The Third Sunday of Lent ( Year C) ~ The Warning of the Fig Tree
Before we begin, there are two liturgical texts for this and the following two Sundays. An alternate set from Year A is often used when Catechumens are present. But these are the prescribed texts for the day from the Gospel of St. Luke.
I must say that I found the first part of today’s gospel obscure–as did our scripture scholar, William Barclay. However, we can salvage this much: There’s a line in the first section about two catastrophes–incidents that are unknown to us, but then Jesus goes on to warn his hearers that if they did not repent they too would perish. What did he mean?
Jesus was warning them of what he foresaw and foretold: the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in AD 70 (cf. Lk. 21:21-24). He knew, sadly, that if they went on with their intrigues, their rebellions, their plottings, and their political ambitions, they were going to commit national suicide. He knew Rome would obliterate the nation, and that is what happened.
And there is a warning for us today. For years I’ve been imploring my readers to pray personal transformation for the sake of the transformation of our nation. And in the present atmosphere of our country, looking ahead to the next election, again such prayer, and Jesus’ warning is quite apropos, as is the second part of today’s gospel—the parable of the fig tree . . . .
Barclay offers us several things to learn about this famous parable that I hadn’t realized before.
First, the fig tree occupied a specially favored position. It was not unusual to see fig trees, thorn trees and apple trees in the same vineyards. The soil was so shallow and poor that trees were grown wherever there was soil to grow them but the fig tree had its chance, and had not proved worthy of it.
Very often, Jesus reminded people, and by implication in this parable, that they would be judged according to the opportunities they had.
Second, the parable teaches that uselessness invites disaster. The whole process of evolution in this world is to produce useful things, and what is useful will go on, while what is useless will be eliminated. The most searching question any of us can ask is—“Of what use were we in this world?”
During this Lent, it might be well to take stock of the opportunities that we’ve had in life and how we responded to them. Now that I’ve returned to my Diocese of Orlando this spring, that’s kinda what I’ve been doing.
Third, the parable teaches that nothing that only takes, survives.The fig tree was drawing strength and sustenance from the soil; and in return was producing nothing. That, Barclay says, was precisely its sin. There are two kinds of people in the world—those who take out more than they put in, and those who put in more than they take out. We’ve inherited a Christian civilization and the great freedoms of this land. It’s our responsibility to hand them on to the generations to come, perhaps better than we found them. As for me, I am grateful for the opportunities for education my parents and my bishops have provided me, and the gifts God has given me to serve him and his people.
Fourth, the parable tells us of the gospel of the second chance. A fig tree, our scripture scholar tells us from his research, normally takes three years to reach maturity. If it doesn’t bear fruit by that time, it’s not likely to bear fruit at all. But this fig tree was given a second chance. In our sinfulness, it’s hard for us to realize the true depth and nature of our sin. This Lent is a good time to make a thoughtful review of our life and create a clean heart. Won’t you make a good confession before Easter?
It’s Jesus’ way to give us chance after chance after chance. Peter and Paul would gladly witness to that. God is forever kind to those who fall and rise again.
And that perhaps is the most important meaning for us to receive from this parable today, God never gives up on us! He will never give up on you! Ever! Ever, Ever! God doesn’t abandon us; it is we who abandon him. And that perhaps may be our sin. That we think that we aren’t any good. That we’re not worth it. But that’s really a sin of pride, isn’t it?
Fifth, the gospel makes it quite clear there’s a final chance. If we refuse chance after chance, if God’s appeal and challenge come again and again without us even turning towards him, the day finally comes, not when God has shut us out, but we by deliberate choice we refuse his grace and turn our back on him definitively.
But even in that, there may be something psychological that is operative in that person that would diminish that person’s guilt, and save him in spite of himself.
Awake, O sleeper, rise from death,
And Christ will give you light,
So learn his love ~ his length and breadth
It’s fullness, depth and height
For he descended here to bring
From sin and fears release
To give the Spirit’s unity
Which is the bond of peace.
For us Christ lived, for us he died
And conquered in the strife.
Awake, arise, go forth in faith,
And Christ shall give you life!
And now here’s a Lenten hymn for you, “Beyond the Days of Hope and Mystery.” Click here
. . . . 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.