Today’s Gospel begins dramatically with Pilate, the Roman procurator having just massacred a group of Galileans who went to the Temple to offer sacrifices. The crowd was furious. So, in coming to Jesus, who was a Galilean, they expected Him to condemn Pilate’s brutality and even organise a revolt to overthrow the Roman oppressors.
However, while Jesus had no doubts that Pilate needed conversion, He courageously and bluntly pointed out to His country folks that they too needed conversion. He said, “Unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” Very bluntly put, Jesus too is saying to you and me, without any exception, that unless we repent and produce fruits, we too like the barren fig tree we will be “cut down” because we are occupying unnecessarily space in the vineyard.
A rotten tree cannot bear good fruit. A follower of Jesus cannot grow in his faith, love and commitment to God if his heart is choked with sins. That is why Jesus, in today’s Gospel tells us, “unless we repent from our sins, we will not be able to produce the good fruits that God expects of us, and our lives will be like the barren fig tree.
Repentance is to feel sorrow for our sins. Our sins are the both the wrongs that we have done and the good that we failed to do. When Jesus preached about cutting off a barren fig tree, He is referring more to our failure to do good, than to the wrong that we have done. This is because Jesus was neither complaining that the fig tree was bearing poisonous fruits nor spreading disease to other fig trees in the vineyard, but more because the fig tree was not bearing good fruits.
How true is it that when we go for Confessions, we spend most of our time focusing on the wrong that we have done and often forget to look at the good that we have failed to do. Sin is both committing wrong deeds and omitting good deeds. That is why at the beginning of each Mass, when we ask for God’s forgiveness, we say, “. . . for what I have done and what I have failed to do.”
There is a story of Jack who was awakened one night by a knock on his front door. He felt quite upset as it was very late in the night. When he answered the door he found Leo the old beggar extending his hand and not saying a word. Leo smelt of alcohol, but was obviously very cold and hungry. So, Jack went to his kitchen and prepared a few slices of peanut butter sandwiches and gave it to Leo. Leo took the bread without saying a word of thanks. Jack felt pity for Leo as the night was really very cold. So he rushed into his sitting room and grabbed a woolen winter hat and gave it to Leo. Leo took it and put it on and without saying a word left. As Jack was closing the door, a thought crossed his mind, “Should I ask Leo to come in and sleep in my spare room /just for the night?” As the thought surfaced, he simply dismissed it and went off to bed.
The next day, Jack bumped into a man who walked by his house and asked him whether he wanted to buy a hat and walking stick. Just as Jack was about to say no, he noticed that the hat looked familiar. So, he asked, “Where did you get this”? The man said, “Oh, it’s from Leo. He died last night. I am a grave digger and I buried him. The police found Leo outside in the streets; he was frozen to death.” Jack’s heart sank for he realised that as he was moved to offer Leo his room last night, his mind was suddenly flooded with many “what ifs” so he shut out the thoughts and went to bed.
If Jack had allowed his thoughts to surface, they would probably have been something like this: “If I let Leo sleep in my spare room, the room would smell of alcohol; What if he steals my things and run away? What if he refuses to leave the next morning? What if . . . what if . . . what if . . . It was because of the many “what ifs” that could have flooded Jack’s mind that he immediately switched it off and became satisfied with having given Leo his sandwiches and hat. If Jack had gone beyond his “what ifs” and taken the “extra mile” Leo would not have frozen to death.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Jack is a good man and in many ways symbolise the goodness of heart that most, if not all of us here have. The challenge of the story of Jack is not so much that we are called to do the same and let beggars and strangers into our homes. Jack’s story is first to challenge us to be more fully aware that each of us have many “what ifs” in our minds which will surface spontaneously when we meet beggars, poor people, and people whom we find difficult to relate to. Our minds would churn out many negative and prejudice reasons about such people like for example, they are too lazy to work, they will cheat us, take advantage of us and the like.
Another reason why we have so many “what ifs” in our minds is because for many of us we do not want to be inconvenienced. So, instead of helping people who are in need we tell ourselves that we should not be a “busy body” and leave people to solve their own problems. Some of us on the other hand are overly protective and possessive of what we have. Thus, we are not willing to share and part with others what we have; whether it is our money, our time, or our talents. We pray that we do not become hoarders and worse still, misers when it comes to helping others in need.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, in today’s Gospel of the barren fig tree, Jesus is challenging us to “go the extra mile” when we help someone in need. Unlike Jack, we should not allow our sub-conscious mind and habitual thinking to churn up the “what ifs” in our minds to turn us away from doing the good that Jesus in today’s Gospel is challenging us.
It is only in doing good that our faith will become alive and will bear fruit. But, if we live our Christian faith by avoiding wrong doings, then our faith is at best, lukewarm and at worse, in ICU. If we were to ponder on the way we have lived our lives over the past years, “Can we say that we have selflessly and generously shared our lives for the good, the welfare and the faith of others? Or do we sadly have to admit that we have lived our lives as Christians merely trying to avoid doing wrongs, and causing pain and harm to others? If we have been living in this way, then Jesus in today’s Gospel is saying that our lives are nothing better than the barren fig tree.
As I conclude, let us remind ourselves that in short, when we were referring to our need to do good, we are actually talking about our need to love God more concretely. And for this, we have ultimately to ask ourselves the very basic questions, “What does God mean to me personally?” and “Who is this God to me in my daily living?” If God really means much to me, then we can no longer be satisfied with avoiding wrongs in life. Instead we have to do good actively, generously and selflessly out of love for Jesus daily. If we are able to love God more, we will be able to love our neighbours more; and if we are able to love our neighbours more, because of God, then we are actually loving God more and in concrete ways.
One way to help us love God actively and creatively is to learn to see and find God in all peoples and situations of our lives; whether it is in our sick wheelchair bound grand mother, or impatient parishioner driver or inefficient domestic worker or ineffective priests. Whatever and whoever they are, if we are able to love God concretely and creatively through them, then our lives will surely bear the good fruit of the Gospel in God’s time and ways.
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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