for the Third Sunday of Lent, Cycle C
March 11, 2007
I begin my homily this morning with a question. What gospel image has spoken most meaningfully to you about what our God is really like - the God we come to know in and through Jesus? I am sure that for many of you, your spontaneous answer would be: "The image of the Good Shepherd." Or for others, "The Father of the Prodigal Son." And some would surely say: "My favorite page has always been the one about the Good Samaritan." - And what do all these God-revealing images have in common? They all have come down to us in the form of stories! Jesus was the Master Communicator. He knew that everyone loves a story. He knew that most of us remember longest and understand best when we can visualize a truth, tie it tightly to a place and people and something happening.
This morningís gospel reading adds yet another of those God-revealing stories in which Our Lord ties a truth to a happening. And the truth which He wants to share with us is that God has His Great Expectations of all of us. And how does He put His point across? He tells us this little story about the farmer who comes looking for figs. Now I know that Michigan is not the ideal environment for growing figs. And for most of us, it is a fruit which seldom finds a place on our grocery list. We probably would not recognize a fig tree if we ever saw one. Actually, in preparing this homily, I resorted to the internet and I learned that figs are related to mulberries and that from earliest times, they have been dietary staples especially for peoples all around the Mediterranean basin. Quite possibly, Mary and Joseph had a couple of fig trees in their garden at Nazareth. And in the crowd around Jesus that day, there were probably several who were nibbling on a fig as they listened. If Jesus were talking here and now and to us this morning, He probably would have pointed to an apple tree. It really does not matter - figs or apples or even tomato plants. We all know that fruit trees or plants which do not produce when they are expected to, are a big disappointment and we might as well pull them up or chop them down.
The point of the story is plain enough. Jesus is telling us: God has invested a lot of loving care in each and every one of us and He expects an appropriate return from us.. And if He comes looking and does not find what He has a right to find, He is going to be very disappointed..
But what are the fruits God comes looking for? How can we measure up to His great expectations What are fruits which prove us to be humanly and spiritually productive?
A long time ago, most of us learned the answer to that question when we studied our catechism and memorized what are called the Fruits of the Holy Spirit - which are simply the visible and tangible proofs that Godís personal investment in us is proving productive. Actually, the catechism lifted that familiar list of the good fruits of Godly living right out of St. Paulís letter to the Galatians where the apostle tells us: "The Spirit produces in human life fruits such as these:
Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Fidelity, Tolerance and Self Control." It is precisely all of these that God looks for from us - and has a right to find. These are Godís Great Expectations.
All of us have had the experience of assisting at the funeral liturgy for a loved one or a close friend. And even though the vestments are white and the liturgy is filled with hope, there is always the grief and the deep sense of loss when someone dear to us has gone home to God. And it is the responsibility of the celebrant to speak some comforting words. How does he do that? In the first place, of course, he must find words to share a Christian perspective on death - not an end but a beginning... not only a departure but a joyful arrival. As St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Thessalonians, we do not grieve "as those who have no hope." Our faith is firmly fixed on Our Lordís promise: "The one who follows me, walks not into darkness but shall have the light of life." But along with the consolation which faith affords, what a comfort it is to be able to say: "All is well with your loved one because when God came searching, He found the rich harvest of a fruitful life". And then, whether from personal knowledge or from being told by those who could speak from their own experience, the homilist might continue to share memories which, even through the tears, can call forth a smile, inviting them to remember their loved one - his unselfish, unconditional, always generous way of loving - or to remember what a Joy she was to be with, how her very presence seemed to light up the room wherever she was - or how Patient he was, never complaining, never a misery-sharer - or how unfailingly Kind she was, even toward difficult people - or how he was always the Peace-Maker, never the trouble-maker - or how Tolerant she was, never stereotyping people, always seeing the best in them.... Taken together, donít they add up to the lovely harvest of a fruitful life?
I began my homily by asking what gospel image of God spoke most meaningfully to you - and I suggested a few likely answers. You could have added yet others, from your own spiritual perception. But I really doubt that any of you would have answered: "My all time favorite is this parable of the barren fig-tree! The fact is, this is a page which we turn over rather quickly. We may be somewhat reluctant to think about "the harvest time" - not because we feel that our lives have been totally unproductive but rather because we are afraid that our branches are not burdened with all the fruit we would want to be found there!
That may be our rueful reaction - but we can find reassurance in the fact that Our Lordís words do not end with the fruit-searcherís disappointment. Indeed, the whole point of the parable is to be found in the final lines. The patient owner decides to grant a reprieve - to allow a little more time before the final harvest. This is the way, Our Lord wants us to understand His little story: He is telling us: "Take heart! God, My Father is a Patient Farmer. If you donít quite measure up to His expectation, He is willing to give you a second chance - some more time, however much or little no one can say for certain. But use it well! Sooner or later everyone of you will run out of time. Sooner or later, He will come, hoping for a rich harvest."
This season of Lent should be, by its very purpose, a God-given time for honest soul-searching - a time for asking questions which only we can answer: How productive has my life been, humanly and spiritually? How do I measure up to Godís great expectations of me? Love - Joy - Peace - Patience - Kindness - Generosity - Fidelity - Tolerance - Self-Control Ė All together the Holy Harvest of the Spirit!