March 20—Third Sunday of Lent
Readings: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103, R. The Lord is kind and merciful.; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Gospel – Luke 13: 1-9
At the beginning of this pandemic over two years ago, some said this was a punishment from God. Others quickly shot this down.
The Pope framed it well. In his reflections he stated that this was not a time of judgment by God, but a time for us to make our judgment on what really matters in our lives.
It is a time to reboot our lives through a genuine soul-searching and reconnecting with God and with our essential relationships.
It is a call to repentance to all, sinners and saints, by a God—in the words of Einstein—who is mysterious but not malicious. The two tragic stories in today’s Gospel highlights this.
The Galileans and the 18 killed by the tower of Siloam met their tragic end not because of their sins, as Jesus pointed out. The stories, rather, highlighted the call to repentance.
The Parable of the Fig Tree follows the two stories. Note, this is not the same story as the fig tree that the Lord cursed.
The fig tree is Israel, but the “stars” of the story are the owner of the orchard and the gardener.
The owner and the gardener
The owner wanting to cut down the fig tree was just and fair. Contextual note, fertile land was a scarce resource so it was judicious to cut a none performing asset, so to speak.
But there was another quality of the owner. He was patient and merciful, a mercy that found expression in giving second chances. The gardener had a key role in this parable. He was the intercessor that won the fig tree a reprieve.
I’d like to invite you to focus your reflections on the gardeners in your life. Who were the people who interceded for you? Who were the ones who were willing to go out on a limb for you? Who were the ones who were willing to care for you, nurture you to bear fruit, love you into excellence?
In one study conducted by Gallup a decade ago, they surveyed people who excelled at work. One of the key factors contributing to their success at work was how a teacher in college or vocational school took interest in them to encourage and mentor them.
‘The Mentoring Effect’
Another study, “The Mentoring Effect,” showed similar findings. Those who had some form of mentoring, whether informal or formal, performed better in school, did well at work, engaged more in volunteer work and assumed leadership roles.
The other nurturing function of the “gardeners” in our life is accompanying us through the experience of failure. This was one major concern we had when I was doing high school work close to 30 years ago.
Even then we started to look at mental health concerns among the youth, seeing how easily they give up when faced with adversity. This has evolved into what we can consider as an epidemic, if not a pandemic, as we see the rise of cases among the youth worldwide especially during the past two years of the pandemic.
Facing, coping and learning from failure has only one pedagogical approach—fail. We do not plan for failure, but inevitably we will experience failure just like the rest of humanity.
We teach them not to plan for failure, but also not to fear failure and make its reality part of the equation. This is a very important role of a mentor, a teacher, a formator. Something society does not at all bring into the consciousness of people.
The final role of the “gardener” I wish to reflect on is the “fertilizing” of the ground, creating and nurturing environments of care and compassion.
Chris Lowney pointed to this as one of the key elements in the formation of the Jesuits in his book “Heroic Leadership.” It is an environment of care which provides people opportunities to achieve their full human potential.
This is what I advocate as creating safe spaces in our home and communities where the members, especially the young, can discover, express, be themselves without fear of judgment and rejection. This basic ground of trust and a sense of security allows them to venture into the world.
Then there is the sacred space, where one discovers transcendence in one’s life—God, God’s mission for you and God’s vision for our world.
“‘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: 9)
As gardeners we make this plea and put our lives on the line with faith and hope in the future, in our youth.
We know we can fail and still end up with the cutting of the tree. But the real failure is if we do not try.