God’s call to Moses from the burning but unconsumed bush is the beginning of a long adventure of freeing the Jewish people from slavery. This long adventurous journey would end when these freed slaves would enter a promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
In the 80th Psalm this freeing journey is described in this way: “You uprooted a vine out of Egypt – to plant it you drove out other nations – you cleared a space where it could grow – it took root and filled the whole country – it covered the mountains with its shade – the cedars of God with its branches – its tendrils extended to the sea – its offshoots all the way to the river.”
The whole history of Israel tells of how God cared for and tended that vine. But the vine – the Jewish people – rejected God’s care and began to worship false Gods. Then the vine came upon hard times – as the psalm goes on, “why have you destroyed its fences – now anyone can go and steal its grapes, the forest boar can ravage it, the wild animals eat it.” Then the people would repent and pray “look down from heaven, look at this vine and protect it, protect what your right hand has planted, Lord Sabaoth, bring us back, let your face smile on us and we shall be saved.” And God would patiently tend the vine again.
This imagery of the vine fits in well with the imagery of the fruitless fig tree Luke uses in today’s gospel. It was wasting the soil, taking up space, taking up the time and effort of the gardener. The owner of the garden has his own take on this useless fig tree, get rid of it, its not worth all the time and effort that’s gone into it. Cut it down. The patient gardener, the one who’s done all the work, pleas for just one more year. He’ll soften up the soil around it and put some manure on it – he wants to give it one more chance.
How many of you have been through something like this – a favorite house plant fails to blossom, it’s struggling to survive? You give it extra care, more water, more sunlight, more fertilizer, hoping the plant will respond. You may even call the man on the CBC at noon hour to get some advice on plant care; after all he’s the expert.
Jesus had been laboring for three years – going from town to town, preaching, pleading and healing. He tries to harvest from those who hear His message of God’s love for them, fruits of repentance, people turning back to God. In this gospel story Jesus is that patient gardener, willing to give this struggling tree one more year. As someone once wrote, “we are all living in that ‘one more year’ of God’s laboring love.” We are all in that ‘one more year’ of our lives needing God’s help to bring us more and more into God’s life and love.
It’s not as if we find ourselves in the bottom half of the ninth inning with two out and two strikes on us – it’s not as if we have one last shot at salvation. It’s all part of our ongoing relationship with God.
Yahweh, Who uprooted that vine out of Egypt, Who cleared a space and planted it to grow and prosper never gave up on His people, no matter how many times they were unfaithful to His law and His love.
Jesus, the patient gardener will never give up on this struggling fig tree – He continues to nurture it, care for it, and coaxes it to life and fruitfulness.
Maybe the message of today’s gospel is that we never give up on ourselves or others, especially when we see ourselves or others as losers – fruitless fig trees. God never gave up on His people, the vine God brought out of Egypt – Christ the gardener never gave up on that fruit tree, and He never gives up on us. We should not give up on ourselves or others.
There can be times when we are tempted to do so – we can get so frustrated with our own weakness, our own failing, so irritated with the number of times we disappoint ourselves or are disappointed by others. We can wonder, ‘why bother?’ So annoyed, we become like the impatient owner who wants to tear that fig tree out of the ground and throw it away, forget it. When we come to grips with our own weaknesses of the weaknesses of others we need patience. Remember we are works in progress as are all those who are in our lives: spouses, son and daughters, friends and strangers. God’s not finished with any of us yet. We need to give ourselves time; we need to give ourselves and others that ‘one more year’. Instant growth is not a healthy or lasting growth.
Holiness is God’s work and God is patient. Holiness is God’s work; we just have to make ourselves available, open to the working of God’s grace in our lives.
As we continue to celebrate this Mass, we can pray for ourselves and for each other that as Christ the patient gardener is willing to give us ‘one more year’, we will be willing to patiently give ourselves and others ‘one more year’ to grow and bear fruit as people who are loved by our ever patient God.