Thursday, April 4, 2019

Lent (Sunday #3): the fig tree and hospitality

Third Sunday of Lent: March 24, 2019

The Gospel at Mass today is wonderful. It’s the story about Jesus cursing a fig tree, coupled with the story of his reaction to news that Pilate had desecrated the bodies of some Galileans after their executions.

I am convinced that hospitality is as significant in the Gospel as truth and salvation and sacrifice. It’s not a decorative side issue; it’s fundamental. And there’s an insight into hospitality in this Gospel. It’s not central, but it’s noteworthy.

Who deserves punishment? When Jesus hears about some executions, he says promptly that what happened to these men does not in any way indicate that they must have done something awful to earn such a fate. He recalls another recent incident of violence and death, and says about each incident that there is no reason to think they were guiltier than anyone else nearby. But he adds that “unless you repent you will all die as they did.” The deaths should not encourage us to be self-righteous and judgmental; rather, we should make sure that we ourselves are ready for sudden death.

The second reading half of the reading is quirky, but it’s plausible that it continues the theme of death and judgment with a bit more insight. It’s a parable about a fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit for three years. The owner is ready to cut it down, but the gardener asks for another year of mercy.

The parable seems to be about sins of omission. We really are supposed to produce fruit. We deserve punishment not only if we do wrong but also if we fail to do right. In fact, the parable suggests that a failure to do right may be even more serious.

And what, specifically, is a fig tree supposed to do? Feed the hungry. Figs are supposed to be a delightful part of hospitality. To be sure, the parable can point to all our obligations: the “fruit” is obviously a metaphor for many different kinds of production. But the simplest and most direct application of the parable is hospitality.

Both parts of this reading are about repentance. The first part says we shouldn’t try to judge someone else’s life; we too are likely guilty. The second part is about a severe punishment for a sin of omission – for inhospitality. It’s possible that these two parts of the reading are unconnected, but it’s also plausible that they belong together. Death is real although mysterious, and judgment is real although we should leave it to God – and while we’re talking about severe judgments, how are you doing about hospitality?

The Gospel today is an excerpt from the Sermon on the Plain, which addresses many topics, hospitality among them. Jesus does not curse and threaten very much; it’s worthwhile trying to understand it when he does.