Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 13, 2021
We return today to the Book of Ezekiel. He was an interesting man who lived in interesting times and always seems to have something to say our contemporary situation. Before examining today’s passage let us look at his life and then the passage before the one chosen for today.
Ezekiel was born about 622 BC in Jerusalem and died about 570 BC in Babylon and the dates and places tell his story. Jerusalem was situated on the trade route between Egypt to the south and whatever power was dominating the north. Never a mighty empire, the Jews were able to play one power off against the other to maintain significant independence for over 3 centuries. Ezekiel lived at the time when this ended. In 609 BC, the leaders of Judah thought that the Neo-Babylonian empire was ascendant and allied themselves with it. By 597 the leadership felt that it was weakening, and they could assert more independence. This was a grave miscalculation and the Babylonians invaded, conquered Jerusalem, and took King Jehoiachin and many Jewish leaders into captivity. Ezekiel was one of these and he spent the rest of his life in Babylon. The Babylonians under King Nebuchandnezzar placed Zedekiah in his place. He seemed to be pro-Babylonian but sometime between 593 BC and 488 BC he thought he could get a better deal from Egypt and sought and alliance. In 586/87 BC, Nebuchadnezzar reacted and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple exiling the remaining leaders of the people especially the royal court, the scribes and the priests. Without the temple, how could the Covenant be maintained and without the monarchy how could the promise to David be fulfilled? All that could be seen was devastation. (This may be found in 2 Kings 24:6–20) Ezekiel however saw more. He expressed the situation and its cause poetically in the Parable or riddle of the eagles.
Ezekiel uses this form as Jesus would to provoke thought:
The LORD orders Ezikiel to address a riddle/parable to King Zedekiah:
The great eagle, (Nebuchadnezzar)(Eze 17:3-5)
with great wings, with long pinions,
with thick plumage, many-hued, came to Lebanon.(Jerusalem)
He took the crest of the cedar,
tearing off its topmost branch, (Jehoiachin)
And brought it to a land of tradesmen, set it
in a city of merchants. (Babylon)
Then he took some seed of the land,
and planted it in a seedbed; (Zedekiah)
Ezekiel emphasizes that this was a productive relationship and Judah prospered under the protection of the Babylonian Eagle. But Zedekiah was neither perceptive nor grateful:
But there was another great eagle, (Pharaoh Psammetichus II)(Eze 17:7-8, 10)
great of wing, rich in plumage;
To him this vine bent its roots, sent out its branches, (sought a treaty)
That he might water it more freely than the bed where it was planted.
In a fertile field by plentiful waters it was planted,
to grow branches, bear fruit,and become a majestic vine .
(A hope that the Davidic line should be restored)
True, it is planted, but will it prosper?
Will it not rather wither,
when touched by the east wind,
in the bed where it grew?
As history proved this treaty would bring disaster. The Babylonian empire – the east wind – would destroy this vineyard and sever the direct line of David.
As with Jesus an interpretation will follow. Most of this is simply a statement of the facts of the case but then:
He spurned his oath, breaking his covenant.(Eze 17:18–19)
Though he gave his hand in pledge,
he did all these things.
He shall not escape!
Therefore say: Thus says the Lord GOD:
As I live, my oath which he spurned,
my covenant which he broke,
I swear to bring down upon his head
The LORD claims that the oath that Zedekiah swore was ultimately with him. As all oaths were “witnessed with the local deities,” this at minimum means that the LORD was included in the covenant ritual with Babylon. Yet there is more here as well. The LORD is Lord of history, and he was the motivating factor behind all events. Zedekiah will be punished but so will all those who followed him.
I will spread my net over him,(Eze 17:20–21)
and he shall be taken in my snare.
I will bring him to Babylon
and enter into judgment with him there
over his breaking faith with me.
All the crack troops among his forces
shall fall by the sword,
and the survivors shall be scattered in every direction.
Thus, you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken
This is the context of today’s reading.
Therefore say: Thus says the Lord GOD:(Eze 17:22)
I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
And plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
The language reflects the first section of the parable of the eagle. Cedar is the messianic line, and it will grow and prosper so much that other nations would offer homage to it. But its greatness would be because it recognized that the prosperity came from the Lord.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,(Eze 17:23–24a, c)
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.
And all the trees of the field shall know
that I, the LORD,
As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.
The only greatness of the people of God is that it proclaims the reality and presence of God.
As we stated above Ezekiel died around 570 BC. By every measure Judah was dead, the worship of the LORD was meaningless and there was no future. Yet one of the greatest miracles in history occurred.
The Babylonians were conquered by the Persians in 539 BC. They had a different style of colonizing. Like the British, they cultivated the elite and used them to administer conquered territories. They invited the Jewish leaders in Babylon to return to Jerusalem as their agents. They would be allowed some autonomy and could rebuild the temple. Most did not accept the offer and there was a vital Jewish community for as long as there was a Babylon but enough did that that the Jews could rebuild the city and more importantly the Temple.
Today’s seemingly impossible song of praise proved to be accurate: The LORD did speak, and his words were fulfilled. He is speaking to us and an exceptionally good way to understand when his words have been fulfilled is to know the millennia long history of, to quote St. Pope John Paul II, our “elder brothers in the Faith.”