Friday, October 25, 2019

This God Has Done

This God Has Done

For what the law, weakened by the flesh was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit. Romans 8:3-4

He said to him in reply, “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.” Luke 13:8-9

In one breath of today's Gospel, Jesus warns of our destruction.  In the next breath, he is telling us the story of the kind gardener who will nurse the fig tree back to life and productivity. How do we reconcile these messages?

Jesus as the Gardener is there to save the fig tree from destruction. Jesus is living the life of the Spirit.  He is concerned with life and with peace, not with destruction.

St. Paul calls on us to pursue the concerns of the spirit…life and peace. He places these opposite to the concerns of the flesh (life and death). While this is an interesting duality, it also points out that there is another possibility: life without peace. Yet it is only through the combination of life and peace do we pursue spiritual aims.

Psalm 24 gives us a road map to this goal of life and peace. We cannot pursue any means to achieve a just end. The means must be congruent and justify the end we seek. The notes in the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) point out the deeper meaning of what has changed after Jesus died on the cross:

Through the redemptive work of Christ, Christians have been liberated from the terrible forces of sin and death. Holiness was impossible so long as the flesh (or our "old self"), that is, self-interested hostility toward God, frustrated the divine objectives expressed in the law. What is worse, sin used the law to break forth into all manner of lawlessness. All this is now changed. At the cross, God broke the power of sin and pronounced sentence on it.

According to St. Paul, Christian life is the experience of a constant challenge to set aside the temptations of the body by replacing them with a life of the spirit. However, success can only come through the four keywords in today’s readings: This God has done.

We are powerless to overcome the forces and temptations of evil alone. The parallel emphasis in both Romans 8 and Luke 13 is on the graceful character of God. Like the barren fig tree, we need the gardener to “cultivate” our lives and our environment.  The “gardener” will “fertilize it” with the concerns of the spirit. Only when we recognize that God has done this for us will we bear fruit in the future.

The late Fr. Tom Keating reminds us that the parable of the barren fig tree recalls the theme of the “barren made fruitful by the Lord's direct intervention.” Immediately after telling the disciples this parable, Jesus heals a woman in the temple on the Sabbath. However, Jesus then must defend himself.  The leader of the synagogue reprimanded Jesus.  The image of the barren fig tree evokes the sense that the religion of the day was not producing the desired results of mercy and grace for individuals as well as the overall community.

The religion of that day – as represented by the leader -- was not producing what God intended. As represented by the woman who was crippled for 18 years, despite her attendance at the temple, her faith had borne no fruit in her life and health.

This new sign -- of the resurrected fig tree -- becomes a metaphor of the sign of God’s grace and patience in our lives through the person of Jesus. God gives us – the proverbial the fig tree – one more chance by sending us a gardener in the person of His Son. Through Jesus, God gives us the life-giving nutrients (bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ) that we need to produce results.

As the late Fr. Keating reminds us, “it does not matter if we do not succeed in our own estimation or in that of others.” God has done this. Thanks to the patient cultivation and fertilizing by God, we as individuals and members of the community can then witness the concerns of the Spirit – life and peace – rather than death.

What is special about us is God's incredible solidarity with our ordinary lives: with our sense of failure, futility, getting nowhere spiritually, and our lack of inner resources to cope with our particular difficulties. In the parables, daily life is so clearly the place where the kingdom is working that symbols of success are very irrelevant. They are like icing on a cake. We cannot live on icing. We need food that is more substantial. Trust in God disregards the evidence of everyday life that God is absent or forgetful of us and brings us into direct contact with the God of the everyday. The God of pure faith is so close: closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing, closer than consciousness itself.

Today, we may not have a barren fig tree in the back yard but we do have fire engulfing people and property in California.  Not to mention physical and spiritual hunger, diseases affecting our bodies and minds, homelessness, war, greed, and social needs that Jesus never encountered.

Yet the daily readings force us to focus on cultivation and fertilizer. We know that the fallen leaves and the barren fig trees become mulch for spring growth. Despite the cold dormant winter that lies ahead of us, new growth will emerge.

The connecting tissue for me is the line about repentance. Jesus the gardener is telling us -- his branches -- that if we do not change the direction in which we seek happiness, then we shall shrivel up like this fig tree. He is willing to nurse us back to life in the spirit if we are willing to submit our lives (lives now dedicated to the flesh) to Him. Jesus is willing to make us His own if we are willing to make us His.

Such a transformation requires both of us -- our humble surrendering our will and Jesus' generous act of saving our spirits. What shall it be? Surrender and change or grow under your own control and die?

This choice reminds me of Phil Russell's favorite passage from the Bible during our preparation for many Cursillo weekend including the Men's 108th.  "I am the vine. You are the branches." What does it mean to be a branch of Jesus' vine? One might see that a vine grows when the branch nourishes it. A vine does not have a life separate from the branch. If cut off, it will wither and die. That is just a biological fact.

What does it matter? Cut off from Jesus and a life in which He dwells in us, then we might as well not go on. If on the other hand, we dedicate our life to grow in the direction the branch determines, then we will live according to the rules of the branch (the two great commandments?), and will bear much fruit.

I am the vine.  You are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

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