Reading the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent with the Church Fathers...

This coming Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, we hear what is a somewhat enigmatic parable concerning yet another tree. The passage from Luke 13, is perfused with a sense repentance. It can be and is a troubling passage. It stirs in us a fear of our end and unsettles anyone who is not yet prepared to meet God, or who has otherwise failed to do enough to consider his life a pleasing sacrifice.

In the end, we ultimately need to be aware of what it is that God is asking of us, so that we are not caught ignorant of the task at hand. To that end, I cracked open the Cantena Aurea (Caput 13, Lectio 1-2), of St. Thomas and drew on the knowledge of some of the earlier interpretations of Scripture.

Gospel Lk 13:1-9 

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” 

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, 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?’ He said to him in reply, ‘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.’”

We would have to be pretty dense to fail to recognize the theme of repentance found in this Gospel reading. For, Christ says most explicitly, "I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!"Following this most astounding of statements, He tells a parable.

The person who had a fig tree: 

The Church Fathers unanimously agree that the owner of the fig tree is God Himself. It was the Lord who first established a covenant with His creation, and told it to be fruitful and multiply. It was the Lord who first promised to Abraham that he would be a "Father of a Multitude," like a fruitful tree in the midst of a great vineyard. It was God Himself who through Moses set the people of Israel apart and dwelt in their midst, establishing for them a law by which they were to be spiritually and politically fruitful. It was God Himself who allowed Israel to be taken into exile for the sake of recognizing the primacy of a holy life as the source of true sacrifice (cf. Ps 51), and from that experience the synagogue became a type of this fig tree.

The fig tree in his orchard: 

The Church Fathers give different readings of the fig tree. Some see it as Israel. Others as the synagogue. What is clear is the relation between God and His fig tree. God has established something for the sake of bearing fruit, but, whatever it is, for one reason or another, it has failed to do so. In retrospect it is clear that God's intervention in salvation history has ultimately failed to produce fruit to no fault of His own. In this story, it is ultimately because of the weakness of humanity that we have failed to produce fruit. 

"For three years now I have come in search of fruit... and found none":

It is clear that God has come in search of fruit three times, as represented by the the three years the landowner has come to check his tree. On this St. Ambrose says:
Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none. He came to Abraham, He came to Moses, He came to Mary, that is, He came in the seal of the covenant, He came in the law, He came in the body. We recognize His coming by His gifts; at one time purification, at another sanctification, at another justification. Circumcision purified, the law sanctified, grace justified. The Jewish people then could not be purified because they had not the circumcision of the heart, but of the body; nor be sanctified, because ignorant of the meaning of the law, they followed carnal things rather than spiritual; nor justified, because not working repentance for the their offenses, they knew nothing of grace.
...and St. Gregory Nazianzus says:
But our Lord came three times to the fig tree, because He sought after man’s nature before the law, under the law, and under grace, by waiting, admonishing, visiting; but yet He complains that for three years he found no fruit, for there are some wicked men whose hearts are neither corrected by the law of nature breathed into them, nor instructed by precepts, nor converted by the miracles of His incarnation.

The Gardener:

The gardener can be thought of in three ways. First, according to the interpretation of St. Gregory Nazianzus who says, "By the cultivator of the vineyard is expressed the order of those placed in charge [the Bishops], who, by leading the Church, take care of our Lord’s vineyard."He attributes the cultivation of the fig tree to the work of those leading the Church. St. Augustine, however,  extends this work, to the whole Church:
Or, the farmer who intercedes is every holy man who within the Church prays for them that are outside the Church, saying, O Lord, forgive it this year, that is, a grace period, until I shall dig all the way about it. To dig about it, is to teach humility and patience, for the ground which has been dug is lowly (De Verb. Dom.).
In St. Thomas' Cantena Aurea, he quotes Theophylactus as interpreting the gardener with Christ, "cultor vero Christus." And maybe, that is the glue that bonds the whole of it together. For, the Bishops  and all holy men and women within the Church make up the Body of Christ. So, it can be properly said that the work of cultivation, that is a work of humility, patience, and repentance, belongs to the Church, with the ordained as its head and the lay faithful filling out its body.

Our call to repent and the constant conversion of each of us and the entire world to God is the necessary work of His vineyard if we want to see it bear fruit.

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