Exodus 3:1-8,13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12; Luke 13:1-9
When we talk about sins we usually come up with a list of wrongful actions people have done, murder, adultery, assault, abuse of others, fighting, lying, cheating, cursing, avoiding Mass, hurting others, and so forth. At the time of Jesus many people thought that suffering is directly connected with sinning; those who suffer, it was claimed, are being punished for their sins. Recently a famous televangelist claimed that the people of Haiti had made a pact with the devil and God punished them for it. That thinking is too simplistic and it’s downright insulting to countless numbers of holy people who have suffered. Was the Virgin Mary’s suffering the result of her sinning? How about the martyrs?
The recent catastrophic earthquakes Haiti and Chile are very much on our minds. In today’s gospel Jesus used a similar tragedy to challenge His listeners’ thinking about sin, asking them if they thought people who suffered calamity were greater sinners than anyone else. Of course not! He asserted.
It’s Lent. It’s time to consider our own sins. People who are inordinately focused on the sins of others pay scant attention to their own.
Jesus then went on to broaden his listeners’ concept of sin by giving them the parable of the fig tree. He was pointing out the sin of uselessness. To do nothing is just as much of a sin as doing something that is wrong, and we should pay attention to that.
Useless living is very costly. A basic law of living is “Use it or lose it.” You don’t have to hurt a friend in order to destroy your friendship; all you need to do is ignore your friends. Don’t write or e-mail. Don’t call or visit. A neglected friendship will die just as much as neglect in a marriage will end it. Neglect leads to uselessness and in neglect you can lose you job, your family, and your friends. Lack of common courtesies, lack of tender words of love, lack of knowing glances, or the touch of a hand, or any signs of tender love can kill a marriage just as much as abuse, anger, or passive aggression. Uselessness and neglect are terribly costly.
That fig tree was planed in a good garden, in good soil. It was cared for, fertilized, and watered. In spite of all that had been given to it the fig tree produced nothing. The point of the parable is obvious. God has given you and me wonderful gifts. He has cared for us, tended us, and even given us the Bread of Life here on this altar. How can any one of us claim we were never given a chance? How can we claim that there was nothing we could produce, give, or share with others? Claims like that are simply not true.
Do you remember the Parable of the Talents? The master gave ten talents of money to one servant, five talents to another, and one talent of money to a third servant. The first two servants put their master’s money to work but the third one, the useless one, the unproductive one, did nothing with it. The master rightly condemned that servant for doing nothing.
Then there was the parable of the merchant who found a really valuable treasure buried in a field. He went out, sold all that he had and bought the field containing the treasure.
Finally there was the parable of the unjust steward who “cooked the books” of his master, reducing the amounts the debtors owed to his master so that after he was fired they would take care of him.
These parables, and others similar to them, all point to the idea of investing risk capital, making venture capital spiritual investments using the resources God has given us.
All of us have valuable gifts and talents that God wants us to employ in order to build up His kingdom here on earth. Do you have time to visit someone who is sick? To visit an elderly person who live in daily loneliness? None of us is so poor that we have nothing to share even if it’s a word of encouragement, a friendly smile, or a helping hand. Uselessness and neglect cost. They not only cost us in terms of our own spiritual development, they cost others in terms of what we have not done to build them up.
The parable of the fig tree isn’t about God’s vindictive anger. Clearly Jesus is not being vindictive or harsh. He never was and never will be. No, He’s simply stating a fact of life. “Use it or lose it.” In other Gospel accounts we hear Jesus declaring: “To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away." (Mark 4:25) He isn’t being unfair – He’s simply being realistic. If you risk loving you will receive more love in return. If you keep all your love to yourself you’ll end up loving only your self and lose your soul.
When Jesus talks about fruitful and productive living He isn’t talking about increasing our net worth in monetary terms. Nor did Jesus dwell on sins resulting from our evil deeds. They were sins, of course, but there are sins, many sins, we tend to overlook and maybe even deliberately ignore. Jesus was talking about our spiritual investment in others, our investments of our hearts and souls in others.
When I die and face Jesus in my own personal judgment I’m worried about all of the times I could have been unselfish but was selfish instead, all of those times when I could have shared a kind word but spoke sharply instead, all of those days when I could have spent some time in prayer but didn’t, all of those times when I could have connected with others but didn’t. You see, it’s not so much what we did that matters as what we didn’t do. That’s what the parable of the fig tree is all about.
This is a parable we should recall and think about a lot more than we do. Thank God there is Lent. We still have time. The owner of the vineyard was patient with the fig tree. Jesus is telling us that He will give us time also. But eventually we must act, otherwise we'll be useless.