Yes, You’re Right, Lord, But

Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. (Luke 13:8)

figWe hear the gardener say these words at the end of the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, which we read at Holy Mass on Sunday. [Spanish]

“Sir, leave the barren tree one more year.”  Now, 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: to produce fruit.  The trees in an orchard stand where they stand not randomly, but 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 compares the situation as it stands with His original plan. And he says, “I have sought fruit from this fig tree and found none. Cut it down.”

Rightly does he say this!  Fig trees ought to bear figs.  Just like chewing gum ought to be chewy.  Or like unleaded gas pumps at a gas station ought to give you unleaded gas–and not diesel, or a Slurpee. Imagine if you swiped your credit card, started pumping gas, and Blue Raspberry Slurpee came out of the nozzle. You would curse that fig tree, to be sure.

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 Cherry 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.

orchardThe cosmos we inhabit is not some kind of wild woods that grew up haphazardly with no purpose.  This is an orchard, planted according to the design of Someone infinitely wiser than we are.

But 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.  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, you’re right, but…”

How about a little more time?  How about another chance?  How about we don’t give up just yet?  How about the possibility that things could change for the better?

This gardener has two amazing qualities. 1. He gently but confidently asserts himself to the owner. 2. The 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. And he’s offering to do extra, to save this one lame tree.

Rembrandt Moses Ten CommandmentsWhen the master says, ‘Cut it down,’ the gardener knows this is a fair and reasonable judgment.  But he himself—the gardener—doesn’t want to judge.  Not yet; not now. Let’s wait…

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 than to break God’s laws.

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 and utterly wrong. 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 divine Lamb.

As He died, He said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”  Give them another chance.

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Fig-Tree Canopy

 

calling-of-philip-nathanael

Sitting under the fig tree. The prophets Micah and Zechariah both proclaim that the Messiah will come, will bring truth and justice to the earth, will take away the world’s sin—and then each Israelite will rest in the shade of his fig tree, with his neighbor, in peace.

At the time of Christ, zealous students of the Torah would spend time every day meditating, in the shade of a fig tree in the garden. They would always conclude their meditation by praying hard that the Messiah would come.

Let’s imagine that we all had fig trees, and that they offered not just shade, but also a sheath of warmth. You sit under your fig tree, and it’s 75 degrees.

All this might help us understand the dramatic change of heart which Nathanael had in his conversation about Christ, and with Christ, narrated in John 1. Philip says to Nathanael, “We have found the Messiah!” Nathanael basically responds, “Yeah, right.” Then Jesus says to Nathanael, “I saw you under the fig tree.” And Nathanael cries out, “Yes, the Messiah!”

But even more amazing is what Lord Jesus says next. Again: we’re on the right track when we grasp that the fig tree offered a physical and spiritual canopy for the Israelite. A fig tree meant: a canopy of prayer and holiness, a place to live a genuinely humane life in communion with God, protection from chaos and confusion.

But Christ says to Nathanael: this symbol actually communicates true reality, no matter where you are. For Jesus, the wide open sky is the fig tree of the Israelite. The Messiah lives under the canopy of the Father’s love and protection always. There is nowhere, Golgatha included, where the branches of that loving protection do not reach. For Christ, the fig tree is nothing other than the great heaven above, because the Father always hears the prayers of the Son.

And all this goes for us, too, when we are in the Son. The Father is the Son’s fig tree, and the Son is ours (which means the Father is ours, too.)

The Messiah has come. And He spread out His own arms on the branches of a tree. To give us the shade that the holy fig tree gives the Israelite, wherever we are. The shade of Christ’s cross always offers us a canopy of holiness.

Fig Trees Today

figSome people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.

He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? …Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?…”

And he told them this parable:

“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’

He said to him in reply,

‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)

Us: Fig trees that don’t bear fruit like we should. The gardener digs around the roots, fertilizes the soil—-to help us come into our own.

Ginevra de Benci by Leonardo da VWe have great potential, after all. Maybe not necessarily great potential to write novels or paint Mona Lisas. But great potential to love, great potential to worship the Creator, great potential to behold the Creator’s beautiful image in myself and in my neighbor.

–Is it just me, or are the two parts of the gospel reading (for tomorrow’s Holy Mass) really striking in the different pace in the images?

In the first part: swift, sudden death. Bam, bam, bam. Pilate kills Galileans. A tower collapses and kills everyone there.

Then the second part of the reading. The fig tree has no fruit. Okay, but let’s wait another year. Already waited three. An old, experienced gardener, who thinks of years as if they were passing days.

St. Paul tells us that our lives are: faith working through love. We believe. We hope for divine fulfillment. We patiently love.

Today might mean swift, sudden death for any of us. It might.

After all, today is all we really have. It has a sudden immediacy to it, of it’s very nature, it’s very today-ness. Yesterday has passed forever, and tomorrow…doesn’t exist.

But let’s try to look at it from the Lord’s point-of-view. He actually has all eternity, completely in His possession. All the yesterdays, all the tomorrows—He has them all, possesses all of that, and has infinitely more to boot. Yet He patiently doles out today for us, gives us a chance to take a step closer to the goal of bearing figs of love like we should. Every day He fertilizes, nutrifies our roots.

So let’s open up our leaves, take in the sun, and get a day closer to the fruit-bearing stage.

Fig in Leaf

Just before the Lord Jesus embraced His bitter Passion, He sat on the Mount of Olives with His disciples and outlined the signs of the end of the world. Almost everything He said was utterly terrifying.

From where the Lord and the disciples were sitting, they could see the enormous Temple built by King Herod the Great.

“There will not be left one stone upon another that will not be thrown down,” Christ said.

And it got worse:

“Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes, famines…” “You will be beaten in synagogues…” “Brother will hand over brother to death…” “There will be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people.” “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” “Unless the Lord had shortened the days, no living creature could be saved.”

(see Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21)

It was a stunning, confusing discourse–more full of hellfire and brimstone than anything you have ever heard.

But then He concluded with a parable:

Consider the fig tree…When the buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near.

Consider the fig tree, budding. Consider the gentle warm air of the spring. Consider the prospect of a delicious fig, and of the shade under the tree.

So:

Fear the doom. Death and judgment are terrifying prospects. The Temple was in fact completely demolished. Strife and strain await.

But only fear so much as you can while you are meditating on the bud of a fig tree, and imagining the air of spring, and savoring the prospect of a juicy Fig Newton.

Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Nicholas Pouissin

P.S. Delpo rocked Federer again!