Repent, Recognize God, and Bear Good Fruit
Sunday March 18, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Sunday in Lent
Reading I (Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15)
Reading II (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12) Gospel (St. Luke 13:1-9)
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus calls us all to repentance. In fact, He says those words that most of us donít like to hear very well: "Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." He says it twice, just in case we had any doubt that He meant what He was saying, "Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." And it was the fact, as He pointed out, that the Galileans or the people who died at the falling of the Tower of Siloam, werenít the worst of the sinners in Israel at the time. They were people like you and me. On one level you could say they were innocent people. Itís not that they had done any major crimes or had done anything severely wrong. The people at the Tower of Siloam were probably workmen who were working on the tower when it fell. The people whose blood was mingled with the sacrifices of the Galileans were probably ordinary people off the street.
So the fact of the matter is, we need to recognize that any of us, at any time, could be called home. We donít know what the circumstances will be; we donít know what the time might be. We need to keep ourselves always prepared, always with our focus on the Lord, our hearts always looking at Jesus, and keeping our souls always in the state of grace. A part of what we have to do, the Lord makes very clear, is to make sure that we are bearing fruit. Yet if we look at that Gospel reading, we might be tempted to say, "At least Iím trying to live a good life." But the Lord goes on to tell the parable about the fig tree that was living a pretty good life. It was growing, had nice foliage on it; it was looking good. And it bore no fruit. When the owner came out looking for fruit, he said, "Cut it down." But the gardener said, "No, not yet. Give it one more chance. Let me hoe around it; let me put some fertilizer on it; let me take care of it. Then if it doesnít bear fruit, you can cut it down." The Lord does exactly the same in our lives if He looks at us and realizes that either we are not bearing fruit or that we could bear more fruit. If we were using the analogy of the fig tree - maybe one or two figs popped out here and there. But if you ever looked at a fig tree that is really bearing fruit, there are huge bundles of figs up there. And that is what the Lord is looking for. Heís not looking for a fig here and there every couple of years; Heís looking for an abundance of fruit. Remember that is what He told us and we have talked about it so many times. "You must bear great fruit, and fruit that will last," He said.
The question is - How is that fruit going to be borne? There is only one way and that is made very clear in the parable of the fig tree: with a little bit of suffering. The gardener was going to hoe the fig tree. He was going to put fertilizer on it. If you put yourself in the position of the fig tree that probably would not be a very pleasant thing. Imagine someone coming and hoeing all around the area where you are planted. Well, that does work for us. Just think of where you are planted, if you want to think of it that way. We tend to be rather comfortable. We like security; we like ease. So we plant ourselves where we can find that ease, comfort, and peace. All of a sudden, God comes along and He begins to turn the dirt around us, to hoe the things and cause a little bit of chaos about us. Now fertilizer in the ancient world did not mean pulling out a plastic bag full of stuff that all the smell has been taken out of. We are talking about using manure and dumping that right on the tree, all around it, working it into the dirt. In other words, God is going to allow us to be a little uncomfortable, to suffer a little bit, to have to struggle.
But then we have to look at what Saint Paul says: "Donít grumble like those other people out in the desert." Isnít that what we do when things donít go our way, even the littlest things? When they donít go our way we complain, grumble, and moan. Sometimes we even look at God and say, "What are You trying to do to me? Iím just trying to live a good life and look at what You are doing! What did I ever do to You?" We ask as if we really need to ask that question. We wonder why God hates us so much that He would do this to us.
God doesnít hate us. What He is doing is giving us another opportunity. He is trying to provide for us so that we will bear fruit. All that we notice is that He is taking away our comfort. Heís stirring things up; Heís making us uneasy. What Heís actually trying to do is work some life into us. We become like that man who took the talent, the bag of money the owner had given him, and buried it in the dirt because he did not want to lose the money. Consequently, he was condemned because he didnít use what God had given to him.
The same is true for us. If we are not bearing fruit then we are going to be condemned. We cannot take those talents God has given to us and say, "Well, if I just sit around here on the couch and watch TV all day long then at least I havenít lost what God gave me." God doesnít want us to give it back in the way He gave it to us, He wants us to bear fruit. Remember, throughout the Gospels Jesus tells us, "The kingdom of God is like a seed that is planted." It is what He has done within each one of us. If you are going to start a garden at this time of the year, you might start planting the seeds so that in the spring you will have little plants to put in the garden. What do you need to do with those seeds? You need to cultivate them; you need to water them; you need to take care of them. They are not going to grow by themselves. Just because you drop them on some dry dirt they are not going to grow. You need to work the soil; you need to care for the seed. The same is true for each one of us. Godís love and His virtues, that whole kingdom of Christ, has been planted within us. We have to work that, we have to make it grow. Only if we do that will the nutrients from the soil work into the seed and into the new plant. That is why God works the soil around us through suffering and struggle, bringing a little chaos into our lives, because then we have to get up off the couch. Maybe we even have to get down on our knees and pray. We turn to the Lord and realize our dependence on Him.
