"Next year it will bear fruit"
(Readings: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel today Jesus proclaims in blunt and arresting language the need to repent, to turn wholeheartedly towards God and away from self-serving attitudes. But at the same time he makes it clear that conversion and spiritual maturity are qualities that take shape gradually. We should bear that in mind regarding ourselves - and anyone else whose spiritual welfare we care about.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate Mass worthily let us acknowledge our frequent reluctance to turn to God and ask him for pardon and strength.
The gospel passage today illustrates perfectly two aspects of Christian discipleship that were present in everything Jesus taught during his ministry. Sometimes he emphasised the first and at other times the second aspect. But if we want to represent his whole message fairly and accurately we need to take account of both.
The first aspect was that, like John the Baptist and like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus summoned people to repentance - as he does here.
For the majority of men and women in Jesus' society life was hard, precarious, comfortless. This didn't stop Jesus from criticising their lack of faith, their lack of commitment to God, their slowness in understanding the implications of God's Kingdom.
Towards his opponents among the Scribes and Pharisees, but also frequently towards his own disciples and towards the crowds of ordinary people, Christ’s language was robust. There was often a note of harshness and impatience: "You faithless generation. How much longer must I be with you?".
The reason Christ often resorted to blunt, critical language was to emphasise the element of challenge in his message. This was one strain of his teaching. The faith in God and the way of life that Christ invited people to embrace was - and is - something that involves upheaval, a transformation of priorities and goals in life.
That’s what repentance means. It means turning away from the self-serving values that come easily and naturally to us and towards the values of the Sermon on the Mount, which are difficult, and go against the grain of our damaged human nature.
And yet, of course, a vital part of the process of genuine conversion is that we want to turn. We feel attracted and drawn towards God and towards the priorities and the gospel way of life, even although we find them constantly challenging and demanding.
In the last few decades there seems to have been a shift in people's understanding of religious faith, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there's been a shift in the function that people would like religion to carry out. It's almost a kind of feminisation, or a tendency towards effete-ness.
Few church leaders and ministers of Christian religion now would say, bluntly, "Unless you repent you will perish". The emphasis now in presenting the faith is on projecting notions of caring, welcoming, supporting, "affirming" in the jargon. There's an enormous stress on being sensitive –which often gives immature and selfish people huge scope for manipulation – and there’s a commitment to avoid criticism or denunciation or anything, I suppose, that might have a negative emotional impact.
The problem is that there's more to Christianity than great displays of sympathetic emotion and therapeutic hugging sessions. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about "cheap grace" which he defined as "preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.”
The irony of that type of religion, which often sees itself as modern and progressive, is that it's taking on the function that made the great atheists of an earlier period reject religion: it's no more than a type of antiseptic cream to rub on the cuts and bruises of life. But that's a subject for a whole other sermon!
Let's turn to the second strain in Jesus' teaching and the parable in the second half of the gospel passage, one of many parables where Jesus uses the image of a growing plant as a metaphor for our spiritual growth.
The vineyard owner in the story is annoyed because one particular fig tree hasn't produced any fruit for three years and he tells the gardener to dispose of it. But the gardener advises greater care and cultivation - and patience: "next year it may bear fruit".
This is a parable that illustrates God's compassion, his tenderness, his readiness to wait a long time for people to turn to him. Christ doesn't say that it's not necessary to turn. He's saying that radical conversion to God's way of thinking is something that takes a long time, usually, and needs the right conditions to bring it out.
A common situation today is that Christian parents, who value the faith themselves and make an effort to bring up their children as Christians, are confronted by their children's wholesale rejection of the faith. They stop coming to church, Christian beliefs mean little to them, they reject Christian moral values - perhaps sexual ethics especially, since charity work and vague notions of social justice are fashionable in our society on non-religious grounds. So they keep that bit of Christianity.
But even leaving religion aside, many teenagers and young people become a source of anxiety and distress to their parents because of drugs, perhaps, trouble with the police, a generally chaotic, harmful lifestyle.
As someone without children myself I've often been a spectator, as it were, of the daily burden and the ever-present sadness of mothers and fathers to whom the children that they brought into the world, and raised as best they could, have effectively become strangers. Some of you might know about that only too well from your own experience!
But Christ's message to us, in this parable, is: wait. Or better: wait and pray.
Especially during periods of moral upheaval or confusion the whole process of emotional and moral and spiritual maturity takes a long time. For many people in our culture youth has become a time for rebellion, to greater and lesser degrees, a time to break free from conventions and overstep limits, with stability returning perhaps as middle age encroaches.
But certainly regarding our relationship with God and our vocation to holiness of life it's probably wise to remember that Jesus aimed his teaching at adults, and the main themes of the gospel can only be understood by an adult mentality.
We need the experiences of failure, defeat, suffering, a grown-up awareness of sin - our own and other people's – and an awareness of our need to atone, to make sense properly of Jesus' message, and these don't normally come until we're older.
It's one of the reasons I'm sceptical about the enormous time and energy that's given over to children and young people in the context of the Church.
The memories of “a Catholic childhood” of many people now in their twenties and thirties don't come to much more than memories of colouring in pictures of the Good Samaritan and clapping their hands during the Gloria. As they got older and confronted more important issues and dilemmas they found they’d been given nothing solid or profound to draw on. We shouldn't be surprised that people shuffle that version of religion off so easily. I don't blame them.
I think we'd be better to keep this perspective of the gardener in the parable: real spiritual growth is slow and painstaking. God is patient, and we need to be patient about people whose spiritual welfare causes us anxiety.
If we can wait quietly, praying all the time for them, making sure that we gently cultivate all the signs of growth and don't try to force the plant to grow quicker than it's intended to, then God willing, "next year it will bear fruit". But the important bit is always: "next year".
So Jesus strikes an important balance in what he says here about the way of the disciple.
On the one hand, turning to God isn't a trivial or casual matter, it involves a radical turning of the direction of our lives. But for this very reason God is patient, and recognises that for most of us, repentance is a lifelong process, where in a sense a fuller flowering of faith and holiness is something that always lies ahead of us, in the future.