The Dallas Morning News carried a photo of some prisoners on a work-release program. They were restoring a condemned house on the city's west side of town. Several days later one of the prisoners wrote the editor saying:
Thank you for the coverage...The last time my name and photograph were printed in a newspaper took place the day I was sentenced...So it was a real joy to see my picture in your paper doing something good...When I entered prison 18 months ago, I was a lot like the house we just remodeled...But God took charge of my life and has made me a new creation in Christ.
My friends, this brief story beautifully illustrates the point that Jesus himself is trying to make in our Gospel today. The first half of the gospel tells about two groups of people who are killed by recent tragedies in Jerusalem. Jesus ends his reference to these tragedies by saying to his hearers, "If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!"
The second half of the gospel tells about a fig tree that was planted inside a vineyard. A vineyard was an ideal place for fig trees to grow. If a fig tree couldn't grow there, it couldn't grow anywhere. I have been told that a fig tree takes about three years to mature. If it doesn't bear fruit in that time, it probably won't bear fruit it at all. This explains why the owner of the vineyard instructed his gardener to cut the tree down. And so, it is remarkable that instead of cutting the tree down, the gardener begs the owner to give it a second chance. "Leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it," he says.
Jesus intended his parables for two groups of people. First, Jesus wanted to instruct the people of his time. Second, he meant this story for all of us who hear this in this time and place in which we live.
The Lord's first audience, of course, were the people of Israel. Jesus tells them that God gave them a choice place in his plan and took special care of them. But they didn't bear fruit. Jesus tells them further that in spite of this failure, God will be patient with them a little longer. He will give them a second chance, like the fig tree.
But what is the Lord telling us in this parable? My brothers and sisters, in many respects we are like the people of Israel. God has given us a choice place in his plan, and he has taken special care of us. But God expects us to bear fruit. If we don't, then, like Israel, God will give us a genuine opportunity to repent. If we don't repent, then, like Israel, we will perish.
The Lord has blessed our lives with countless opportunities to be transformed and made new in his love. As Catholic Christians we have the daily and weekly opportunity to feast on the Lord's real presence among us in the Eucharist. In the sacrament of penance, all of us have a second, third and infinite opportunity to express our sorrow for failing to grow in our love for the Lord and to begin again in becoming fruitful and life giving through the grace of forgiveness.
Just as the Lord spoke to Moses in today's first reading, inviting him to make a choice in becoming part of his great plan of liberation for His people, so too, each of us are given choice to help build the reign of God in our midst.
Paradoxically, however, our growth so often comes through the trials and challenges that we face in life. That fig tree had to be fertilized for it to eventually bring forth its fruit. So also, in our own lives. The daily disappointments, the challenges and suffering in life can easily defeat us with despair, or bring us to new opportunities of growth in God's love. Yet, it is up to us to make that choice between despair and hope, stagnation or growth, death or new life.
May this Lenten season provide countless opportunities for us to choose the path of growth and new life in Him in whom we live and move and have our being.