This past Sunday, the Gospel reading in the lectionary for the Roman Mass (Luke 13:1-9) showed Christ urging people to “repent” and to be aware that God is waiting patiently for them to do so, but to know also that God is somehow giving them a gracious overabundance of help.
The reading starts with people and Jesus discussing recent disasters: Pilate had massacred some Galileans while they were offering worship, and a tower’s collapse near Jerusalem killed eighteen persons.
Jesus asserted that people don’t die in disasters as retribution for being more sinful than others.
Using his logic, we can assert that people also don’t receive special blessings in earthly life as a reward for being less sinful or more virtuous than others.
Both bad and good things happen to sinful persons, and both good and bad things happen to virtuous people.
But while Jesus was overturning an invalid way of thinking that some Christians today still use, he also warned his hearers: But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish….
The two verbs repent and perish both translate and mistranslate what is in the original Greek language of the Gospel.
That English word carries a load of psychological, emotional negativity: feel remorse, regret, be sorry, rue, reproach oneself, be ashamed, feel contrite.
But it’s the usual translation for a Greek verb that does not carry the same load: metanoein, meaning to change mind.
English uses the Greek noun metanoia (change of mind) that has the same roots as the verb metanoein.
But English doesn’t have a verb that has the same Greek roots as metanoein.
The closest English gets to metanoia as a verb is to use it in a verb phrase: Undertake metanoia!
But we would still need to understand that correctly: change your mind, take on a new way of thinking, look at things differently.
Let’s remember well (and permanently) that when Jesus began his preaching career he called for two things that we must keep together: Repent (more accurately, Take on a new way of thinking) and believe in the Gospel!
He wants us to Take on a new way of thinking that comes from believing in the Gospel he taught.
And not merely individual or favorite Gospel verses memorized without the context of the whole Gospel!
That word, like repent, is a problematic translation of a Greek word in the Gospel passage we’re pondering.
Perish is more problematic because English has no word that borrows the Greek word or root that perish translates (so I won’t even bother to write here the Greek word).
In English, to perish is to suffer death, and typically to suffer it violently, suddenly, or in an untimely fashion.
But the Gospel’s original Greek here is not a word for dying, but a word for coming to ruin.
One can come to ruin without dying.
Furthermore, Jesus taught throughout his Gospel that there is for everyone either an endless afterlife of boundless ruin or an endless afterlife of boundless blessing.
After twice telling the people here to undertake a new way of thinking so as to avoid ruin either in this life or in the endless afterlife, Jesus told a parable bringing God into what he was teaching.
There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it 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.’
I’m familiar with fig trees.
My southern California monastery is two miles from the ocean, and our region has the same geographical latitude and much the same climate as the earthly homeland of Jesus.
Fig trees bear two crops of fruit every year: each year’s first crop ripens in September and comes from stems that sprouted on the branches in the previous year; each year’s second crop ripens in November and comes from stems that sprouted on the branches earlier in that year.
You can ignore fig trees, fail to water them, and they will still grow and still bear fruit twice a year.
In fact, if you water a fig tree too generously and fertilize it, you may end up with a lot more leaves but fewer figs than usual. [Note. Fertilizers, whether natural or manufactured, can favor the growth of a plant’s size, but at the expense of reducing its production of flowers and fruit. Accordingly, modern growers select synthesized chemical fertilizers formulated so as not to inadvertently discourage fruiting in certain plants. It seems that some plants deprived of sufficient water and sufficient nutrients respond with a survival mechanism: reproduction through flowers, fruits, and seeds.]
After eating figs, birds leave droppings with viable seeds that will sprout almost anywhere.
So, I’ve seen fig trees bear fruit as they grow out of cracks in buildings or out of hollows in other kinds of trees.
In my experience and thinking, it seems impossible to have a fig tree that does not bear fruit twice a year.
The parable of Jesus here is about a fig tree that bore no fruit for three years.
That means six fig crops in a row never appeared on that tree.
The orchard owner has been six times more patient than a fig tree’s facts of life require or justify.
Thus far, the parable points to God’s loving patience in waiting beyond reason for us to be fruitful in taking on a new way of thinking through believing in the Gospel.
But Jesus adds more to the parable.
The orchard owner’s gardener proposes more patience, even open-ended patience without a due date for expected fruit, simply, as he says, sometime in the future.
The gardener says he will in the meantime give the tree special care: cultivate the ground around it (allowing rain to soak in more readily) and fertilize it.
Fertilize: add suitable substances to soil so plants growing there become more fruitful, more productive, to wit, more fertile.
But fertilize is not the verb the original Greek uses in this Gospel reading.
Rather, the Greek word there means literally dung, but as a verb: I shall … dung it.
Besides modern, chemically synthesized fertilizers, various natural substances can enrich soil for plants: green, dried, or decayed (composted) plant materials, and also bones, blood, egg shells, ashes, urine, dung, etc.
And dung is the Gospel’s literal choice.
The word manure could be a somewhat more delicate alternative, but it is actually a bypass, as English derives the word manure from an Old French word meaning hand work, as in doing hand work to spread dung.
Good old earthy dung— a parabolic token of God’s loving, patient, merciful, gracious, overabundant care!
But dung is not the goal in this parable.
The parable’s goal is a fig crop, while dunging, or spreading dung, helps reach that goal.
Repent, or better yet, take on a new way of thinking!
Believe in and learn all that Jesus teaches in his Gospel!
Throughout it all, God will wait for you, help you, and take care of you.
Do not be afraid!