Ezekiel 17.22-end; Psalm 92.1-4,12–end; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4.26-34
IN HIS second letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses two attacks on his authority. First, his critics do not regard him as a proper apostle, because he had not known Jesus during the latter’s earthly life. Second, they dismiss him because of his unimpressive stature, speech, and status.
Paul is addressing the first line of criticism when he writes of the need to know Jesus from more than “a human point of view”. In saying this, he is not denying the importance of Jesus’s earthly life. Rather, he is arguing “that it is necessary to know Jesus with the heart, and thus to know the person essentially in his truth; then, subsequently, to know the details about him” (Benedict XVI, Saint Paul).
Paul’s proclamation flows out of both the “heart-to-heart” encounter with the risen and ascended Lord, and also those details of Jesus’s earthly life that the first-hand witnesses thought it vital to pass on. Whether it is a “heart-to-heart” encounter or a sense of being moved by the story of Jesus which provides the gateway, what matters is not the sequence, but the fact that one leads on to the other. There must be a genuine encounter, and it must be with the one whose story is told in the Gospels.
When they advance their second criticism of Paul — his unimpressive appearance and status — his opponents reveal the absence of such an encounter with the Lord. As Jouette Bassler explains, Paul “has not wealth or worldly status. Instead, he has been persecuted, imprisoned, and insulted like one of the lowest status — a common criminal” (Women’s Bible Commentary).
In 2 Corinthians, Paul makes “a rhetorically powerful and theologically profound move. He turns his liabilities into assets, and his opponents’ assets into liabilities.” Paul’s very humility — like that of his readers (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.26-30) — is adduced as evidence of God’s presence; for, in their humility, both Paul and the Corinthians resemble their crucified Lord.
Paul argues that it is precisely because of Christ’s saving death that “we regard no one any longer from a human point of view.” As Bassler observes, Paul is advancing “a decisive critique of the structure and foundation of worldly status and power”. His opponents’ concern with status and appearance shows that they do not know Christ “essentially in his truth”.
The authority of Paul comes both from his encounter with Christ and from the way in which his life is now animated by the Lord. Our epistle concludes with his declaration that “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” These words are credible because they are true of his life. As St Gregory of Nyssa writes, “He carried death with him, Christ’s death, wherever he went. He was always being crucified with Christ. It was not his own life he lived; it was Christ who lived in him.”
Paul’s words and deeds teach the same lesson as this Sunday’s parables: that it is God who gives the increase, and that it is in earthly humility that God chooses to manifest his glory. The parable of the sower emphasises that the growth of the Kingdom is a work of God, not a human achievement.
In the second of our parables, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom is like “the smallest of all the seeds of the earth”, and yet it “becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade”. This is a reference to our Old Testament reading, in which a tiny “sprig” grows into a mighty cedar tree in which “winged creatures of every kind” can make their nest. Jesus takes up the image and transforms it. Now the tiny mustard seed does not grow into a mighty tree, but a proliferating shrub.
This is what Paul’s opponents have failed to understand: there is a humility in the glory of the Kingdom as well as in its origins. Even at its full stature, it will not resemble the empires of this world.
Jesus’s initial disciples, and the members of the Early Church, were drawn largely from humble backgrounds. Yet they were frequently seduced or intimidated by worldly status (cf. James 2.1-13). In each generation, Christ has to recall his Church to the truth about where real authority and power are to be found.