Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
March 14, 2004
Ex 3:1-8,13-15; 1Cor10:1-6,10-12; Lk 13:1-9
1) Lent is the time for us to realize that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. It is the time to heed Jesus’ call to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Jesus’ words in the Gospel today bring us, therefore, to the heart of Lent. They remind us that every day we have is a gift from the Lord, but that gift also leads to a task, to bear fruit through a life of faith. They call us to examine our lives honestly and ask if we have been squandering or investing the blessings God has given us — of good health, of talents, of material resources, of life itself. In various parables and with different images — from both the financial (the parable of the talents) and the agricultural worlds — the Lord reminds us that he expects us to bear dividends and that we will be judged on the fruit that we bear. The image in today’s Gospel makes it clear that we need to do this examination URGENTLY, because God will not wait forever for us to do what he created and called us to do. The Lord, who began this Lent by marking us with ashes and telling us, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” says to us with urgency as he said to his contemporaries after some local disasters, “I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish.” We don’t want to perish. Jesus doesn’t want us to perish and died so that we wouldn’t have to. But let’s take a serious look about what he says we need to do to prevent that.
2) Jesus explains his point about repentance by referencing the fig tree, which he employed as an analogy for a human life. The owner, who represents God, came looking for fruit in this life, and found none. So he said to the gardener, “Look! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.” So he gave the vine-grower the instruction, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” Jesus’ point is clear: some people waste their lives, not bearing any fruit whatsoever; some people receive all types of gifts from the soil, but give nothing back. Those people are “wasting the soil.” Such people merit, according to the parable, to be cut down because, to some degree, they’re already dead.
3) The gardener in the parable, however, who represents Jesus, says, “Lord, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. Perhaps it will bear fruit next year.” Jesus intercedes to give us another chance. He fertilized the soil with his own blood to make it possible for us, but even he says, “If it does not bear fruit, you can cut it down next year.” He will go the extra mile so that the barren life has every possible chance, but if it doesn’t bear fruit, it will be cut down. We should not try to mince Jesus’ words here. Out of love, he, who is “kind and merciful,” has given us this parable about the certainty of judgment and the criteria on the basis of which we will be judged. Now it is the time for our response in faith.
4) This parable refers directly to some of us here in this Church right now, if not, perhaps, to all of us. Whatever time we have is TIME TO BEAR FRUIT. If we have not been producing in abundance for God, we should be thankful that we still have time to do so, although we do not know how much time we have. For some of us, even though we might not know it, this Lent will be our last.
5) Some people think that if they do not commit mortal sins, if they’re not harming others, then everything is fine in their relationship with God. In other words, if the fig tree is not harming all of the other trees, then everything is okay. Jesus says clearly that those people are mistaken. Likewise are mistaken those who subscribe to a certain minimalism in the faith, that if they basically try to keep most of the commandments, if they show up to Mass, say a few prayers each day, light a candle or two, put some change in the collection basket, the Lord will be satisfied or perhaps even give them a medal. Jesus says otherwise. The owner of the vineyard is looking for fruitful trees. He’s looking for a harvest.
6) So we have two crucial questions this morning. First, “What is the fruit God wants?” And second, “How do I bear that fruit?” In response to the first question, the fruit God wants consists of acts of self-giving love done for others. This is what Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount, “ Let your light [the reflection of Christ’s light] shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). We do this by “loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength”(Mk 12:30) and “loving others as Jesus has loved us” (Jn 15:12). This love is more than a wish or good will toward another, but a work, a concrete act of love. There are fruits that need to come from our spiritual life, that flow from our relationship of love with God. There are also fruits called the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy that we’re called to do out of love for God and others, like passing on the faith to children and colleagues, going the extra mile to care for those who need it. Jesus said clearly that when he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, he will separate the dead into two groups like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To those on his right, to those who are saved, he will say, “Come you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world, for I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty, … naked, … ill, … a stranger, … in prison … and you cared for me” (Mt 25:31ff). Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry, … thirsty, … naked, … ill, … a stranger, … in prison … and you did nothing for me.” Jesus didn’t give us an exhaustive list of actions, but he did tell us that what we did or failed to do for the least of his brethren, we did or failed to do to him. And on those fruits, or lack thereof, we will be judged.
