divine gift to be treasured, preserved, and shared. We walk by faith when we see ourselves as more than a bundle of desires, more than customers, more than the sum of our failures and pains, but as coheirs with Christ and children of eternity. There is a life yet to come, glimpsed in the risen Christ, foretold in the sacraments, prophesied in every sunset and every dawn.

We see what everyone sees, and so we do not deny evil, but neither do we believe that evil has the final word. We proclaim the beauty of this world and thank God for the wonder of our lives, but we also know that in Christ we are meant for life beyond this. Though we live and move, draw breath and have a pulse, we have already died and been buried with Christ. Destined to dissolve into dust and fated to be forgotten by men, we hope to live forever in Christ.

None of this is apparent. By faith, we see that we are more, much more, than we appear to be.

1 https://thesacredpagearchive.blogspot.com/2018/06/now-seeds-start-growing-readings-for-11.html