Lesson: Ezekiel 17:22-24
22 Thus says the LORD God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.
23 On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.
24 All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree. I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
Ezekiel (whose name means “God strengthens”) is one of the three “Major” Prophets – so called because of the length of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest who was among the first group of persons deported by the Babylonians when they captured Jerusalem in 597 BCE.
The Book of Ezekiel is in three parts: (1) Chapters 1 to 24 are prophesies of doom against Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE; (2) Chapters 25 to 32 are prophesies against foreign nations; and (3) Chapters 33 to 48 are prophesies of hope for the Judeans written during the Babylonian Exile (586-539 BCE).
Like other prophets, Ezekiel “prophesied” by speaking for YHWH (translated as LORD in capital letters). Prophesy in the Hebrew Bible was not about telling the future. A prophet was one who spoke for YHWH.
Two of Ezekiel’s most enduring theological developments were that (1) through repentance, sin could be forgiven, and Israel could live into a restored covenantal relationship with YHWH, and (2) the Jews had to accept personal responsibility for their own situation rather than blaming it on the sins of their predecessors.
In the first part of Chapter 17, Ezekiel presented an allegory on behalf of YHWH which told that Judea and its king (Zedekiah) would be defeated by the Babylonians and taken to Babylon because they did not keep their covenant with YHWH.
In today’s verses, Ezekiel continued to speak for YHWH who said he would take a sprig from a cedar tree (v.22) and plant it so that it would grow to a mighty cedar (v.23). This was a metaphor for the restored Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile and that was also used by Isaiah (Ch.11) and Jeremiah (Ch.23) as a symbol of the Messiah that was to come.
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 5:6-17
6 We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore, all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Corinth, a large port city in Greece, was among the early Jesus Follower communities that Paul founded. Its culture was diverse and Hellenistic, and Corinthians emphasized reason and secular wisdom. In addition to Paul, other Jesus Followers also taught in Corinth, sometimes in ways inconsistent with Paul’s understandings of what it means to be a Jesus Follower. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written in the 50’s (CE) (likely while Paul was in Ephesus) and presented his views on several issues.
Paul’s controversies with the Corinthians continued, and he wrote at least four letters to them. The Second Letter is a composite of fragments from these letters. In the Second Letter, Paul countered some Jewish Jesus Followers who were disagreeing with Paul and undermining his authority.
Today’s reading reflects the multiple components in this letter. In the first part of today’s reading, Paul spoke of his desire to be “at home with the Lord” (v.8) and noted that while we are alive (“at home in the body”), the body will remain a barrier to being with Christ more perfectly – it keeps one “away from the Lord” (v.6).
In the second part of today’s reading, Paul discussed his relationship with the Corinthians – a relationship that was sometimes painful for both Paul and the Corinthians (2:1-2). He expressed hope that he was well known to the Corinthians’ consciences (v.11) but declined from “commending ourselves” to them (v.12). Those who “boast in outward appearance” (v.12b) was likely a reference to those Jewish Jesus Followers who advocated circumcision for non-Jewish church members.
Paul may have been criticized by his opponents for lack of ecstatic experience (12:1). In response, he spoke of being “besides ourselves,” and said ecstatic experiences were “for God” (v.13). Acknowledging the prevalent Hellenistic rationality in Corinth, Paul stated that if he was in his “right mind,” it was for benefit of the Corinthians (v.13b). He noted that Christ’s love for us urges us on (v.14)
In the last part of today’s reading, Paul shifted his message to convey the idea that if one is “in Christ” they are a “new creation” (v.17). This is an eschatological reversal of the primordial fall – the old way of looking at reality from a merely human vantage point has passed.
Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
26 Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
The Gospel According to Mark was the first Gospel that was written and is generally dated to the time around the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest gospel and forms the core for the Gospels According to Matthew and Luke (both of which were written around 85 CE). Over 50% of the material in those two Gospels is based on Mark. Because these three Gospels follow similar chronologies of Jesus’ life and death, they are called “Synoptic Gospels” for the Greek words meaning “Same Look/View.”
Today’s reading presents a parable that gives the understanding that the Kingdom of God will surely come to fruition just as seeds miraculously and inexplicably sprout, grow, and produce a harvest (vv.26-29).
The next parable compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, which produces invasive shrubs that grow only a few feet high. Mustard grows rapidly and randomly – in the same way that kudzu does. Would a farmer plant a shrub in which birds will nest, given the fact that birds attack crops and eat them? For this reason, this parable is often seen as satirical and humorous, and is contrasted with the imperial metaphor of the cedar tree in Ezek.17.
Scholars generally agree that parables were likely used by the historical Jesus. According to the gospel writers, sometimes the disciples understood the parables, but sometimes they asked for an explanation (as in the Parable of the Sower that preceded the parables in today’s reading). According to verse 34, Jesus explained the parables to the disciples in private.
In Mark 4:11, Jesus lamented that, just as YHWH told Isaiah would happen in Is.6:9-10, he would speak and his listeners would hear, but they would not understand.
In all the gospels, it is ambiguous whether the Kingdom of God/Heaven is already present or lies in the future. Some scholars suggest that this is not an either/or proposition, but is instead a “both/and.” The inbreaking of the Kingdom has begun and so it is “now,” but the fulness of the kingdom will not be realized until the eschaton (the end of the world as we know it now — not the end of the world).