Learn from the Fig Tree

fig tree

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Apocalyptic stories, like we hear today, can be terrifying. But that is not the intent of today’s readings. Today’s readings teach us to be watchful and to live wisely.

Lessons from a Gravestone

There is a story of a priest who was preaching at a funeral and used a gravestone to illustrate what matters in life. He told the congregation, “You can learn a lot from a gravestone. For example, you can learn the person’s name and if it was a man or woman buried there. Sometimes, you learn what special quote or Bible verse was important to the deceased (or to the people grieving their loss). And you learn when the person was born, and when the person died. But the most important marking on the gravestone,” said the priest, “is the mark between the date of birth and date of death – the dash mark. Why? Because the dash mark reflects the story of how that person lived their life.”

We don’t have much control over when we are born, and we don’t always have control of when we will die. But we do have control over how we choose to live our lives. And what we learn from today’s readings is that we are called to live our lives being watchful and holy. But what does it mean to be “watchful and holy”?

I think it means three things:

  1. Making our personal relationship with God a true priority. As engaged parishioners of St. Joseph’s parish, we would describe that as “Participating actively in the sacramental lifeof the parish cultivating a personal prayer life.”
  2. It means sharing with others the good news that Jesus has shared with us. Again, engaged parishioners would describe that as: “Sharing our gifts generously in a spirit of service; embracing opportunities to participate in spiritual growthprograms and retreats; and inviting others to join in the life of the parish.
  3. It means following Christ’s example in our daily lives.

Jesus as Model

So what does it look like if we follow Christ’s example in our daily lives? The theme of my first ACTS retreat was from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John: “I have given a model to follow; so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” I often reflect on that quote and ask: What was the model Jesus gave us? It is a life characterized by: love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, obedience, prayer, relationship, servanthood, trust, faithfulness, … and on and on.

Jesus’ whole life in public ministry reflected this model of love and self-giving. And so should our lives. That model Jesus gave us has to be applied to our contemporary world. It’s as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. That’s where watchfulness combines with holiness.

Learn from the Fig Tree

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples a story. He tells them: “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” Remember that when Jesus instructs his disciples, he usually does so in a gentle, encouraging way that the disciples can understand and relate to. The disciples were familiar with fig trees – they were an important staple for nourishment in their region. The disciples also had a familiarity of the growth cycle of fig trees. They knew that when the branches sprouted leaves, summer was coming. They knew that the fruit of the fig tree would be harvested some time in summer or fall. Jesus was instructing his disciples that, just like they observed the growth cycle of the fig tree, so should they also be watchful in observing the signs of the coming end times. Not that they could do anything about it. Not that they could predict the day or time (As Jesus tells them: only God knows the day and the time). But because it serves a reminder to live a life of holiness – to be faithful to God!

Reading the Signs of the Times

Part of living a holy life is “reading the signs of the times” – being watchful and aware of what is happening in our world and discerning how we can participate in those happenings in a Christ-like way.

For example: the 20th century theologian, Karl Barth is attributed as saying “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” This reminds us that we need to remain firm in our faith while remaining attentive to the needs of an ever-changing world.

Another example of “reading the signs of the times” is Cardinal Donald Wuerl (Archdiocese of Washington, DC) and what he said earlier this month at the Synod of Bishops. The Cardinal was speaking about the concern of the bishops who want clarity about the church’s teachings. He told news reporters, “The church’s teaching is quite clear. But the church’s pastoral life is the application of the teaching to where people are. And that’s always been the pastoral challenge of the church.”

He went on to say, “You have to speak with clarity, but then knowing what the fullness of the teaching is, you go out and meet people where they are,” he continued. “And the Holy Father keeps saying to us, ‘Accompany them.’ You don’t go out to meet people where they are to scold them. You go out to bring them the truth but sometimes to be heard you have to let the person know you know their struggle if you’re going to accompany them at all.”

Think about that advice:

  • Teach the truth
  • Meet people where they are … with compassion
  • Accompany them on their journey

Sounds like a Christ-like model to me!

Reflection and Prayer

It might be good to take some time this week to reflect on the “lessons” God wants us to learn in our lives and ask ourselves:

  • Where is the Holy Spirit calling me to grow in my life?
  • How do I model Jesus’s teachings of love, mercy, and compassion?
  • Who are the people in my family, in my community, in my world who need my “accompaniment” – who need to know the truth, but also need to know compassion?

If we are going to allow today’s readings to touch our hearts and guide our lives, we have to be watchful, holy and open to growth.

As we journey in our life of faith, let us find comfort Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” His truth and his love are always with us!

And let us find strength in the Eucharist we share today to go forth as the watchful, holy people God calls us to be.

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