“Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it…it may bear fruit in the future.” Luke 13:1-9.In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus reflects on the news about those Galileans who suffered at the hands of Pilate, as well as an earthquake in Siloam in which eighteen people died. He tells his listeners that they may feel lucky or favored by God, but in fact, all people need to repent from sins.
So let’s reflect for a few minutes about the primary image and parable of the fig tree and this “window of opportunity” in this season of repentance and mercy.
Maybe you’ve had this experience, namely ending a long and enjoyable dinner with family and friends, your host or the restaurant waiter clears the table, and then asks this all-important question.
Have you saved room for dessert?
Once I recall a very long feast, celebrated at a seaside restaurant in Salerno, Italy, when the main courses were completed, the server cleared the table, and with no questions asked, brought over a huge fruit basket and a large plate of Italian cheeses.
Then, assistant waiters gave each of the guests an individual plate of figs, their summertime “specialty of the house.” More astounding, once you cut into the fruit, the fig was filled with sweet mascarpone cheese. Frankly, I don’t recall the main course that day, but these were the most memorable and delicious figs I’ve ever eaten.
Figs remain a staple dessert in the Mediterranean diet. In places like Italy, Greece, and the Middle East, they accompany chicken or fish. You find them in desserts as toppings over ice cream, or, out of season, dry-figs, and in jams and jellies. And, for better or worse, we have “The Fig-Newton.”
But back to the main question, have we saved room for dessert? Or more to the parable story, have we given sufficient time and space for the barren fig tree in our own life? Here the gardener in the story is making the case to the owner of the orchard that despite the years without a yield of fruit – more time and proper cultivation might produce valuable figs.
Interestingly, in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus 19:23, Jewish law proscribed three years for a fruit tree to be ritually clean. So from what we can discern from this passage, an additional three years had already lapsed. So the tree was barren for six years.
Give this tree a second chance, the gardener argues, and if not, sooner or later, then you can cut it down.” We live in a world of “second chances,” but when the “window of opportunity” opens, go with it, take it!
Since this chance moment won’t stay open forever, it’s time to examine our lives, remedy our ways, seek forgiveness, repentance, and ready ourselves for the sweet grace of the fig tree in full blossom, with its delicious fruit of life.
The patient gardener is Christ of this and every Lent providing his mercy. Time and generosity bring people around: those who have committed severe sinfulness, those who are addicted and in need of recovery, those estranged from family and friends, and ready for reconciliation. Where a simple telephone call of love and support becomes a grace-filled moment.
Here’s a case in point, and while I’m repeating a newspaper account, so you should be forwarded, I cannot attest to its complete accuracy. None the less, this past week, I happened to read an obituary for Peter Mondavi, the Napa Valley winemaker and businessman who died at 101 years of age. According to the New York Times, Peter and his brother Robert Mondavi inherited their father’s vineyard. They became all essential figures in advance of California wines in this country and around the world. Robert was the marketing genius, and Peter knew the details of the science of wine and viticulture. And here’s where this family feud reads like it comes from the bible or a great work of literature.
After their father Caesare died, the brothers became partners, but somehow the partnership fell apart. Robert would go on to create his own label, where Peter directed the Charles Krug Winery. The obituary mentioned that the brothers did not speak to one another from 1965 to 2005 when they finally reconciled at a Napa Valley charity event. Of course, this was a good thing since Robert died just a few years later.
Take their lives out of the narrative, and let’s think of ourselves for a moment. What’s wrong with this picture? Imagine the years of estrangement, pain, grief, and the burden on the extended family.
In Jesus, we are not estranged from God who offers his mercy and forgiveness, and we are to extend this mercy and forgiveness as signs of the divine presence in our own lives. Lent is a time when we can grow as persons, fully alive with Christ at Easter, and not merely taking up space, but thoroughly nourishing the community of faith, in hope and in love.
San Carlos Cathedral, Monterey, CA.