“For 3 years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none.”
These words of disappointment might express God’s feelings looking at us and at our inner disposition. Three years ago, when we heard the very same readings from Year C, He came to us looking for the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness. (Galatians 5:22)
Did He find any?
It seems that every Sunday of Lent offers us very serious topics for existential, intense, vital considerations. Perhaps it might the right time for us to face the harsh reality of our meager production of fruit maybe bordering on spiritual sterility.
Every single one of us here present understands the analogy of the fig tree.
“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.”
Now that the Church got our attention, we might want to look at the inner workings of this clear, unequivocal message.
Our God, the “I am who am,” the source of all life and meaning and power, is the One who has witnessed our affliction, the affliction of His chosen ones enslaved by fetters of all kinds: some of our making, some forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control. His infinite compassion toward us brings Him to take the initiative in bringing about our rescue, in the context of newly-found freedom and a response marked by love and trust in Him. The first time He took the initiative, His people spent some 40 years wandering in the desert, amid lots of missteps, acts of idolatry, open mistrust, unfaithfulness before reaching the Promised Land.
Without insulting too many of us, I dare to submit to you that He might be having a hard time eliciting a loving response of trust and devotion from us, too. I am also willing to bet the little money that I possess, to state that most, if not all of us, would fail to see the urgency of God’s invitation to return to Him, to heed His commandments, and to bear the fruit of the Spirit.
We might be feeling rather comfortable with our performance as it is. Perhaps, not fully aware of our real spiritual condition, we might be a bit presumptuous in our reply to God’s initiative. Why am I entertaining this suspicion? Well, deep down we might see a connection (unfounded indeed if we look at our crucified Lord) that there is a connection between tragedies befalling people, their poor choices and their lifestyle. It would be the same connection that some people made between those Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices and their life of sin.
Simply put, resting on a presumption of righteousness, we might be quick to see a connection between serious illnesses like cancer and diabetes and the poor choices of those who take huge risks with their health and ignore repeated and stern warnings.
Well, Jesus’ reaction settles in a heartbeat this erroneous thinking based on presumption: just because we might not see the seriousness of our spiritual condition, it doesn’t mean that we can rise above the rest and think that we are not in urgent need for repentance.
“I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Again, could Jesus be any clearer, any more direct?
Yet, even if this direct way of addressing the urgency of our repentance in view of fruitfulness, were not enough, here comes St. Paul. He uses Christian terms in referring back to what happened to our ancestors in the desert: Baptism is foreshadowed by their passing through the Red Sea. The Eucharist was already in God’s mind when our ancestors ate the same spiritual food (manna), and drank the same spiritual drink.
All those people with whom God was not pleased and who perished in the desert were under the pillar of cloud which was a powerful reminder of the presence and care of God in their midst.
Yet, instead of seeing in that pillar of cloud during the day and the pillar of fire during the night, God’s comforting presence, they interpret it as a license to slack off and to see how much they could be trying God before being struck down. These things happened to them as an example…and they have been written down as a warning to us…
Having said all this, it seems to me that our Church doesn’t want us to be scared, but simply concerned about our spiritual call to repentance and to fruitfulness. God is taking the initiative time and time again. God is patient and compassionate with us beyond what is humanly reasonable.
Why? Look at our Lord on the cross; the Crucifix shows the Father’s infinite investment in our repentance and fruitfulness! Our Heavenly Father gathers us all around His table because He desires to have unimpeded access to our heart.
This is possible only after we can grow from doing things and obeying His laws out of fear to doing them out of love. Simply put, our repentance and fruitfulness will be long-lasting at the point we feel led by the inner motivation of love and of sacrificial self-offering.
The inside front cover of our Missalettes pick up on this point. Our acts of contrition must be perfect before we can receive our Lord in Holy Communion in the absence of a priest to whom we should confess all serious sins. That means that we are sorry for them, not because we risk to wind up in hell (exterior motivation) but because we have grieved and failed our Lord in his infinite love for us.
It is precisely this love that will enable us to bear the fruit of the Spirit for which the Father is waiting.