Almighty God, keep us both in our bodies and our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body, and from all evil which may hurt the soul . . .
—The Book of Common Prayer, p. 218
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
But where now is this Jesus who yearns to shelter us as a placid mother hen? Who invites us to creep under his wings to bask in safety, comfort and delight? This is not a comforting gospel that assures us that all will be well.
I try to picture that fig tree. It reminds me a little of houseplants that I tolerate, try to love, year after year. It seems wrong to give up hope for them—surely they deserve a second chance, maybe a third. So it scares me a little to hear Jesus, embodiment of love, ready to make firewood of that tree. Is he really talking about trees, or is he talking about us? About me?
All my pretenses, excuses and hard-earned credentials drop away when I let myself sink into this story. I see myself as the fig tree, still with some yellowing, not-quite-dead leaves, maybe a bit of stunted fruit here and there. Not a promising tree! While I ponder this vision, I can see my human self in other ways—barren and stunted like the fig tree. Maybe I feel a little bit sorry for myself. Maybe I want to hide from Jesus’ scrutiny. If I were a tree, I tell myself, a little more rain and maybe some richer soil, and maybe a little cultivation would have made me flourish. It’s not my fault.
Then I look at myself. Maybe if my life had been easier, if a few more lucky breaks had come my way, maybe—hear this, Creator God—if I had been born with a few more of your gifts that guarantee a glorious fruition. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
While I linger with this picture, pondering the harshness of the vineyard owner, I find hope in one awesome word: repent. That doesn’t really mean “beat yourself up—you’re worthless!” No, it is a command to turn around. You’re not a withered tree. You’re a beloved child of God. You’re lost, but you can walk. Turn around. Look at yourself, and then lift up your eyes. Redirect your steps!
Arvo Pärt—Für Alina (1976)
“For Alina,” which has no text, is usually played several times over in succession, much in the way that Taizé chants are sung. The suggested recording was endorsed by the composer.
Alina, a family friend, was going off to London to study, and Arvo Pärt, the contemporary Estonian composer, wrote this piece for her. “For Alina” was of great importance to Pärt, as it marked his transition from being a composer of large-scale works of complexity and tonal dissonance to discover a style inspired by plainchant, the sound of Russian church bells and Pärt’s prolonged contemplation of the nature of single sounds and a desire to compose pieces of music of a radical purity. Listening to Pärt makes me think of the title of a book by the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard: Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.
In what ways could simplifying our lives make greater room for grace?
Christ Heals a Woman Bent-Over and the Parable of the Fig Tree (Alexander Master)
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, c. 1430
This vignette from an illuminated manuscript is alluring and charming. How can it speak to us? Well, the artist intends us to look at it from right to left. At the right is a representation of the parable that Jesus taught about the reprieve given to a fig tree that the owner of the orchard was determined to cut down. It hadn’t borne any fruit. The gardener persuades him to give it a second chance. With plenty of manure, it might bear fruit at last. We see the gardener in his black boots all ready to dig the fertilizer in with his spade. It is a folksy icon of God’s propensity to give us fresh chances. Linger on the image of the tree. There are plenty of showy leaves, but no fruit . . . yet.
Are there any areas in your life that have been fruitless or apparently futile? Where are you tempted to give up on yourself? Spend time pondering God’s offer to nourish and tend that part of yourself, if you will cooperate and be hopeful.
The scene to the left is not included in this week’s gospel reading, but provides a commentary on the story. Jesus heals a woman with a crippling debility. There she is, hobbling on her stick. Note that the pair of scenes is linked by three figures who are quite obviously murmuring with disapproval. They disapprove of Jesus’ unorthodox healing on the Sabbath. The outstretched finger of the ringleader points to the orchard owner who has given up on the fig tree and wants it destroyed. What a powerful symbol of those inner voices of condemnation that militate against God’s hopefulness about our lives. How harshly human judgment contrasts with the tenderness of God who gives us new chances, and the nurture to go with them!
This content was originally published in the 2013 Lent Reflections booklet "Praying Lent: A booklet of Lenten meditations from St. Columba’s Episcopal Church." Copyright © St. Columba's Episcopal Church, 2013.
Image: Public domain / Europeana