The Barren Fig Tree, Out Upon the Waters.
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So much of our Bible assumes knowledge of the earth, of plants and animals, of winds and climate, that sometimes it seems to have been written on an alien planet. Most of us live in cities, and the countryside is what we see through a railway or car window, or look down on from a great height flying from city A to city B. I do not know a fig tree from any other tree: a tree is a tree! So today’s gospel is a little mystifying to this city dweller. You get figs from the produce section of the local supermarket, usually tied into a loop…. End of knowledge. So, digging around, I found a picture of the tree whose fruit is the fig. Such a tree not bearing said fruit is pictured above (I think). It does look a little skinny and bleak so I would simply remark that it’s not surprising that it bears no fruit, poor thing. Today’s gospel, however, threatens it with destruction if that state continues. A fig tree is supposed to bear figs, or else, not too surprising, seeing that the humble fig is quite a star in the field of health and has a long and illustrious history. In other words, it is supposed to be a friend of humanity, and is rightly expected to support us through its fruit.
Well all that sounds very familiar don’t you think? Isn’t it exactly what we are supposed to be and do in life? The fig tree seems to be a metaphor for our own mission on earth. So what would our “fruit” be? At birth God gives each and every one of us a set of gifts with which we are to navigate ourselves through life. Some of us are more gifted than others; a few of us are super-gifted, others with a bare minimum. Such is life. There is no reason to moan and groan about any of that, as it is what it is, and to be accepted. Education is the mechanism which transforms those gifts into the skills with which we will glorify God, serve our neighbors and keep ourselves hale and hearty, as we would be fulfilling God’s plan. That is the Christian recipe for a happy, productive and satisfying life, the model fig tree if you like. Today’s parable seems to echo that model. If our fruit is turned inwards, which is to say we produce no fruit at all, then the model becomes corrupt and non-life giving. That is the situation presented to us in today’s gospel. Yet there is hope offered to the hopeless. The owner listens to the gardener who offers to try and save the forlorn fig tree in the hope that it will, indeed, produce the life-enhancing fruit. And a time limit is introduced: one year. If no improvement, then the tree will be cut down, the soil around it will no longer be drained of its nutrients, and so something else could be planted there. Pretty logical, though it is consoling that a last chance has been given. All this reminds me of the reflections presented on this webpage dated February 13th, where Scrooge was the focus. I think he could be be genuinely compared to the barren, fruitless old fig tree, miserable in his wealth, a joy to nobody, including himself, who responded wonderfully well to the gardener softening the ground around it, fertilizing it, and the consequent miraculous transformation! So Jesus’ message remains the same: there is always hope, always a gardener ready to help us back to the right way, always a way for our potential for good to be realized and brought to fruition, if you like.
Now, the first half of today’s gospel seems to talk of something completely different, disasters that have happened and people having died as a result. That was not because of any sins: accidents are exactly that, accidents. But, as Jesus points out, we might well be directly responsible for our own personal disasters if we do not recognize the gifts we have been given and develop them as God intends. If we do not, then disaster awaits, possibly in this life, certainly in the next. And don’t you think that that gardener seems to be a very patient, well-meaning chap? He seems to care about the wretched, barren fig tree. He might be an avatar possibly, in the Hindu meaning of the word. Don’t you think he might be the Lord, seeking us and helping us fulfill our potential? Can God be that close to us? Well, look at today’s first reading, one of the most important passages in all Scripture, the famous scene of Moses and the Burning Bush. This scene reveals a great deal about God. God has heard the cry of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt. Hence we know God listens to us. God wants Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of slavery to the freedom of the Promised land. Hence we believe in a God of freedom. Then Moses asks God for the divine name. God had uttered the title we all know, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” But that is not a name; it is a title. What is your name? Moses asks. And the answer is “I AM WHO AM”, the ineffable holy name which devout Jews to this day will not speak; YAHWEH in Hebrew. In revealing that, we now know that we have a God of Relationship, one who knows our name, as we know God’s name, a God who wants the Hebrews to inherit a land flowing with milk and honey, another agricultural ideal. That is the type of gardener we have in today’s parable, one who knows us and cares for us and wants only the best for us. And there it is, utterly clear, utterly true and real, and utterly up to us to respond to God’s care, generosity and love.
Moses and the Burning Bush, The Inside Passage.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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