That is what each one of us needs to do. We need to recognize who God is. It is like Moses, who went to the burning bush. God said, "Take off your sandals because the ground you are standing on is holy." We need to recognize that each one of us is called to that same holiness. The ground we are standing on is holy. It is not a complacency; nobody got holy by sitting in one place. So when God works the soil, it is holy ground. We are not to complain; we are not to grumble.
We have all been baptized into Jesus Christ. We have all eaten of the same spiritual food and drink. The same spiritual drink as Saint Paul said of the people out in the desert. But far more, we have eaten the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We have been baptized into the Son of God. The life of God has been infused into us, and all the virtues. It is not merely that God has sent a messenger to say, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you to lead you out of the land of slavery." God Himself has come to us and taken on our human nature. He has freed us from the slavery of sin. We have entered through the waters, not of the Red Sea, but of Baptism, and we have been baptized into Jesus Christ. Now God has taken us out into the desert so that we can learn our dependence on Him, so that we can learn that He will feed us, that He will provide for us, that He will take care of our every need. We must learn the lesson as Saint Paul has said, because God allowed what happened in the desert 3500 years ago to be an example for us so that when He leads us out there we donít complain and grumble. But I think we all know that we do.
Look at the lessons out there. Remember when Dothan and Abiram complained because they wanted to be priests after sinning and after the golden calf incident they wouldnít stand up for God. God said, "Only Levi, only the tribe of Levi is going to be the priest." And they complained, "Itís not fair. Why canít we be priests?" Then the earth opened up, swallowed them, and closed over them. Remember when they whined and complained about God, because He didnít provide the water the way they thought that He should? He allowed a plague to come through the camp. Only when Phineas was righteous did that plague end. But how many people died because of it? We see them grumbling and complaining and getting into false worship with the golden calf. We see all the problems that they had in the desert. We are no different. Human nature has not changed. We would like to say, "If it were us, and God was miraculously feeding us with manna in the desert, we wouldnít do that. If we had water coming out of a rock, we wouldnít do that. If we saw the Red Sea opened up and we walked through it and saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore, we wouldnít be complaining and whining." Oh yes, we would. The sun is hot out there. If there is no water and there is not much food... just think what you would be doing if you ate the exact same thing three times a day. After one day, Americans would be complaining about that. So when the people said, "Weíre sick of this disgusting food!" do you think we would be any different? Forty years of the same thing, three times a day. You see, we are no different. We must learn the lesson.
God tells us His name: I AM. I AM. HE IS. He is with us. He is here; He is there at every single instant of our life. God wants only what is the very best for us. If the very best for us is to be out in the desert and to be hungry and thirsty, we need to learn to praise Him and say, "Thank You for that," because somehow that is the best. If the best is to have the ground around us stirred up, manure dumped on top of us, and suffering, then we need to learn to say, "Thank You for that." If the best for us is to be deprived of some things that we like, then we need to learn that it is a gift that God has given. In order to break us from our slavery to sin, God is going to let us do without. Our senses cry out; they scream and say, "I donít like this!" But we need to learn that God is sovereign, that we are not God. We are not in control, God is. God is with us. Think of that beautiful name of God that he has given us: Yahweh, I AM. We must never forget that God is. As He said to Saint Catherine of Siena: "I am He Who is. You are she who is not." We are not; He is.
We should not complain; We should not grumble. The only way we will learn not to grumble or complain is to be out in the desert and grumble and complain until we figure out that this really is the best. So donít think that God hates you. Donít think that Heís abandoned you. Donít think that Heís punishing you, but trust and believe in the goodness and love of God. He is doing this because it is the best for you, because we were not bearing fruit. Rather than cutting us down, Heís stirring things up so the nutrients can get in and we will bear fruit. He did not want us to perish, so He is working with us.
If God is leaving you complacent, then you should complain. Then you should get down on your knees, beg Him and say, "Why are You leaving me out here to wither and die?" Because we are not bearing fruit, the gardener has walked away and let us be. But if things are getting stirred up around us and things are not easy and there is a little chaos in our lives, then we need to get down on our knees and say, "Thank You," because it means God loves us, that Heís working with us, and we need to cooperate. We need to work with Him so that we will bear fruit. We must learn from the example. We must learn from the teaching of Our Lord. We must learn the sovereignty of Almighty God and keep in mind always those words of Our Lord: "If you do not repent, you will perish like all of them."
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.