by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his garden, and he came out looking for fruit, but found none. So, he said to the gardener: ‘For three years now, I have come looking for fruit on this tree and found none. So cut it down. Why should it clutter up the ground?’ In answer, the gardener said: ‘Sir, leave it for another year, while I hoe around it and fertilise it; then perhaps it will bear fruit. If not, I’ll cut it down’.” Luke 13, 1-9
On Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean brought devastation to the coastal regions of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. More than 200,000 people lost their lives. People all over the world were stunned by the magnitude of the destruction and the enormous loss of life. When disasters like that occur, there is something about us that sends us searching for an explanation. It is not unusual to hear ourselves and people around us asking: “Why does God allow such terrible catastrophes to happen?” Unfortunately, the quick explanation that even many Christians give for suffering, sickness and death is that it is God’s punishment for sin. That was a popular belief even among the Jews of Jesus’ time, and it is reflected at the start of today’s gospel-reading where we hear members of Jesus’ audience wondering aloud if some people crushed to death in a building collapse and others massacred by Pilate’s soldiers were more sinful than everyone else.
That gave Jesus the opportunity to repeat that his very reason for his teaching and preaching was to call people to a change of mind and heart, to transform their lives from putting themselves first and, instead, reaching out to others with care and compassion. He summed it up in words that echoed the Baptist’s call: “Repent and believe the good news.” Repentance is about changing one’s mind and heart and way of living and relating rather than regretting one’s sinfulness.
In today’s gospel-reading, Luke illustrates, through the parable of the fig tree, how Jesus explained that change of mind and heart does not happen in an instant or as the result of a sudden moment of inspiration. Rather, it generally happens over time.
A teaching-practice followed by Jewish rabbis was to invite their congregations to reflect on God by presenting different qualities of God engaging in debate or dialogue. In today’s parable, the two characters of the land-owner and the gardener represent two different qualities of God – God as judge and God as dispenser of mercy. On one hand, God is like a land-owner who is always looking for fruit and, when no fruit is produced, looks to take action. The gardener, however, represents the all-merciful aspect of a God who gives creatures another chance, a chance for change of mind and heart. Moreover, the gardener recommends that nurture and encouragement might well help in such transformation.
In his letter to the early Christian community of Philippi, Paul said much the same. He had developed a particular appreciation of the Philippians because of the way in which they had welcomed him. So, in the introduction of his letter to them he wrote: “I am convinced that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it through to completion” (Philippians 1, 6).
It is true that natural disasters, the brutality of powerful people, illness, the death of a loved one can all turn our lives upside down, triggering us to lose confidence in ourselves and trust in God. Today’s parable is a reminder that God’s patience, mercy and encouragement will never leave us; that God will always offer us opportunity for transformation of mind and heart. Today’s first reading from Exodus illustrates how God found a way into the heart of Moses when, as a wanted criminal, he was forced into hiding. A story I have borrowed from parish pastor and writer William Bausch offers us yet another insight into how even very ordinary happenings can contribute to transforming our lives:
A taxi driver received a call to a run-down neighbourhood. As it was around 2.30 am, he was tempted to honk the horn, wait a few moments and then drive off. Over the years, however, he had encountered many people for whom taxis were their only means of transportation. So, he got out of his cab, walked to the door and knocked. A tiny, elderly woman emerged, struggling with a small suitcase. “Would you carry my bag to the car?”, she asked. This he willingly did, and returned to help his passenger into the cab. When they were settled, she gave the driver an address and asked: “Can you go via the downtown area?” “It’s not the shortest way, you know”, he replied. “I don’t mind”, she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice. I don’t have any family left. Besides, the doctor says I don’t have very long.” At that, the driver reached over quietly and shut off the meter.
For the next two hours, they drove around the city. She showed him where she had once worked as an elevator operator. They stopped outside the house where she and her husband had lived just after they were married, and then in front of a furniture warehouse that had been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. As the dawn was breaking, she announced: “I’m tired now. So, we had better go.” When they reached the convalescent home, two orderlies hurried out to collect her, while the cab driver followed up with her case.
“How much do I owe you?”, she asked, reaching for her purse. “Nothing”, he replied. “You have to make a living”, she protested. “There’ll be other passengers”, he said. And almost without thinking, he bent down and gave her a hug. She held him tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,“ she said. “Thank you.” He squeezed her hand and walked into the dim morning light. Behind him a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
The taxi driver finishes this story in his own words: “I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove around aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of the day, I was lost for words. What might have happened if she had gotten a driver who was impatient to finish his shift? What if I had refused to drive her downtown? As I reflect on it, I don’t think I have done anything more important in my life”. Then he added: “We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But truly great moments often catch us unaware, beautifully wrapped in what others see as only plain.”
The aim of Lent is to open ourselves to a change of mind and heart, to transformation. It’s a succession of unspectacular acts of kindness that will take us there.