Exodus 3, 1-15; Psalm 103; 1 Cor 10, 1-12; Luke 13, 1-9
Fig trees are valuable in Palestine. Their sizeable leaves provide a sprawling shade to sit as Nathanael was doing when Jesus saw him (Jn 1:48). Figs are naturally productive; they fruit almost the entire year, except in May or April when leaves begin to appear. They are usually cultivated in the corner of vineyards as a standby in case vines fail. Figs, fresh or dried, are pressed as cakes and are thus excellent as food. They are also used as medicines for boils. Thus an unproductive fig tree is disappointing and worthless. It is better to cut it down from its very roots and “thrown into the fire” (Lk 3: 8-9).
The Parable of the Fig Tree appropriates this idea to the fruitless leaders of Israel; after all, like fig trees, the leaders who are planted in the Lord’s vineyard are expected to be useful to God.
As Christians, we are expected to be valuable to God; we are to bear fruit. However we have to be careful with how we should understand ‘usefulness.’ We can be of greatest use even in seemingly insignificant things. Jerry and Lorin Biederman's book, Earth Angels, tells the story of Esther Biederman, 73, a mother and writer, who survived depression after her husband died by the daily phone calls from one or more of her three children. Or we can take an example from common experience: how our mother’s daily cooking made us who we are now. We thus ask ourselves “Of what use are we to God?”
To understand ‘usefulness to God’, we must believe why we were created in the first place: We are intelligent and free so that we can love, as God our Creator loves. Since childhood we were taught that God made us in the past, once and for all. However, God is always creating us in the concrete, all living things grow through several stages and phases throughout life. God creates every talent that we have, every quality we possess including our intolerance of others, our interests. He creates not only what makes us human, but what makes us a person, our unique identity. Our entire person, including the ‘dark side’ of our personality, is created so that we can love, no matter how hurting it can be, no matter the consequences. Thus to be useful to God is to have a heart overflowing with love for others just as Mother Teresa was.
The fruitless fig tree derives much nourishment from the ground which could have been given to something more useful. Many of us believe that as long as we have not harmed anyone, we are fine. Good intentions are not enough. The world today holds that the more we get out of life the better. But Jesus demands the opposite: not extraction but contribution. What have we contributed to the world? And not, what have we gotten out of this world?
Moreover, fruitlessness points out a grim reality: we have failed to realize our own possibilities. To be productive is to make maximum use of what we have. The Greek word for sin is hamartia which is ‘to miss the target.’ It is to know that we can offer help, but we are not able to do so. It is to know that we have talents, but we do not make good use of it. It is to know that we can contribute to this world, but we miss the opportunity to do so. Spirituality has it that the greatest sin one can do towards God is not to acknowledge the gifts that He has given. To ignore one’s gifts is to reject the giver. Not to use our talents is to refuse God. If I grow to be the person God has been hoping I would become, I manifest God’s power at work in me. I would also find God’s gifts as my contribution towards the realization of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus tells the story of the Fig Tree in connection with repentance. Selfishness drives us, not to contribute, but to extract, to get what we can from life, for ourselves. Sin does not allow us to develop our potentials. Sin does not allow us to love: the end for which we are created. If we do not repent, we become less human. If we do not realize what God has intended us to be, then we are geared towards eternal damnation. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the Elder Zossima describes hell as ‘the suffering of being unable to love.’ It is the consequence of the freedom granted to us by God when we deny Him as our Creator and Destiny.
Finally, we should not forget the most important point: we have the vinedresser who pleads to the Master to give the fruitless fig tree another chance even if it means extraordinary care. The vinedresser promises that he would do all he can for the fig tree to fruit: he would ‘hoe and put manure around it.’ Jesus is the Vinedresser who pleads in behalf of our sinfulness. Because of Jesus, we are given our ‘last chance.’ He suffered and died for us: what more can we ask? By his words and deeds, we were saved; we were given our ‘last chance.’ We owe it to our vinedresser.
And so, in the spirit of the Lenten season, we come home to whom we belong, we come with a contrite spirit. Only with God’s grace of forgiveness and mercy, offered to us, fruitless fig trees, that we become fruitful in God’s vineyard.