Verbum domini

A tale of two trees

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We hear of two strange plants this weekend: a burning bush and a fruitless fig tree.

Consider the sight of the first. These blazing branches show white under the desert sun, catching the eye of Moses and drawing his wonder: “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight.” Its foliage flames, yet every limb and twig is fresh and lively. Moses, in the presence of the divine, takes off his shoes in reverence.

This tree is a flowering furnace. Consider its fruit. It flourishes in divine words: “I am the God of your fathers.” A fruit like no other, it calls for a response. It calls for a relationship. It is food for communion.

The word of God is always ripe. It is always in season. It is adaptable to every hunger of history. For example, imagine the harvest of these words: “I have come down to rescue them.” Contained in them is the deliverance of Israel. Contained in them are plagues, the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea. But they also contain, as seeds, the incarnation, the passion, and the victory of the Cross: “I have come down to rescue them.” The word of God is both historical and perennial, feeding one and every generation.

The burning bush was a verdant prophet. But what of the fig tree? Here too is an amazing plant. It is healthy but barren, living but dead. Far from inspiring awe, it inspires disgust: “Cut it down,” its owner says.

These are two different trees. The burning bush blazed without singeing a single petal. Yet the fig tree, failing to bloom, still exhausts the soil. Moses takes off his sandals “for the place where you stand is holy ground.” But to save the fig tree, the gardener puts on boots and uses tools to “cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.”

If the burning bush is an image of our generous God, the fig tree is an image of the selfish sinner. Turned inward, it does not give life. It uses every grace of soil and water for itself. It hoards its resources and refuses to turn its gifts into gifts for others. It should flower with fruit for its neighbor, but, living for itself, it is dead.

“Sir, leave it for this year also,” pleads the gardener. It is given a final chance. Cultivated and fertilized, the tree receives its final graces. Will it blossom in good deeds? Will it flower with the sweet scents of worship? Jesus doesn’t say. He only wants us to hear the warning. We were planted to bear fruit. He is expecting a yield.

Father George K. Nixon serves as assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville. Ordained in 2011, he holds a licentiate in sacred theology from Pontifical North American College in Rome. “Verbum Domini” is a series of Father Nixon’s Scriptural reflections during Lent.