‘This Tree May Bear Fruit in the Future — If Not You Can Cut It Down’

SCRIPTURES & ART: Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.

Jan Luyken (1649-1712), “The Parable of the Fig Tree”
Jan Luyken (1649-1712), “The Parable of the Fig Tree” (photo: Public Domain)

When we reach the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent, we face challenges writing about the Sunday Gospels. On the one hand, because Lent is a time to prepare catechumens for Baptism, the Church has traditionally associated certain Gospels that have relevance for the Baptismal scrutinies with those Sundays. A celebrant can therefore always use the Gospel of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (the “living water”) on the Third Sunday, Jesus and the man born blind (the “light of the world”) on the Fourth Sunday, and the raising of Lazarus (“the Way, the Truth, and the Life”) on the Fifth Sunday. 

On the other hand, because the liturgical reform of the Novus Ordo Missae created a three year lectionary, with each of the Synoptic Gospels having pride of place in one of those three years, there are possible different Gospels for use on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent this year. These essays will focus on those Gospels for use in Year C (Luke). If your parish is using the Gospels traditionally associated with Baptismal scrutinies (which are also the readings for Year A, Matthew) — for example, if the Gospel this week in your parish is about the Samaritan Woman — see here.

In the Lukan Lenten cycle, the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent deal with various aspects of sin. We are called to convert and produce good fruit (Third Sunday), to follow the example of the Prodigal Son (Fourth Sunday), and consider the situation of the woman caught in adultery (Fifth Sunday). On the Third Sunday of Lent, Jesus in Luke’s Gospel calls us to repentance. Conversion is, of course, the “reason for the season.” There is a preface for Lent that calls this season “a time of grace and favor.” And the very fact that we began this season a little over two weeks ago with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads reminds us this is a time for turning from sin and turning to Christ.

Today’s Gospel wants to underscore the urgency of that conversion.

Jesus begins by recounting a two events from the category “bad things that happen to people.” He recalls some Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” He also mentions 18 people who died under a falling tower in Siloam.

We don’t know much about either of these events. We know that Pilate was often at odds with the Jews. The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus mentions several instances in which Pilate committed sacrilege in the eyes of the Jews, including bringing symbols of the Roman imperial cult (which worshipped the Emperor) into the holy city of Jerusalem and taking money from the Temple treasury to fund a local infrastructure project, building an aqueduct. When the Jews protested, Pilate had his troops beat the protestors, killing some. Whether Jesus has these or some other event in mind in the Gospel is unknown. 

Likewise, secular accounts tell us nothing about a collapsing tower in Siloam. Siloam appears in the Bible as the location of the Pool of Siloam,where the Blind Man will go to wash his eyes if your parish is following the Baptismal readings for next Sunday’ Gospel. If that is the Siloam of the tower, it’s part of East Jerusalem today and called Silwan by its Palestinian inhabitants. 

Jesus challenges the prevalent Jewish mentality about Divine justice and retribution. If our world asks about “why do bad things happen to good people?” the Jews of Jesus’ day would have said “bad things happen to bad people.” Even in Jesus’ day, the notion of an afterlife was still unclear in Judaism. But if God is just, good needs to be rewarded and evil punished. If we all wind up in the same after-death state — Sheol, the abode of the dead (which is not heaven or hell but merely some kind of post-mortem existence) — then justice must be done in this world. So, reasoned Israel, good was rewarded in this world by health, long life, prosperity, and children. Evil was likewise punished by sickness, early death, poverty and infertility. 

The Old Testament took this viewpoint, but began to wrestle with it. The consummate example of that grappling is Job, convinced of his righteousness but a man of suffering. It is only very late in the Old Testament, indeed, the first century B.C., that a clearer idea of life after death emerges in the Book of Wisdom. That theological development remained contested in Jesus’ day. We know from the Gospels, for example, that the Sadduccees denied the idea of a resurrection of the dead.

