A time of Mercy

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C. In yesterday’s post the point was made by Jesus that judgment comes to all people unless they repent. There is a universality of judgment. Then as now, the listener will easily call to mind a person considered worthy of divine judgment and punishment. There then lingers the unspoken question of timing. “As God will, can’t that divine punishment come now for this one?” Of course we are often reminded not to judge or regard others as more deserving of God’s judgment than ourselves.

6 And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, 7 he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. (So) cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ 8 He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; 9 it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” 

In telling the parable of the barren fig tree, Jesus again makes the point that the unrepentant have escaped judgment not because of their relative sanctity but because of God’s mercy. This parable stands in contrast to other known wisdom sayings and parables which lack a motif of clemency. Yet nothing else about Jesus’ parable seems out of the ordinary. The presence of a fig tree in a vineyard is not unknown and there is no hint in the parable that the owner of the vineyard expected fruit from the tree out of season or before it was sufficiently mature to produce fruit. “The details of the parable, then, are oriented toward highlighting the sterility of the tree and point dramatically to the lenience allotted to the tree in order to give it additional nutrients and time for fruit-bearing. Not incidentally, the parable also holds for the possibility of fruit-bearing in spite of a history of sterility—or, in human terms, the possibility of change leading to faith expressed in obedience to God’s purpose. If it announces a warning of judgment, then, it also dramatizes hope.”  [Green 515]

The importance of fruit-bearing has been emphasized repeatedly in Luke’s Gospel. In the Sermon on the Plain Jesus similarly notes the importance of bearing good fruit (6:43–45), but this element is especially well developed in his teaching on sowing (8:4–15). In all these sayings, Jesus links the critical connection of “hearing” to “bearing fruit.” and in this particular context fits nicely with the emphasis on the need for repentance.

So whether our end of days is unforeseen or knowable, we live in the days of clemency even as the day of judgment approaches. God acts in mercy but this stay of judgment is temporary. Now is the time to repent and to live fruitful lives.

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