March 25, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the Third Sunday of Lent (Year C) on March 24, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX and at Our Lady of Wisdom Parish at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; and Luke 13:1-9.
In our gospel passage today, Jesus addresses two local tragedies that have happened recently – people who were brutally killed by Pontius Pilate, and people who died when a tower inadvertantly collapsed. He then uses this opportunity to tell a parable. Now whenever we hear the word “parable,” alarm bells should go off. Parables are not simply stories. They involve some kind of challenge that is beyond our comprehension. If we think we completely understand a parable, we’re probably mistaken.
But that is not the only challenge facing us today. At the 5:30 p.m. Mass, we will celebrate the First Scrutiny for our elect who are preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil. The Scrutinies are an ancient tradition in which the Christian community names the evils of the world, and prays that they will banished from the lives of those preparing for baptism. As we pray for our elect today, it is a prime opportunity for each of us to scrutinize ourselves.
Let us take a moment to acknowledge the times when we have fallen short in our vocation as Christian disciples.
When I moved to Tennessee in 2012, I was excited to see we had a large fig tree in the backyard of our church property. Being from further north, I had rarely eaten fresh figs in my life. When I mentioned this to one of our nutrition students on campus, she offered to make a dessert for the Paulists when the figs ripened that summer. Throughout the summer, Laura and I would investigate the tree. But sadly, the whole summer passed without us seeing a single ripe fig.
One of our parishioners explained to me that Knoxville is a little too cold for fig trees to really flourish. You need the right circumstances for a fig tree to blossom in Knoxville. He had planted five varieties of fig trees in his vineyard more than 30 years ago, and despite giving them a lot of care and attention, none of them ever produced fruit, so he eventually cut them down.
So, what is the point of the parable in today’s gospel passage? I don’t think that Jesus is telling us that we have a limited number of chances to reform our lives. I think the point of Jesus’ parable is that we have a limited amount of time to reform our lives. No matter how old or how young we are, we could die tomorrow. Then, we will have run out of time to seize the chances given to us.
But this is a parable. It can’t be that simple, can it? People traditionally see the fig tree as Israel, the owner as God the Father, and the gardener as Jesus. I find this to be a very troubling interpretation. I believe that God the Father is a god of love. Would he give up on us as easily as the owner gives up on the fig tree? Does God the Father only spare us from wrath because Jesus puts in a good word for us?
I think the parable is open to other interpretations. Who is the owner? Who is the gardener? Perhaps we are not always called to play the role of the fig tree.
As Christians, we are called to reconcile ourselves not only to God. We are called by God to reconcile ourselves also with one another. When we encounter someone who is not living in conformance with the ideals of Christianity, we have a choice: we can be the owner, or we can be the gardener. Do we give up on that person, or do we give them another chance? And if we give them another chance, do we offer them love, guidance, and encouragement to reform their lives?
If you read the entirety of Moses’ conversation with God at the burning bush in Exodus, you’ll see that Moses gives God a lot of different reasons why he’s not qualified to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. But God doesn’t smite Moses for questioning; he patiently addresses Moses’ fears. He gives Moses multiple chances to accept the invitation, and eventually, Moses does.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was addressing a community filled with individuals who were convinced that they themselves were holy, but that the people around them were terrible sinners. I think Paul is warning the Corinthians not to cut one another down when he says, “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”
So perhaps the owner of the estate should be seen not as God, but as negativity, impulsiveness, and the worldly desire to judge people by outward appearances. In that case, the gardener represents hope, perseverance, trust, and the belief that each person has dignity in the eyes of God, no matter how lost they may feel at the present moment.
[Pause.] One day in the office in Tennessee in the fall of 2012, I lamented to some staff members and a parishioner that there had been no ripe figs on the tree all summer. It was only then that I learned how wrong I was. It turns out that people in the neighborhood come by throughout the summer to pick fruit off the tree. Laura and I had simply come to look at the tree at the wrong times!
As the parishioner who had had to cut down his own fig trees explained to me, the fig tree at the church had the right circumstances to flourish. It was protected from the harshest conditions because it received protection and warmth from the church building itself. [Pause.] Each of us will bear better and more abundant fruit if we are nurtured by one another.
For the next three weekends at parishes around the world, we will be asking the elect to scrutinize their lives in all its complications: to examine what is sinful and needs to be let go, and to examine what is good and needs to be strengthened. At St. Austin’s, we’ll show our support for the elect in this process through a very simple yet profound gesture. We will surround them and place our hands on their shoulders, demonstrating our commitment to nurture one another as the ever-growing Body of Christ.
Ideally, church is a place where we help one another to flourish. In our interactions with anyone who is struggling in the life of holiness, may we nourish them, not cut them down. May each of us here extend sufficient warmth and protection to allow everyone we meet to flourish as well.