In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
As I looked at the passage before us this morning, I noticed two things. Firstly, all those who do not repent will perish. Second, the Lord is merciful.
We have two historical events or disasters if you will that everyone was familiar with at the time. The second one, the tower falling, the fathers have not commented on, but the first St. Ephrem the Syrian explains a bit more. If we remember, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was put to death by Herod. Saint Ephrem tells us this was done illegally. He continues,
The basic idea of what happened is that he couldn’t get at Herod, since he was a king. Therefore, he killed the accomplices who were the guests at the feast. This cause king Herod shame and disgrace and left him angry. It being an eastern culture, he probably lost face as well.1
Pilate managed to kill them by making it illegal for those present to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem. When they attempted to anyway, he saw them breaking the law and he sent his soldiers to kill them. With the result that their blood became intermingled with the blood of the sacrifices.
We see then, that though it would seem that those who killed John the Baptist had gotten away with it, but God avenged his death. St. Paul tells us in Romans, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” God looks after those who are his.
So, some Galileans were killed, what difference does that make to us? St. Ambrose provides us with the answer.
…the symbolic interpretation appears to refer to those who under the devil’s power offer sacrifice impurely. Their prayer becomes sin, just as it is written of Judas the traitor, who, amid the sacrifices, planned the betrayal of the Lord2
It was with the religious leaders that Judas made the deal to betray the Lord i.e. in the midst of the sacrifices and the temple.
Let us take heed then that we offer our sacrifices to the Lord from a pure heart. The psalmist tells us, “Had I cherished evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard.” In this Lenten season, let us examine ourselves and see if there is an evil that we are cherishing or loving in our hearts. If so, we must plead with the Lord to remove it and cleanse us. He will hear us and cleanse us.
Let us now look at this parable that describes the Lord’s mercy. St. Augustin puts it beautifully,
Now it is though it should have been cut down, but the merciful one intercedes with the merciful one. He wanted to show how merciful he was, and so he stood up to himself with a plea of mercy.3
I just love that statement, “the merciful one intercedes with the merciful”. We have a merciful triune God, who just to show his mercy asks it of himself. I don’t think that our words and thoughts can comprehend this. He just delights in showing mercy. St. Basil also says of his mercy,
For it is the part of God’s mercy not silently to inflict punishment, but to send forth threatenings to recall the sinner to repentance, as He did to the men of Nineveh, and now to the dresser of the vineyard.4
The fathers have looked at the fig tree in two different ways. First, they saw the tree as representing the whole human race. The three years in this viewpoint, saw God visiting the patriarchs, then in the time of the law and the prophets, and now with the coming of the Gospel the third year has begun.
Second, they saw the tree as Israel. In specific they say it is Israel during the ministry of Christ to the destruction of Jerusalem. They saw similarities between this parable and when the Lord said to Moses, “Permit me to destroy the people.”, but there were definite differences. Moses returned to the people and condemned them while the vinedresser offered a solution of mercy to enable the tree to produce fruit.
Jesus comes to Israel, His people, asks for mercy and then tends the fig tree. In this we see his ministry to the Jews. The destruction of Jerusalem is imminent, but He is desiring that they turn from that and not die like the Galileans and the eighteen from Jerusalem and lose their place. St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us,
It is as if he would say, “Let the place of the barren fig tree be laid bare; then some other tree will come up or may be planted there.” This was also done. The crowds of the Gentiles were called into its place and took possession of the inheritance of the Israelites. It became the people of God, the plant of paradise, a good and honourable seed. It knows how to produce fruit, not in shadows and types but rather by a pure and stainless service that is in spirit and truth as being offered to God, who is an immaterial being.5
St Cyril, is speaking of what St. Paul explains in Romans 11 picturesquely in Romans 11 and more straightforwardly in Ephesians two. Basically, the Jews were removed from the land around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and roughly around the same time the church with the inclusion of the Gentiles was being established. In the first testament things were hidden in shadows and types. In the second testament what is happening and what is required of us is laid out more clearly. The church is the people of God just as Israel were the people of God.
This morning then, let us be mindful that the Lord is merciful and extends mercy. If we are, however, living in sin and are refusing his entreaties to repentance, then judgement will come. St. Paul warns us Gentiles,
For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
In the gospel portion this morning we have seen the call to repentance and to receiving the Lord’s mercy. Now in our first testament portion, we see a call to an abundant life. Who is called? Everyone who thirsts, i.e. those who have no good of themselves, or in other words everyone. They are to buy grain, wine, and milk without cost. How? The price is repentance. The gardener has come and has plead for the tree and is now working the soil through this invitation. St. Jerome records that in his day the Eastern Churches followed this Scripture and gave wine and milk to those who had just been baptised.
God is full of compassion and is always ready to give people to good things. Our God is merciful. He gives us good things not only this present life as St. James also testifies, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights”, but also in the hereafter.
What keeps us from receiving these gifts. In short, our sins, or in the words of the parable our inability to produce fruit. One of the Fathers says of this,
But the mass of your sins and ungodliness constricts you and hinders you from fleeing to him. But there would be no such great obstacle if you desire that mercy beyond words, for then such evils of yours would not defeat and overcome his compassion. For God is great in pity, and he will provide forgiveness for your sins and so will show you to be pure, so that no trace of your former sins will remain.6
How deceptive Satan is! Our sins hinder us from fleeing to Christ, but if only we’d see that to flee to him is the remedy and forgiveness. He is desirous to show us compassion. We must not only forsake our sins, but also desire the Lord. It is a difficult task to have victory, by merely saying no to evil, we must also say yes to good. We must seek the Lord with all our heart. As we turn to the Lord, we have forgiveness as another Father has said,
For great is the kindness of God that there is nothing that he is unable to loose for the converted person.7
The prophet Isaiah instructs us to seek the Lord. Here in our Psalm reading we discover how this is done. The fathers see these first few verses as referring to Lent. Maximus of Turin says,
The very body of the Christian is in a sense a desert when it is not filled with food and cheered with drink but is neglected in the desolation of parched fasting….Then Christ the Lord inhabits the desert of our body when he was found that our land is desolate because of hunger and parched because of thirst…Then the Saviour dwelling in this desert of our body overcomes there all the factions of the devil, and safe and secure from the thoughts of this world he takes it for his habitation so that from then on…we might think of nothing other than the Lord of the heavenly kingdom and the author of earthly resurrection.
It is through denying ourselves both of physical pleasures and spiritual passions that we make our bodies an empty and inviting place for our Saviour. As we seek the Lord, and deny ourselves, he comes in us and we dwell in communion with Him.
In our Epistle reading, we return again to the subject of water. While Isaiah spoke of drinking, here we see baptism. All the Fathers see the Israelites going through the waters of the Red Sea as a picture of baptism for us in the New Covenant. The cloud they saw as the grace of the Holy Spirit upon our lives.
As St. Paul tells us in Romans that we die in baptism and rise to new life. Our old nature and other adversaries are dead to us, because we have been baptised into Christ. The Israelites also ate and drank in the wilderness from a miraculous source, but got no benefit from it. Here we are warned as well that thought we partake of the Holy Communion and are baptised, we will get no benefit as well unless we live a life that is worthy of that grace. We must bear the fruit of a holy life.
Finally trials are going to come and difficult ones at that. Of this St. Chrysostom tells us,
There are therefore temptations which we cannot bear. And what are these? All, so to speak. For the ability lies in God’s gracious influence; a power which we draw down by our own will. Wherefore that thou mayest know and see that not only those which exceed our power, but not even these which are “common to man” is it possible without assistance from God easily to bear8
Trials and temptations will come, this inevitable and in our own strength we cannot bear them. However, this morning let us purpose that as often as we encounter them, we ask God for his grace. Who will give it. In this way we can make it through temptation trial. We will overcome.
What of us this morning? Just like Israel, we are in danger of judgement if we do not repent when the Lord beckons us. In this season of Lent that we are nearly halfway through, let us ask the Lord to examine us to see if there is an evil way in us, if there is wickedness that we are delighting in. We must leave it and choose to walk in an upright and holy way. As we remove certain foods from our diets, let us also remove sin from our lives. As we spend more time in prayer let us ask the Lord to make us more holy and upright. We can praise the Lord for His great mercy, but we must not abuse it, lest we find ourselves displaced and under his judgement.
Then let us seek the Lord buying through our repentance the wine, grain, milk and other good gifts. As we participate in Lent, we can anticipate greater fellowship with our Saviour. Let us rejoice that our adversaries have been put to death through our baptism and finally let us ask the Lord for the grace to overcome our trials and temptations.
~ Dn. Fr. Matthew
1 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 222
3 ibid. 223
5 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). 223-224
6 Thomas C. Oden and Mark W. Elliot, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament XI (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 185
7 ibid. 188
8 Thomas C. Oden and Quentin F. WesselSchmidt, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament VIII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 54
8 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 12, Augustin: City of God, Christian Doctrine, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1887 (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 113
The Gardener and the Fig Tree, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54307 [retrieved May 24, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/feargal/3923006489/.