7) At the same time that we are made more greatly aware of the need to bear fruit, we also have to avoid getting too caught up in “counting” these deeds and making our faith too external, which can get us to lose the heart of the faith. Truly no amount of fruit can ever be enough for God, if we really love him. What the Church is really calling us to focus on this Lent, however, comes in response to the second question: How do we bear this fruit? How do I live according to this love to which the Lord calls me here and now?” Jesus tells us elsewhere in the Gospel, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know the tree by its fruits” (Mt 7:18ff). To bear good fruit, we need to be a good tree. A good tree bears good fruit naturally. But how can we be a good tree? Jesus gave us the secret during the last Supper. In another agricultural image, he tells us that to bear fruit we must remain in Him. Listen to him with fresh ears: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. … Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. … My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (Jn 15:1ff). We have to remain in Christ to bear good fruit.
8 ) Therefore, to bear fruit, to take advantage of this extra year, to profit from this grace that we have not yet been cut down, we have to concentrate on remaining in Christ. We do this for sure in prayer, but we do it par excellence through the sacraments, in which God fills us with his own life. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, in particular, we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord inside of us. Truly he remains within us, like the vine in the branches. He abides in us and, if we receive Him in the state of grace, we abide in Him. This is the reason why Father Tom and I have been preaching about the great importance of daily Mass during Lent and throughout the year. The best way to take care of our tree is to assure that we are in Christ as branches on the vine. Through the Eucharist, we become more and more Whom we eat and remain in Christ. I have to tell you that I have been a little shocked at how few of our parishioners, especially our retired parishioners, go to daily Mass. I cannot imagine a better way to spend the gift of added time than to go to receive from the Lord of time the greatest gift a human being could ever receive, the gift of the Lord himself in the Eucharist. If one does not want to go out of love for God and gratitude for this privilege of privileges, one might at least go out of a certain self-interest, to be inserted ever more into the Vine who is Christ so that one could bear fruit. We become walking tabernacles, living monstrances, when we receive Holy Communion; no better way exists to abide in the Lord; no better chance to do we have bear fruit than remaining in the vine this way. For those who work each day, Father Tom and I get up early with you to celebrate the early morning Mass so that you can take Jesus with you to work and abide with him throughout the day.
9) Often we can act take the Eucharist for granted and make the same costly mistake the Israelites committed in the desert. After having been saved by the Lord from the Egyptians, after having walked through the Red Sea which the Lord had parted for them, after having received in the desert manna from heaven and water from a rock, the Israelites continued to complain and failed to thank God for all his blessings. Rather than bear fruit in thanksgiving, they kept trying to say to God, “What have you done for me lately?” About them, St. Paul speaks in the second reading: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Despite all those blessings, the apostle said, “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
10) St. Paul says that this should serve as a warning for the new people of God, for the Church, for us. “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall… These things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire as they did… and be destroyed.” All of us have passed through the Red Sea of baptism. All of us have received the protection of the cloud via manifold interior graces. All of us have eaten of something far greater than manna, the Body of Christ, the true Bread from Heaven (cf. Jn 6:32). All of us have literally drunk Christ’s blood, the Living Water that flows up to life eternal (cf. John 4). But all these gifts of the Lord, like the blessings received by the Israelites, will not save us unless we correspond with them. The sacraments are not magical signs that save us without our free cooperation. We have to respond to these graces with all our heart. The sacraments are divine means to keep us in Christ, to keep us branches on the vine, through which we receive the love of God. They are the means by which we can bear fruit with Christ that will last forever. Hence there are two stages. The first is be more deeply inserted in Christ through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist; the second is to bear fruit with Christ, to bear the love of Christ to others who need that love and to bring others to Christ.
11) The three Lenten practices of praying, fasting and giving alms, are important helps in keeping us in Christ and bearing fruit with him, because through them, as we heard in Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches, our Father the vine grower “prunes” us so that might bear more fruit. On this third Sunday of Lent, we can ask ourselves if we are living these blessed practices with greater love and fidelity during this penitential season. Are we praying more, privately and liturgically? Are we giving more of ourselves to others — of the time God has given us, of the material blessings he bestowed on us, of the talents he has granted us — especially to the most needy? Are we fasting from sin and from material goods so that we can focus more on hungering for the things of heaven?
12) Lent 2004 is a gift of time from the Lord so that we might become the type of tree that will bear much fruit, not just out of fear of judgment, not just so that we won’t be cut down, but out of love for God who loves us and has given us everything we need to bear fruit. As we approach Christ in the Eucharist, we thank Him for all his blessings — for our baptism, for the privilege to receive his body and blood in the Eucharist, for his forgiveness in confession, and for his great hope in us that we will bear fruit — but especially for giving us more time this Lent, which may be our last, to be fruitful. In the Mass, he is fertilizing the soil so that we might indeed bear ever greater fruit. Through the graces we’re about to receive, may we always remain in Christ and, after this Mass, go in peace to bear fruit with Him that will last into eternal life.