“Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.”
The gardener says these words at the end of the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (which we hear at Sunday Mass this week).
In my mind, what the gardener says here harmonizes with another sentence in the Gospel, as if these two sentences were two musical motifs in a great symphony…
“Sir, leave the barren tree one more year.” To whom does the gardener say this? Who is the “sir?” Also, what’s an “orchard?” What’s the difference between an orchard and “the woods?”
Someone planted an orchard. An “orchard” means: trees growing according to a plan, for a purpose. The trees in an orchard stand where they are by design.
So this “sir” of “Sir, leave it for this year also” is the mastermind. He planted the orchard in the first place. Therefore, he has a right to make judgments. He measures the situation as it stands according the plan he laid out originally. And he says, “I have sought fruit from this fig tree and found none. Cut it down.”
Gas by Edward Hopper
Rightly does he say this! Fig trees ought to bear figs. Just like chewing gum ought to be chewy. Just like unleaded gas pumps at a gas station ought to give you unleaded gas–and not diesel, or a Slurpee.
Likewise, human beings ought to do good and avoid evil. What else have we been put on this earth for? For me to neglect to do good, or to choose to do evil, or both—that makes as much sense as wrapping up a rock and calling it chewing gum. Or putting Diet Coke in the big underground tank below the gas station where the unleaded fuel belongs.
The one who planted the garden says: Fig trees, bear fruit! Human beings: Worship your Maker. Love your neighbor. Speak truth. Honor who you came from. Don’t kill, cheat, or steal. Don’t be lustful or materialistic.
The cosmos we inhabit is not some kind of wild woods that just grew up haphazardly with no purpose. This is an orchard, planted according to the design of Someone infinitely wiser and more provident than we are.
All that said, let’s listen to the gardener. “Sir,” says the gardener, “I see your point. This fig tree appears to be a failure. Indeed, we find no figs here, as we ought to find. But…”
But. If we really think about it, this is an amazing But. In this parable, someone speaks up to the One Who knows all and governs all. This gardener stands before the tribunal of absolute Truth and Justice, and the gardener has the temerity to say, “Yes, but…”
Yes, but… How about a little more time? How about another chance? How about cutting a brother some slack? How about we don’t give up just yet? How about the possibility that things really could change for the better?
Now, a good orchard must have standards. For anyone to act as if it just doesn’t matter whether or not a fig tree bears any figs…what good would that do, to pretend it doesn’t matter? Of course it matters. It matters whether or not fig trees bear figs and whether or not human beings do good.
But. Someone spoke up and said: Maybe, if given another chance, this tree could do better. Maybe, if people only knew how to do good and avoid evil…maybe they could learn what love really is…maybe they could understand better why they exist…
This gardener has the tenderness of a grandparent, a tutor, and a coach, all rolled into one. He obviously thinks nothing of extra work. This gardener must already work tirelessly all day, every day, in this orchard—watering, weeding, pruning, raking mulch.
When the master says, ‘Cut down that tree,’ the gardener knows this is a fair and reasonable judgment. But he himself—the gardener—doesn’t want to judge. Not yet; not now. Instead, he thinks: I can see some potential in this tree, desiccated and leafless as it may appear. I see potential. Let’s withhold judgment. Let’s try to sympathize with this poor tree instead.
Do good; avoid evil. Love and worship God. Love your neighbor. Do not gossip. Do not insult people. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Give to the poor. Keep the Sabbath. Anchor your mind in God alone.
The rules guide us to what is best for us. If we suffer because we disobey them, we have only ourselves to blame. We know better.
But! There is a but! We are weak. We get confused. We listen to bad advice sometimes. We watch the wrong t.v. shows. We get ourselves emotionally worked-up about something, and we make a bad decision. Then we’re too cowardly to admit the truth, even to ourselves.
Were the Roman centurions in first-century Jerusalem of a different species from us? Were the people gathered in the courtyard outside Pilate’s tribunal a different kind of human being than we are?
They thought they had it right. But they were utterly confused, utterly wrong, utterly obtuse. They took Christ for a blasphemer, a revolutionary, an evil-doer. They convinced themselves that they acted to protect peace, to protect the nation, to protect true religion. And they crucified the innocent Lamb of God.
As He died, He said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do. Give them another chance.”