The Power of Small Deeds

The Power of Small Deeds

Eleventh Sunday of the Year. fr Richard Finn helps us to see the power of small deeds in building the Kingdom of God.

The prophet Ezekiel once imagined Babylon as a mighty, brightly-coloured eagle, which swooped down on the cedar tree of Israel and broke off its topmost shoot, Israel’s hapless king Jehoiachin. The prophet was under no illusions when it came to the aggressors’ overwhelming force. But Ezekiel’s story turned to prophecy: God himself would take a tender shoot from the treetop. Where Babylon had brought low its royal captive, God would raise up a mighty tree offering shelter for all kinds of bird and wild animal.

This image is echoed in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. God, as His wont, favours the underdog. He chooses the apparently insignificant to be the bearer of His burgeoning providence. The insignificant seed is Jesus Himself, the Galilean maverick. The seed grows to become the great tree in which all the birds can roost, when the nations find their place in Christ’s kingdom, the New Israel of Jew and Gentile.

Unfortunately for us, the images of the seed and the full-grown mustard plant are not snapshots from before and after the resurrection. The tiny little seed isn’t a matter of remote Christological history. Our entry into the spacious kingdom of God is through baptism into the apparent insignificance of Christ’s life and death, a conformity to Him whose earthly life and death form the pattern of our true humanity.

So, Christ is still the mustard seed with whose exemplary humility we make our own. We talk glibly enough about the ‘great and the good’, but: can you be great and good in this fallen world? There are powerful temptations to climb the greasy pole or stay at the top by less than honourable means. The rewards of high office easily become an end in themselves, false gods of wealth and prestige. Perhaps the challenge of the parable is to think small enough, to be willing to shed our delusions of grandeur. This is what it is to think of others with due regard for their dignity as well as ours.

Yet, if the mustard seed is not entirely past history, neither is the great tree merely a pious hope for the future. Through our seemingly small acts of charity we take our place even now in that kingdom. The tree grows as we shrink. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote: ‘One little deed, done against natural inclination, for God’s sake, though in itself of a conceding or passive character, to brook an insult, to face a danger, or to resign an advantage, has in it a power outbalancing all the dust and chaff of mere profession.’

If we ask what Newman’s ‘power’ is a power for, it is surely a power for making holy, the power of sanctification. But it is not immediately visible to us; we rarely become holy overnight – and that may be where the other of our two Gospel parables becomes relevant. The kingdom is in some way like a man who sows seed which then grows unseen of its own accord. All the man should do is wait for the harvest. But that takes faith – what is sown so small grows unseen. And, yet, for those who wait faithfully the harvest will be rich.

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24|Corinthians 5:6-10|Mark 4:26-34

fr Richard Finn OP is Director of the Las Casas Insitute of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.