Parable of the Fig Tree
Third Sunday in Lent (C)

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(A Fig Tree, like a man, is a vertical figure projected toward Heaven.
It is a symbol, because of its vital strength - annually renewed.)

 

Luke 18:1-9

There were some present at that very time who told Him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And He answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."

And He told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, `Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, `Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down."

 

Parable of the Fig Tree

by Father Charles Irvin, M.Div, J.D.

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The words, "Do not be afraid," appear often in Scripture - and for good reason. When God reaches into our lives, when He seeks to engage us in a relationship with Him, He has something in mind that I believe can be frightening to us. He wants us to participate in a journey that transforms us. I think of the many times that I look for comfort in my life. I am looking for something that sustains me. When I want to be sustained I feel that I would like to have someone around me who understands me, who holds me, who supports me, and who offers some kind of relief from the tension and anxiety going on around me. And yet, we know that our God is constantly inviting us to be in a relationship where He is the primary sustainer. There are many ways that God holds and comforts us, healing our wounds. At the same time, if we follow carefully the experiences of those who have answered God's call to enter into a deep relationship with Him, we find that they frequently experience a process that is anything but comfortable. The process, though, is always transforming. It never leaves us the same way we were before.

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Moses before the Burning Bush - by FETI, Domenico,
from Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
 

In the first reading, we recognize Moses in ourselves. Moses catches a glimpse of God, and he begins to understand that the energy flowing from God has a purpose for his life. I love the image of the energy of God in this story. It's a fire - not a consuming fire, not a fire that destroys that which it burns in - but somehow it is a passion and energy that seeks to ignite something in us. This power from God is ignited in Moses because it is responding to the cry of the people. Our God is a God Who listens to the longings deep inside of us. Throughout Scripture, it's clear that one of our deepest longings is for a "place." This "place" represents our longing for life and freedom. When we are either consciously or unconsciously caught in situations that rob us of life, a voice inside of our souls cries out to God, "Please, help me. Do something. Help me to get out of this place that isn't ultimately what I'm destined for." Moses responds to God, knowing that the Israelites are caught in a place of slavery and that they long for freedom. They are on a journey that ultimately will lead them into the promised land. God does not promise that they will go immediately from slavery to full freedom. Rather, they must be engaged in a process with Him.

Moses, like those of us invited by God to do something to change the hearts of others, is worried about his effectiveness. He wonders, "How is it that I am going to get these people's attention? How will they trust me?" Moses resists God's invitation on several levels. This reading highlights a common, human response to God's invitation: As God takes the initiative, we often find ourselves resisting, at least initially. Moses' primary resistance in this passage is summed up in these statements: "Who am I going to say that You are? Why would people listen to me, if I'm just saying that this Figure came to me? Who is this Figure?" Interestingly enough, this passage marks the first time that God presents to us a particular way of imagining Him. He states His name, Yahweh. Yahweh is translated as a form of the verb "to be." Many have wondered exactly what Yahweh means, but let's imagine that this name invites us to imagine a God Who has great power to effect things. He is not only the God Who is, but He is the God Who He says He is. He says that He is effective, creative, and that He can change hearts. He can do all kinds of things. One of the ways to imagine Yahweh is that He is the God Who is extremely potent. He is able to do anything He sets His mind to do. And yet, He does a very curious thing. He gives to us the power to decide, the power to choose. We can resist if we choose to do so. We can simply say, "No, thank you. I refuse. I don't want to go. I don't want what You promise. I refuse to go through the process because it is too difficult and too frightening. I'd rather be comfortable here and now than be uncomfortable on my way to a place to a place of greater comfort."

