March 20: Figs & Honey (Lent 3C)

Moses asked: “What is your name? What am I to tell them?” God replied: “I am who I am.” Then he added, “This is what you tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” Exodus 13-15.

Today’s readings represent an array of biblical types and themes. While we think of the Bible as a whole, sacred scripture as literature has distinct forms of storytelling, poetry, and law.

In this first reading, we hear the epic tale of Moses and his people on their exodus journey to the promised land, the land of milk and honey. In this passage, God speaks to Moses, and it is among the most brilliant in all of sacred scripture.

To King David, Psalm 103 blesses God’s holy name and sings of God’s benefits in living the good life. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds the early Christian community not to live under false assumptions, rather live in awe before God.

Today’s passage from Luke tells the obscure parable of the fig tree, and here Christ himself resembles the patient gardener, always abounding in personal kindness and extending constant forgiveness.

Let’s reflect for a few minutes about the scriptural image and parable of the fig tree as a “window of insight” about the Lenten season.

After ending a long and enjoyable dinner with family and friends, maybe you’ve had this experience? 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 afternoon feast, celebrated at a seaside restaurant in Salerno, Italy, with my Italian relatives. With the main courses completed, the servers cleared the table and, according to custom, brought over a basket of fresh fruit and a plate of assorted Italian cheeses. Then, assistant waiters served each guest an individual dish of figs, their summertime “specialty of the house.”

More astounding, once you cut into this honey-covered delight – you tasted sweet mascarpone cheese, covertly injected into the figs. I don’t recall the main course that day, but these figs were the most memorable and delicious fruit I’ve had 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, out of season, dry-figs, and jams and jellies. For better or worse, Americans have cardboard-like “Fig-Newtons.” To my taste, these are very distant, almost tasteless relatives of the real figs.

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? I speak of those figs that are not so sweet or even rotten, perhaps?

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.

See in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus there contain many religious rules, ceremonial laws, and even agricultural practices.

In Leviticus 19:23, Jewish law proscribed three years for a fruit tree to be ritually clean, stating:

“When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you are to treat it as bearing forbidden fruit. For three years, it is forbidden and may not be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit is to be holy for a praise-offering to the Lord, festal jubilation. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.” 

From our gospel passage, an additional three years had already elapsed from what we can discern. So the tree was barren for six years.

Give this tree a second chance, the gardener argues, and if not, sooner or later, 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.

Indeed, this patient gardener is Christ of most, especially in Lent, where he provides 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.

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 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 and thriving in hope and love.

Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.


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