The warning of the barren tree

barren-fig-treeThe Third Sunday of Lent ~ February 28th, 2016

The Barren Fig Tree

. . . . But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

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 13:5-9)

A popular symbol for Israel (Hosea, Micah and Jeremiah), the fig tree and the care it required were often used as an analogy for the care and love God showered upon the chosen people.

Usually a fig tree was expected to produce fruit within three years of its planting. If it proved to be unproductive, it was uprooted to make room for new seedling.

Notice, however, that in Jesus’ parable the vinedresser gave the barren fig tree the gift of another year as well as the benefit of additional care (hoeing, fertilizing.)

No doubt, Jesus intended his listeners to remember the many, many overtures of love and the many, many opportunities for reform and renewal that had been offered to God’s people through the centuries. Sadly, many of these overtures and opportunities went unheeded; sinners remained unrepentant and unproductive. Nevertheless, in Jesus, and through his words and works, God offered the ultimate overture of love; therefore those who refused to avail themselves of the opportunity afforded them in Jesus would, like the barren fig tree, find themselves cut down and replaced by another.

We need to understand that God doesn’t fool around with us. The intent of this parable is directed toward you and me. We are to be fruitful in our living and our loving. If we are not fruitful, we will become subject to God’s discipline.

William Barclay makes several points about this parable . . . .

(1) The fig tree occupied a specially favored place in the vineyard. It was not unusual for apple trees or fig trees to be in vineyards taking up rich soil.  Jesus was reminding people ~ and us ~ that they ~ we ~ would be judge by their and our opportunities.

(2) The parable teaches that uselessness invites disaster. The most searching question we can be asked is: “Of what use were we in the world?”

(3) Further, the parable teaches that nothing that only takes will survive. The fig tree was drawing strength and sustenance from the soil; and in return was producing nothing. That was precisely its sin.

Many years ago, at the beginning of my priestly ministry, I remember that I was asked to give a talk on sin to a group of religion teachers. I made a short list of sin. I still use that list today. I believe that sin can be reduced to a refusal OF love, a refusal TO love, a refusal to grow and a refusal to give thanks.

For example, in your marriage are you refusing the love of your spouse, are you refusing TO love your spouse, are you refusing to attend to the areas of growth that are needed in your marriage?

Barclay’s fourth point is that the parable is the gospel of second chances ~ or in this Jubilee Year of Mercy ~ the Gospel of Mercy. This fig tree was given a second chance. And God always gives second and third and fourth and many more chances!

(5)  But the parable makes it quite clear that there is a final chance.  If we refuse chance after chance after chance, if God’s appeal comes again and again in vain, the day finally comes, not when God has shut us out, but we by deliberate choice have shut ourselves out.

Jesus was warning his hearers of the destruction to come to Jerusalem in the first part of this passage.

So this is kind of tough stuff, dear readers. The season of Lent each year is given to us to attend to our growth – to REFLECT, REPENT AND RENEW.

The season of Lent is a time to reflect on our life to see what areas of our life need attending to. We look to see how we are doing, to see where there is need for some pruning or perhaps some freshening up ~ some renewing.

There are other Scripture passages that talk about the growth of the soul using the analogy of a tree. Note this beautiful one ~ Psalm 1:

Blessed is the man who does not walk

in the counsel of the wicked,

Nor stand in the way of sinners,

nor sit in company with scoffers.

Rather, the law of the LORD is his joy.

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree

planted near streams of water,

that yields its fruit in season;

Its leaves never wither;

whatever he does prospers.

What this psalm makes clear is that growth of the human soul ~ the human person comes when you and I have sunk our roots into the well of God’s grace.  So that we have easy access to God’s strength and help ~the Living Waters Jesus give us.

This, of course, is what prayer is about. We need to pray daily to build up a reservoir of God’s grace.

If our well is dry, when difficult times come, we won’t have easy access to God. We will need to build our reservoir once again.

Again, Lent is a time to do that. Through our acts of returning to God, through our penance and prayer, the well will fill again. We will have a full reservoir in dry and difficult times.

So, let us attend to our growth, the growth of our soul, the growth of our whole person.

In the first reading of today’s Mass we have the familiar story of Moses and the burning bush. God instructs the young Moses to remove his sandals before approaching because it is holy ground. And God reveals to Moses his name: YAHWEH ~ I AM WHO AM ~ a story in full contrast to the Gospel parable.

And so, our Lenten season moves on toward Easter, enriching us with hope and promise, if we heed the warning of the barren fig tree. Now, before you go, here’s a beautiful hymn for you with a slide show. Click here.

And here are all of today’s Mass readings, including the first part of today’s Gospel. Click here.

Further, if you attend a Mass with Catechumens or candidates for initiation into the Church at Easter, you may hear the readings from Cycle A proclaimed with the Gospel of John’s story of the woman at the well. Click here for an archive of “A thirsty man meets a thirsty woman.

Acknowledgement: William Barclay / The New Daily Study Bible / The Gospel of Luke /                                                                                       Westminster John Knox Press / Louisville KY 1975 – 2001 /pages 207-8.

With love,

Bob Traupman

contemplative writer

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