The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Born in the late third century, Caesarius of Arles was both a monk and a bishop of the Church. He is remembered for his sermons, as well as a particularly ascetic outlook on the religious life. His wisdom is thoughtful, aimed not at theologians so much as the common people and monks in his care. One of his favorite subjects upon which to preach was the dangers posed by “little” sins, those trivial faults that are a normal part of daily life. Caesarius tells us that one reason these small sins are so dangerous is because we must remember that we are in a battle with an enemy! There is no room for us letting down our guard. Those folks who believe they’re safe because they’re not sporting any grave sins—they’re likely to get overconfident. He writes: “It is exactly at this point that they get seriously wounded because they are not expecting the attack.” In other words, for Cesarius, vigilance, in the Christian faith and life, is key.
He continues: “Some of you, are misled into thinking that just because you never do anything evil, God will surely judge you worthy of everlasting life….Well, let me remind you of Jesus’ parable about the last judgment: the (fig) tree gets cut down and thrown into the fire not for bearing bad fruit but for bearing no fruit.” In other words, if you haven’t been about the business of bearing the fruit of love and forgiveness, then you’d better start right now.
Speaking on behalf of the fig tree, I think Caesarius is being a bit rash in consigning the fig tree into the fire. Recall, if you will, that in today’s parable, while the owner of the vineyard was all for turning the fig tree into firewood, the gardener was a bit more optimistic. Clearly, a person of second chances saying: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
Yet, Caesarius’s point is a good one. This Bishop, he’s impatient with people who are satisfied with just being “pretty good,” and have made something of a friendly truce with their daily faults and petty vices. In the mind of Caesarius, there is no room for committed Christians becoming complacent with their faults. He has a point.
It reminds me of the current run of commercials by AT&T. You may remember the one where a guy walks into a brake shop and inquires “Are you guys good with brakes?” The Mechanic replies: “We’re okay.” “Just okay?” says the customer. The Mechanic responds: “We have a saying around here, If the brakes don’t stop it, something will.” The theme of the commercial is: “Just okay is not okay”.
Caesarius, I imagine, would nod his head in approval. “Just okay is not okay.” It’s not. God hopes for and expects something more from us.
So, if you’re feeling a bit protective of that unproductive fig tree—consider this. If you were the owner of a vineyard, how content would you be to have a vine taking up room on your precious land, if it failed to produce any grapes. Truth is, most of us wouldn’t think twice about uprooting it and consigning it to the trash. We’d want to invest in another vine, one that produced fruit. What kind of vineyard owner or farmer would we be if we were about the business of tending to plants that gave back nothing in return, only being in the business of taking up space, as it were?
Lent is a good time for us to think about what kind of tree we are, and what type of fruit we are bearing. Some might ask the question: Am I bearing fruit at all or am I just taking up space? Have we, in some sense, made a pact with mediocrity—is being “okay” good enough? That’s a good question as relates to our spiritual lives. I’ll be honest, it’s not a comfortable question for me. I’m irritable after 9:00 p.m., and sometimes I use this as a justification for snapping at my spouse. There are moments I feel overwhelmed, and that causes me not to listen as closely as I should to the concerns of parishioners? Is this okay? Should I just sit back and give myself a pass—or should I use this as an opportunity to consider—perhaps there a better way to approach situations in my life?
How many folks do hurtful things and use the excuse: “Oh, that’s just the way I am.” Anything from employing large doses of biting sarcasm, to doling out insults, tailgating the car who is going too slow, to slamming the door on the way out of the room when one is angry, to using social media as an inappropriate means of communicating things we’d never dare say to a person face-to-face. These are comparatively small errors. But it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it. Think of the small sins as gateway sins to larger errors and omissions as time goes on. Ultimately, what they add up to, is the idea that what we do, and who we are, in the eyes of God, doesn’t really matter. It’s all okay. And, well…the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that there’s nothing in the Bible to suggest this is the case. In fact, quite the opposite.
In essence, what the Gospel says is this: Who you are, and what you do, matters. The choices you make and don’t make, they’re all important. They come with a cost. Relativism is found nowhere in either the Holy Scriptures or the theology of the church. And that, I suggest to you, is good news.
You see, as challenging as Caesarius was—and let me tell you—he was; and as relentless as his demands for holiness were, they all sprang from a fundamentally optimistic belief. The conviction that we are made in the image of God. In other words, God cares. And, what’s more, God is invested in you—what you do and who you become, it all matters.
So, back to the parable of the fig tree. It seems to me that the owner of the vineyard that we encounter in this parable isn’t God. That’s right, you heard me correctly. The Owner of the Vineyard is not God (at least in my interpretation this morning). In fact, the more I think about it, the owner of the vineyard—well, that person, at least in this parable, is more like us—willing to write things off, to looking for the quickest results, regarding the bottom line without considering the tree. In truth, in today’s parable it’s the Gardener who is more like God, hoping for the best, giving us the care, the environment and the attention—all that we need, really, in order for us to bear the kind of fruit that will make us productive members of the kingdom of Heaven. The Gardener is optimistic, hoping that the fig tree who might be a little slow, will eventually live into its purpose, to bear fruit for the kingdom of God. That’s worth thinking about this Third Week of Lent. What kind of tree are you? And, what kind of tree is God hoping you will become? Would that we all would bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
(the idea for this sermon was found in “Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey through Lent” by Albert Holtz, OSB)