In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul is talking to a group of people for whom he has great devotion. Paul recognizes that the Corinthians possess a spiritual pride. They misunderstand the fullness of the message. Paul is always trying to balance the Corinthians on their journey. Paul tells the Corinthians not to be too presumptuous when they understand that the moses.gif (58860 bytes) Savior, Jesus Christ, has come into the world to continually offer them life. Jesus is offering them life, but they need to do something in order to possess this life. They must not just simply passively sit there and say, "Yes, thank you for this gift of redemption, and now I'm saved." Throughout the entire Old Testament and New Testament we find the image that our God is calling us into a process. This process has been going on from the beginning. In the Old Testament, Moses is engaged in a process. Paul is reminding the Corinthians that what happened to Moses could also be happening to their community: A "cloud to guide them by day", "a pillar of fire" to lead them at night. They are given consistent guidance by a passionate God Who wants to lead them to a new place. They pass "through a sea," an image of Baptism. In Paul's mind, this idea is one of transformation and transition, a passage that leads from death to life. They are nurtured. They all drink the same spiritual drink. They all eat the same spiritual food. Their food is the manna in the desert, and the water flows from the rock that Moses touched.

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Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by BOURDON, Sébastien,
from Museo del Prado, Madrid
 

The gifts given so generously to the people on their journey were not enough to bring them to the place of salvation. Paul uses these words of caution: "Most of them were struck down in the desert." Most of the people failed to receive the gift. Paul warns the people in Corinth that they have to be careful about their way of responding. Certainly, the Church is inviting us to do the same thing. We must be careful about the way we respond to the outpouring of grace we receive during the season of Lent. God is passionate and energetic, and throughout the Church Year He is constantly sending us grace. This sustaining energy probes deep inside of us and breaks things apart. This journey we are asked to embrace is not an automatic shuttle into a place of great peace. We must go through the process. The sustaining grace of our God digs into the mystery of our hearts. It works with our misconceptions. It takes away our illusions. It engages us in something we often forget: We are not just involved in an individual process of achieving this place of great freedom. The process involves an entire people. We live in a very interesting age where there is tremendous emphasis on individual rights. There is great emphasis on individual perfection. We have to eat the right foods. We have to do the right things. We have to follow the right paths so that we, personally, can find the place of wholeness. This isn't necessarily bad, because in many ways it encourages us toward a healthy lifestyle. But it can be bad if we perceive that we are in this process alone.

Throughout the history of people in the Bible, we have the sense that God is calling communities, not just individuals. Thevesuvius.jpg (12155 bytes) morality of the Scriptures invites us to take on the responsibility of working with grace so that we personally can find ourselves coming to a place of greater freedom. We also participate in helping our brothers and sisters get there. Some of our struggles and suffering don't have anything to do with us personally, but have everything to do with the community. In the gospel, Jesus invites us to be transformed. He's making it clear that to be on this journey with Him we need to change our way of seeing. People witnessed tragic events in the time of Jesus. The disciples were aware of an event in which eighteen people were killed by a falling tower in Siloam. There were other catastrophic events, and the general feeling was that for these tragedies to occur, the people must have been sinners. Jesus is telling the disciples to remember several very important things: First, remember that life is short. And, secondly, don't think that these people were being punished. It was just their destiny that their lives ended at this time. Jesus says, "Be careful. Make sure that you are consciously moving through life, and that you are moving in the direction of grace so that this transforming process is taking place within you. If it doesn't take place, something terrible happens." We lose the life that God has promised us. It's not because God refuses to offer life to us. We often fail to respond to the life He is offering us.

bibleman.gif (5411 bytes) In the parable of the fig tree, the man goes on a search for fruitfulness. God is always looking for fruitfulness in this process of moving us along the journey that brings us to new life. When we experience new life, that is a good sign that we are moving in the right direction on this journey. In the story, the vinedresser says that perhaps the fig tree needs to be cut down because it is not bearing fruit. God, on the other hand, is the One Who says, "No, let's dig and probe, and break things open. Let's put fertilizer around it to bring new life." God constantly offers grace. He constantly offers new life. He offers spiritual food and drink. The scary part of the parable is that sometimes the tree does not respond. At times, the roots don't take in the food and drink. If they don't, then the tree must eventually be cut down. In my dealings with people close to death, I've noticed a striking difference in whether or not they accept the end of their earthly lives peacefully or come kicking and screaming. Much of their attitude depends on their perceptions of their lives. If they resist death, often I find that they perceive their lives have not been fruitful. They may feel their lives have been "cut short" or that they haven't accomplished what they should have. We all long for our lives to have a purpose. We want to be a part of that fruitfulness. We are reminded that we need to respond, repent, and reform so that we can move in the direction of the life God has promised both for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters.