Figs and fig trees… Did you know that between the Old and New Testaments there is a reference to figs or fig trees over 48 times?  Not that I can read hearts or minds, but I’m pretty sure some of you are thinking “Uhm, what’s with the Biblical trivia – who cares?”  I’m with you… I never paid much attention to figs or fig trees when they appear in the Bible until about a year ago… In fact, I can give you the exact date:  May 29, 2021.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT – March 20, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim

I remember the date because that happens to be the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.  Last year on my 22nd anniversary this very strange package arrived in the mail.  It was a giant tube – kind of like you’d expect to find a poster rolled up inside.  When I saw my name on it, I immediately started running through my mind any recent purchases or orders I might have made.  And couldn’t think of any.  Then the return address from Tennessee which really seemed odd – because I don’t think I know anyone down there.    So anyway, I opened it – and it was a seedling of a fig tree plant.  It had a stem of about 3 feet with three leaves on it, with a bamboo stick alongside it to hold it steady, and instructions on planting it.  And that was it.  I had and have no idea who sent this to me.

While I’ve been a priest for 22 years, I’ve been an Italian Man for over 48 years.  So by nature, Italians are inquisitive, curious, superstitious.  Like a journalist, we want to answer the 5 W’s and 1 H – Who, What, Where, When Why, and How.  The Where and When were of obvious but – Who sent this to me?  Why did they send it?  What was the meaning behind it?  How am I supposed to pay the person back or express my thanks?  Those were all missing.

I was sure that there must’ve been a mistake, like a card that was supposed to be included or something got lost, so first I posted a picture on all my social media with a synopsis of the story figuring that someone would want me to know that they had sent it and why.  Four days went by, and nothing.  Well not nothing, because people couldn’t help themselves from making all kinds of comments, but no one claimed they had sent it.  My next step was to go online, look for a website for the greenhouse that sent it, looked for the customer service or some contact, emailed them, and explained the situation.  About four days later I just got “sorry, we have no way of tracing that information for you.  We hope you enjoy the plant.”  This is 2021 – how could they not have any way of tracing this???

OK so now that Italian Man is not just inquisitive, curious, and superstitious – he’s also suspicious.  What the heck?  What didn’t help was right around that time either it was a daily Mass reading or something, but I had just read the Gospel where Jesus had cursed a fig tree that hadn’t borne fruit and the next day the tree was dead, so, of course, Italian men being inquisitive, curious, superstitious and suspicious can sometimes go completely negative.  What is this person saying about me???

One morning when I was praying my morning prayer up in my room rather than in the chapel and I was looking at the plant and seriously was a mix of amused about the mystery and annoyed by it another set of 5 W’s and 1 H came to mind:   Did it really matter Who sent it?  What was the matter with me? Where was I going with these thoughts?  When did I allow myself to get so negative – Why was I getting obsessed … why was I overthinking?  How should I be reacting to this?

I realized I didn’t like not knowing… I didn’t like not being in control of the situation.  Because not being in control is a vulnerable place to be which Italian Men (and almost every other person in the history of humanity) dislike.   We can find ourselves asking those 5 W’s and 1 h and see it reveals that constant struggle within each human heart over control.  Who has authority over my life?  When did I agree to that?  Where did this power come from?  Why are they doing what they are doing?  How does this impact how I live my life?

Control – Who is in control?  That’s what’s at the heart of these readings today on this Third Sunday of Lent.

Moses in the First Reading today – the guy is just out in the fields, shepherding some sheep for his father-in-law when he comes upon something that he has no explanation for that catches his curiosity – for good reason.  This mysterious fire is in a bush that is not consuming the bush.  Yeah you got to imagine “Who – What… How…” start racing through Moses’ head as he draws closer and closer when all of a sudden, he hears a voice calling him by name “Moses, Moses… come no nearer!  Remove the sandals… this is Holy Ground!”  God, Himself is drawing near once again to His people Israel in a dramatic, historic way.  Which builds upon what he heard last week with the story of the covenant between Abraham and God.  Then it wasn’t a flaming bush.  God appeared as a flaming torch and a smoking firepot in the deepest dark of night.   The covenantal promise that: they would be His people and He would be their God.  And they were…

So now this week, we hear God appearing to Moses.  The peace, the stability, the security that the people of Israel had enjoyed for some centuries had disappeared.  The Egyptians had gone from welcoming Joseph (the guy with the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and his family) to now enslaving the Jewish people, maltreating them…God says to Moses “I have witnessed the affliction… heard their cry… know they are suffering… I have come to rescue them” and I’m going to do that through you, Moses.

This will set off a whole sequence of events between the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Egyptians, the people of Israel themselves that will run the gamut of 5W’s and 1 H – Who has the power?  Who has the authority?  Where is that coming from? Who is ultimately in control?  The Egyptians will claim it is them and that their authority comes from these pagan gods that they are following. The Jewish people, the people of the covenant of the God of Abraham go back and forth between following Moses to thinking “maybe we should stick with the Pharoah – we’re slaves, but we do get to eat some cucumbers…” (Seriously, that was one of their arguments).

Ultimately the questions get to   Who deserves worship?  Where is true authority found?  Who is ultimately in control? God answers in that first reading “I AM.”  Literally and figuratively that’s what He says as He reveals His name.  But just to pause for a second even that Moses is asking for God’s name, is kind of bold, because for the Hebrew culture it wasn’t just the label a person wore (like Tom or Alice) but describes their essence, their very being.  So God answering with that mysterious-sounding “I AM WHO AM” is basically leveling everyone and everything.  HE IS – God is that one eternal constant… that being who has always existed, caused everything to exist, and yet has this personal interest, and even more amazing personal love for humanity.  And not just as a collective mass of creatures, but individually, specifically.  He sees He knows, He calls Abraham, He calls Moses by name and expresses love, and a destiny for them individually as they are to lead His people.  And the amazingly good news is that He does that for each and every one of us individually, personally.  That He sees and knows us by name and loves each one of us.

Yet there are too many ways, too many things that all seem to undermine that truth for us.  Whether it’s the war between Ukraine and Russia – or continued fall out after two years of the pandemic.  Two years that our worlds have been turned upside down – where there has been illness and death, where there has been fear and manipulations, where people have felt lost and confused and often times very, very angry.  We have a lot of Ws and H’s to ask:  Who is telling the truth?  Who has our best interests at heart?  Who cares about the people and who is manipulating them for their own benefit, their own interests?  Who can we believe?

In our so-enlightened day and age, there’s an arrogance and a dismissiveness that relegates God as something for the weak-minded, feeble or superstitious even.  Yet, if we are sober and attempt to be objective about the last few years whether they were medical authorities, political figures, religious leaders, pharmaceutical companies – did any of them truly know what they were doing and were completely interested in what was best for people?  In charity let’s just leave it that people were trying their best.    You can turn on any news channel, or scroll through any social media feeds if you want to debate that point because for 2 years that’s been what a majority of people have done.  And so many have yielded control of themselves, most especially, their hearts and souls to people, who again in charity we can agree are less than perfect.

Which is nothing new.  Looking to authority figures in our world, at those seeming in control for answers to our questions or as signs for what’s going on is nothing new.  That’s what was happening in today’s Gospel.  Jesus is on a long walk to Jerusalem, where He is going face to face with the battle of who is ultimately in control – the powers of the world, or the power and authority of God Almighty which will be settled on the Cross.  Jesus has been clear about this and stated it multiple times, but the disciples then – just like us now – we’re easily distracted by what’s happening around them.  The noise, the headlines, the things that understandably unsettle and cause anxiety and fear.  The things that have thoughts and attention focused on this world – and misreading God’s role in it.

That particular day it wasn’t a war in Ukraine and Russia or a Viral Pandemic.  But their news was equally as troubling.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman official in charge of controlling the Jewish people in Jerusalem had deployed all kinds of horror on the people – so that was one incident that was troubling them: asking about those who were ruthlessly killed by Pilates orders.  As was this tragedy where a tower had collapsed killing the people that were inside in Siloam, a neighborhood near Jerusalem.

Who’s in control here?  These God-fearing individuals have fallen into some warped thinking where there were unspoken thoughts that were trying to make sense of it by saying these people must have gotten what they deserved – as if God was punishing the people in that tower or letting Pilate kill the others for good reason.  Because if God is in control, that must be the only explanation.

Which is what prompts Jesus’ direct correction “Do you think that they suffered because they were greater sinners… or that the people were killed were more guilty?  BY NO MEANS.”

That there were ruthless leaders manipulating and abusing control, that these inexplicable events occurred resulting in tragedy is not God’s judgment on the world.  But it does reveal this ongoing spiritual battle humanity engages in over control.  Where we can find ourselves lost in the 5 W’s and 1 H.  Looking to assign blame and champions – imagining if the world simply listened to our answers to those questions (or those we’ve abdicated any critical thinking to make those answers for us) then things would be perfect – or at least better.

Jesus’s life, death on the cross, and Resurrection answered this debate 2,000 years ago.  The world was and still is full of broken, sinful people.  Some are entrusted with positions of authority and influence, others seemingly nameless and anonymous.  The ultimate judgment that each and every human being will be forced to come face to face with, at the end of their lives – is the lesson of the fig tree:  whether we’ve borne fruit in this life or not?   Have we heard God’s word, Have we received Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharist, Have we allowed that to nourish us and drawn strength from it so that we grow in virtue so that we not only draw closer to Christ but help draw others as well?

That is the one place we have “control” over – where and who I place my heart, my soul, my belief in.  That’s one of the reasons we enter into this season of Lent each year to do that examination of my heart and soul to ask some questions:   Have I put my trust in people, things of this world, am I allowing the things of this world – the good and bad – to alter how I see myself, see others and who or what am I worshipping – Who or what is in fact, my God?

When I declared and renew myself in that declaration that I belong to Jesus Christ, that He knows me and calls me by name, that I trust He’s with me in my suffering, that He has a plan for me when nothing seems to make sense, it’s then that the call to repentance makes sense.    It’s then that I see how my prayer, my fasting, my giving are the only true way to respond to the Lord who is kind and merciful…  That’s how I yield control over things in my life and allow Him to continue to work in my life, that I cooperate with His grace, and that is the only way I can truly bear good fruit.

It’s funny because I never used to give a fig about figs or fig trees until that anonymous plant arrived on May 29, 2021.   As somewhat silly as it was, my overthinking that ended that morning in my morning prayer was particularly meaningful.  When I stopped obsessing about trying to figure out who sent me the fig tree, why, what was the meaning, when I yielded just the littlest amount of control and accepted it as a thoughtful loving, generous gift – it truly became that for me.  A gift – that simply deserves my thanksgiving and care.   Which is how we are to see this precious life that the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the great I AM has given to us.  A precious gift.  The God who keeps His promises, God-incarnate, Jesus Christ remains with us and will continue to guide and nourish us to live lives that demonstrate true gratitude, that nourish us to grow and bear fruit if we’ll yield control to Him and let Him.