“Sir, leave [the fig tree] for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:8-9)
Last Sunday, during a very weird Oscars telecast, there was an homage to musicals and the cast of the movie version of Les Misérables came out to do a medley of songs. Before I saw the movie, I had never read Victor Hugo’s novel nor seen the musical on stage, so I went into the movie not knowing most of the plot. The main character, Jean Valjean, captivated me because of his humanity and because of the Christian virtues he exhibits throughout the story. When the story begins in a post-Napoleon, early 19th century France, he is imprisoned for simply stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family member. He is a man of virtue that becomes hardened in prison. When he is put on probation, he does not check in with his probation officer and begins running from the law and seeks shelter in the church of a kind bishop. The bishop offers him food and shelter. Yet Valjean is a hardened criminal by now and steals some of the treasures in the church and runs off in the middle of the night. The authorities catch him and bring him before the bishop so that he might be charged with theft. The good bishop tells the authorities that he had given the stolen goods to Valjean and in fact he had forgotten two candlesticks. Valjean is taken aback from this unconditional act of mercy. The bishop had looked on him as a child of God and not as a criminal which is what the rest of the world saw. All this takes place in the first 10 minutes and leads Valjean to lead, as my godson would say, “the life of a saint.” Valjean discovers that now his life has purpose because love and mercy had been shown to him.
In the first reading, Moses also is given a purpose. He had forgotten about the Israelites, his kinsmen, who were enslaved in Egypt. He had fled after killing an Egyptian who had mistreated a slave. God appears to him in the burning bush and calls him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses offers every excuse to God to get out of this mission (don’t we do the same?), but eventually does the Lord’s bidding. His life was not to tend his father in law’s sheep, but to allow the Lord to do wondrous things through him.
Each and every one of us has a purpose, a vocation, a mission. As Benedict XVI at the beginning and towards the end of his pontificate reminds us, we are not an accident, an act of randomness, but a child of God lovingly created in his hands. Even the fig tree in today’s gospel has a purpose. It’s a simple purpose: to produce fruit. The owner comes to cut it down because it is not producing. Could you imagine if God dealt with us in the same manner that this owner was going to treat the fig tree? Thankfully, as the psalm reminds us, the Lord is kind of merciful. The gardener in the gospel realizes that this tree still has value if it is properly taken care of. We should tend to our hearts in the same way that the gardener is going to tend to the fig tree. Cultivate love in our hearts so that we may produce fruit for the kingdom of heaven. We must recognize that each and every one of us has a purpose and is loved and cherished by God. What made Moses and Jean Valjean lead virtuous lives was the fact that they had been forgiven and loved in a way that they couldn’t fathom. Today Christ is calling us to repentance and is giving us a second chance this Lent just as the fig tree is given a second chance. What will we do with this generous love and mercy? We must respond to our most basic calling which is to live as sons and daughters of God called to produce fruit by simple acts of love.