Jesus clearly does not adopt this “one-on-one correspondence” between evildoing and punishment, because he asks his listeners whether they think those Jews slaughtered by Pilate or killed by a falling tower were any worse than those who escaped such fates. It’s paradoxical that the ancient Jewish mentality was almost the opposite of ours. Their assumption that “bad things happen to bad people” — which Jesus challenges — is almost the reverse of our question “why do bad things happen to good people?” 

The truth is: Jesus doesn’t say anything about how good or how bad those Jews killed by Pilate or crushed by the tower were. He moves the question away from asking about their guilt to asking about ours. Are we ready to change our ways?

Jesus then tells us the parable of a fig tree. The owner has invested money, time, and effort in his orchard, but this particular fig tree has produced nothing. It bears no fruit. It just takes up the ground. So he decides not to waste his precious land with this unproductive growth, and instructs the field hands to cut it down.

The field hand pushes back, asking for another chance to tend the tree, give it special attention, and see if it can still produce good fruit. It gets a lease on life, but only for a fixed time and only if it finally is fruitful. “If not, you can cut it down.”

In his life of Christ, the Polish-Jewish Catholic writer Roman Brandstaetter situates the event behind this parable in the hidden life of Jesus. Jesus is a hired laborer earning his daily bread by farm work. (Ever notice Jesus’ parables are primarily about agriculture, not carpentry?) The owner of the field, with whom he has become friendly, is a distracted man whose boy has gone off with the son’s share of his inheritance and, although his father keeps looking for him, seems to have vanished. Stories come back now and then that he lives dissolutely somewhere abroad. Jesus is the hired hand who gets the owner-father to defer getting rid of the seemingly useless tree, counseling patience and hope. In that way, Brandstaetter links this parable and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (which is next Sunday’s Gospel).

God is patient, but his patience has its limits. What those limits are are known but to God: his justice, our good, the realities and boundaries of hope. Our God is a good of second chances, but failing to seize those chances at some point becomes presumption, i.e., living on borrowed time and mercy because we think God is more willing to forebear than we are to change. “You shall not tempt the Lord Your God,” Jesus warned the devil in the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent. Neither should we pray insincerely “convert me Lord … tomorrow!” God is generous with many things, but time is one of the things he has rationed. St. Paul’s message is fitting for Lent: “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). 

(Many dioceses organize special, extended Confession schedules during Lent, e.g., on “The Light Is On for You” on Wednesday evenings, and Pope Francis has promoted the annual initiative “24 Hours in the Lord” for confessions on the Friday and Saturday prior to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, i.e., next Sunday.)

Today’s Gospel is depicted by the Dutch illustrator and engraver Jan Luykens (1649-1712). Luykens produced many engravings, and his work has had the most lasting influence among Mennonite and Amish groups. Robert Bowyer, an early 19th-century English printer, undertook a massive publishing effort of a multivolume, illustrated Bible in which Luykens works, among others, appeared.

This work illustrates the basic details of the parable. Set in an orchard against a hilly countryside in Israel are the two protagonists: the orchard owner and his worker. Their styles of dress clearly indicate who is who and how wealthy they are.

The tree that is the object of their debate stands between them. The tree dominates the picture. It is by far the tallest of the trees in the picture. The perspective makes the other trees, more distant, look smaller, which also serves to contrast those more humble but fruitful trees to the focus of our perspective. Our fig tree takes up a fair amount of space. It is showy, with lush foliage. But it bears no fruit, which is that of which the owner has come in search.

His left hand and facial expression clearly indicate frustration and his decision to clear the space. The laborer, who is already at work with his spade, gestures with his left hand at the tree, pleading its cause and indicating the efforts already being expended to make the tree bear fruit. If Christ elsewhere is “the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5), here he is the fieldhand, pruning and cleaning and fertilizing, while you are the tree. 

It’s up to us now, under the impetus of that care (i.e., grace) to produce. Do we?