HOMILY – FEBRUARY 28
It was 1977, my first year preaching on this particular set of readings from the “C” Cycle in the Lectionary. A jolly and rather outspoken fellow came up to me after Mass and congratulated me on my perhaps-too-long homily. “Father, you really exemplified the Lord’s parable from the Gospel today.”
I was elated at the apparent praise. “Really?” I asked, eager to hear more.
“Yes,” he went on, “you not only preached about the fig tree, you actually put it into practice!”
Now a little confused, I asked with more sincerity, “Oh? How was that?”
“Well, you proved the truth of what the Lord said about the fig tree. Throw enough manure at ‘em, and maybe they’ll grow!!” And needless to say, he didn’t say “manure.” As he walked away, he let out a hearty laugh. And so did the others who had been standing around listening. My bubble of elation had been speared by a healthy dose of humility and humor, one of many which the Divine Physician has prescribed for my spiritual well-being over the years.
It becomes easy to take a lot of things for granted about our faith. The Israelites were always in need of having their faith stirred up, because it was so easy for them to revert to or copy the ways of the pagans who lived all around them. Whether it was the Israelites in Egypt or in Palestine, or the early Christians mingled throughout the Roman Empire, or the Lord Jesus ever in the cross-hairs of the Pharisees and scribes, those who proclaim and embrace the faith are always unwelcome by many in the societies in which they live. We dare not fool ourselves, either. No matter how many of our politicians or would-be leaders end their speeches with solemn invocations of “God bless America,” we need to keep in mind Jesus’ words, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20). And there’s a lot of rotten fruit hanging from each of the three branches of government these days.
But it’s unfair to pick on just the government. Our elected and appointed leaders, by hook or by crook — pardon the expression — come from among US. As a French philosopher (Joseph-Marie de Maistre, 1753-1821) said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” And that shows that we are ALL in need of Redemption, and of Salvation, the active acceptance of Redemption. As St. Paul recalls of the Israelites, they were all led by Moses, under the cloud, through the sea, eating and drinking from the same spiritual food and drink. And yet, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the desert. I think we can become too complacent in presuming on God’s mercy: “Well, I’m not all that bad. I haven’t killed anybody.” And on and on. We make excuses for ourselves with far more skill than most of us employ in growing in and exercising our faith. The Apostle warns us of the real possibility of losing what we have been given. He wouldn’t warn, nor would Christ, if the possibility were not genuine. That should give us more than a momentary pause.
In the Gospel, we hear what might be the only example of Jesus commenting on current events. Some people in Galilee executed and their bodies desecrated by mingling their blood with animal blood. Some people at Siloam dying in the collapse of a tower. Typical of us in our own headline tragedies: “What do you make of it? What do you think they’re being punished for? What did they do to deserve this?” And Jesus offers his comment: Shape up, repent, or the equivalent and worse will happen to YOU! And then there’s that fig tree.
We have our Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, eternally interceding for us sinners with his Father. His very Blood pleads for us from the Cross. Even if we have not borne fruit, and we think God’s patience with us must be exhausted, Christ as the gardener jumps in on our behalf: “Let me work with it real hard for another year, and let’s see what happens.” What a friend, what a Savior we have in Jesus our Lord, pleading for you, pleading for me! But my friends, if you don’t give a fig about that, and you refuse to grow in spite of every benefit and opportunity Christ gives you, the ground of the Kingdom can’t be cluttered with those who don’t care to be there. You are created in God’s image, and that means having a free will. And you are free to reject the Redemption he has won for you. You’re even free to not even ignore it! But you do so at great risk, because the one thing God will not do is fail to respect your free will. Even your own self-condemnation would be a sign of his respect for you. Why frustrate his loving invitation to live with him forever? (SLOWLY: ) Who else — can offer you THAT?