Today’s Gospel is a preemptive strike by Jesus. There were many who believed that bad things happened only to sinful people and Jesus’ death by crucifixion was the worst thing in that world. This was not only among Romans, the book of Deuteronomy states that the gravely sinful were to be executed and placed on a tree for all to curse and revile. Jesus knew that some would interpret his crucifixion as payment for the sin of blasphemy and so he addressed this beforehand. Bad things, indeed, very bad things could happen to good people. Yet he takes this opportunity to remind us of something even more basic and one which we have seen rather recently.
Today’s story and parable are found only in Luke. Luke is an educated man writing to other educated people. They had more invested in society than most who read the other Gospels and would be more likely to believe that present success meant future bliss. This is a natural tendency, and we see it with the prosperity gospel that is prominent in the United States and even more in South America today. In the first 5 verses of today’s Gospel Jesus twice tells his audience that all need to repent. There are no exceptions. The consequences for not doing this are dire as Luke clearly shows. Remember that the story of Lazarus and the rich man is found only in Luke. The rich man was in hell and told that “you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.” (Lk 16:25). The story of the good Samaritan is also found only in Luke and informed the rich who have the good things in life that they must seek out opportunities to share them with those who have nothing. Repentance for Christians is more than just turning away from evil but actively and consciously turning towards Jesus and neighbor.
This is not only for individuals but most especially for communities. Today’s parable is very telling. It would have been common to plant a fig tree in a vineyard of grapes. Everything else in the parable is uncommon. Few owners would have allowed a fig tree to be barren for 3 years. Figs are produced twice a year and barrenness would have been discovered in a few months. It took up valuable space and nutrients and would have been cut down immediately. Luke, always the literary craftsman, knows that his audience is aware that fig trees do not require either spade work or manure and that this care would have been seen as excessive. But most importantly why would the gardener care at all?
The gardener is of course Jesus. He has come to save the people of Israel and he does not give up. The three years he worked on the tree perhaps reflects Jesus’ three years of public ministry. Yet he says that if it does not bear fruit in the next year, if the people do not respond to his death and resurrection then it can be cut down. John the Baptist has already said “Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9).
Luke is writing after the destruction of Jerusalem. It seemed that Judaism was dead. The LORD however never forgets a promise, the Jews are still a chosen people and indestructible. But Luke did not include this for historical purposes only but as a warning to Christians.
Have Christians born fruit, have we turned from evil and towards Jesus, have we acted like the good Samaritan? If not, do we need to be cut down?
Pope Francis has encouraged us to ask this question. The clergy sexual abuse scandal throughout the entire church has revealed widespread and deep corruption. This level of sin cannot grow in isolation and even if effectively addressed cannot leave the church unshaken. The synod process that he has begun is a promising first step to widespread reform. Perhaps like me this was the first time anyone asked your opinion on anything in the church. But perhaps you like me conveniently listed only the failings of others.
We need to get back to basics. Why were we born? The Catholic answer is that were made to be part of a covenant with God and our neighbor. The people of the covenant are the church and the sacrifice that we offer at this, and every other Mass is how we participate in his death and resurrection, serving others after we have left is how we show we have understood its significance.
Like the Jews we are judged by how we bear fruit. That fruit is to be the presence of Jesus in the world. No matter how impressive the churches’ properties and portfolios, indeed our intellectual and artistic treasures if people do not experience Jesus when they experience us, we are barren and good only for kindling.
As we review the synod our first question must be how we the people of St Chales Borromeo Brooklyn Heights can be that presence of Jesus to ourselves and our neighbors. The Parish council announced last week that it will be holding several sessions after Easter to review what was uncovered at our synod meetings. We hope you will attend. Nothing was off the table at the initial meetings, and nothing will be off it in these, but we will focus on how we as a community can be more converted to the Lord and our mission to make him real. In this we will not only fulfill our mission as Christians but also experience the personal fulfillment for which we were created and redeemed.
The reprieve given to the fig tree in today’s gospel is a reminder of how much Jesus wants us to bear fruit. As we continue to walk what Pope Francis has called the synodal way let us remember that we can fail on our own but can only succeed together,