Gospel Reading

Luke 13:1-9

There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? 3 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. 9 And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Revised Standard Version)

See also: Matthew 3:10, 7:19, Luke 3:9

Reflection Points

Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Second Sunday of Heesnag), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:

A Life of Repentance

What Jesus’ disciples perceive as signs of God’s judgment for sin, Jesus instead uses as illustrations to warn against a life of not repenting. He follows this warning with the parable of the fruitless (or barren) fig tree. Repentance is essential to the Christian faith. It’s the very first thing we hear at our Baptism. Immediately following the opening Hayr Mer, the priest and deacon chant Psalm 50/51, setting the tone not only for the entire Mystery of Baptism, but for our entire pilgrimage of faith.

What is repentance? Repentance is an inner change, a turning of the heart toward God. In the Orthodox tradition, repentance (or penance) is not concerned with clearing a record of legal wrongs, but with being changed into the likeness of Christ. From the Prophet Joel:

“Yet even now,” says the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and repents of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)

It is a conviction of the Armenian Church that penance is not a periodic ritual, but a way of life. Ideally, penance should be as natural to a Christian as breathing–a perpetual recalibration of our life to bring it into better alignment with God’s love and will for us. A desert hermit of the Early Church once said,

As the shadow goes everywhere with the body, so we ought to carry penitence and weeping with us everywhere we go.

A life of bearing fruit is a life of repentance. Just because we have been baptized and sealed with the Holy Spirit, we cannot presume to think that we are complete. Baptism is not a writ of guarantee. Our life must be consistent with the prayers and promises proclaimed at our baptism. Everything that comes with our baptism (membership into the Church, adoption as God’s children, washing away of sin, putting on Christ, etc.) is the beginning of our pilgrimage of faith, the life of bearing fruit, the process of salvation at work within us, a pledge and vow of what our lives are meant to be from that moment going forward. St. Paul writes to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)

How do we repent? The Gospels are replete with Christ’s teaching on how to live. Forgiveness, giving thanks, fasting, almsgiving (voghormootyoon), and prayer are just the foundation of a life that produces the fruit of repentance. Furthermore, the Church, including the Armenian Church, encourages the practice of private confession to a priest. This may sound uncomfortable, we may think to ourselves it is sufficient enough to repent directly to God, but there is profound healing in confessing, sacramentally, to a priest. St. James writes in his letter:

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. (James 5:16)

The fruitless fig tree can be viewed from different angles, such as representing Israel, the Temple, Jerusalem, or fallen humanity. With all of these perspectives, the fig tree is each one of us. St. Gregory of Narek inserts himself into the narrative as the fig tree (9B):

I am like a tree, towering with branches,
covered with leaves, but barren of fruit,
a true member of the same species as that fig tree that the Lord struck dry.
For although covered with lush flowing hair, that is,
with an attractive exterior,
as if adorned with a halo,
mesmerizing like a drumbeat at a distance,
if the sower were to come close to pick the harvest,
he would find me devoid of any goods
and revolting without beauty,
an object of ridicule for viewers and a spectacle
for the malicious.

For the bushy plant without fruit and spirit is
but a metaphor for the hapless, unprepared soul
cursed at an unvigilant moment.
If the earth, moistened with dew,
cultivated by the farmer,
does not produce crops to multiply this effort,
it is abandoned and forgotten.
Then, you, my miserable soul,
a thinking, breathing plant
that has not given timely fruit,
shall you not suffer the same fate as those in the parable?
For you have indulged with unsparing excess
in the harvest of all the human evils
from Adam till the end of the species, and even found some new ones,
despised and repugnant to your creator, God.

St. Gregory of Narek, a Saint of the Church, didn’t have a special mission. Each one of us, as baptized Christians, has the very same mission given to us by God himself: to bear spiritual fruit. St. Paul writes to the Galatians (5:22-23) about the fruit that we should be bearing – regularly and consistently:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

But the tension of our faith is that we continually resist God’s grace. Preferring autonomy, we go our own way, pursuing desires of the self, clinging to our own prerogatives and our sense of what we believe is freedom. And the result is slavery to vices and disunity – internally, with others, and ultimately with God. St. Paul lists what he calls the “works of the flesh,” those things we prefer to the fruit of the Spirit, when we do not “belong to Christ.”

Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

St. Paul continues:

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:24-25)

We have been baptized. We received the Holy Spirit. We go to Church, many of us regularly. We are kind to our neighbor. But do we belong to Christ? Do we just ride on the fumes of our baptism, rarely or half-heartedly adding the fuel of repentance? Does our life as individuals and as a parish community reflect the fruit of the Spirit, or have the works of the flesh become the norm in our lives? What is our present agenda that keeps us from bearing fruit? If someone visits our community, how would they describe us? Would that description sound like the fruit of the Spirit mentioned by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22-23? As St. Gregory continues his prayer in 9B is he being too excessive when he measures himself with the holiness of God or is this an honest assessment of us today – as individuals, as a parish community, and as a global church?

For you have indulged with unsparing excess
in the harvest of all the human evils
from Adam till the end of the species, and even found some new ones,
despised and repugnant to your creator, God.

In today’s world which is becoming more and more unhinged, the first and foremost cure is a turning toward God. As the heart of the sacramental life of a Christian, penance is not just for the sake of the individual, but also for the sake of the whole Church. There is a lot of work to do in the name of Christ and his Church and time is never on our side. Furthermore, he has created us specifically to live in communion with him, to become like him, to become a part of him. As a result, God is looking for a people who will repent and turn to Jesus Christ – daily, momentarily – and belong to him.

But the demand of Christianity, the demand of our baptism requires us to take risks, to do things for which we may not be prepared to do, to live in ways we are not used to living, and to give up things we, frankly, don’t want to give up. Are we prepared to be persecuted by our enemies and society for our faith and what we stand for, or will we push back against the authority of Scripture and the Apostolic faith traditioned to us through our Bishops, shaping the church into our own image and contemporary ideologies? Are we used to living comfortably, with very little significant change within our parishes, or are we willing to abandon some of the status quo? Do we really want to relinquish our life to God and his Church to guide us, to draw boundaries, to tell us what is and isn’t good for us, or would we rather have God’s Church under our control, convenient, and not too challenging?

Again, there is more than a hint of urgency expressed in the story of the fig tree. As spiritual and healthy as we may be, or believe we are, today’s Gospel reading is just as applicable and relevant as when he taught it. In the parable, the one caring for the tree begs the owner for one more chance to work and bring it back to life or else it gets cut down. Let’s pray as a parish community, as the Armenian Church, that we don’t run out of time, not being a Church who is bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God, that we don’t become so resistant to God, so comfortable with our temporal pleasure and possessions, with God’s blessings, that our leaves dry up and stop bearing fruit. The parish community, each person, is a tree. A tree is meant to bear fruit. If it does not, it will be cut down. Thankfully, no matter our temptations and temporal persuasions, with a repentant heart, the Holy Spirit is present within us to transform us and align us with God’s will.

Jesus, Our Gardener

Again, the fruitless fig tree can be viewed from different angles, such as representing Israel, the Temple, Jerusalem, or fallen humanity. Likewise, the keeper of the vineyard can be representative of different individuals. Gardening takes time, patience, and care, and what better Gardener than Jesus? As St. Cyril of Alexandria has put it, the vinedresser is the Son, Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf with the man who planted the tree. He writes,

He [Jesus] is our Advocate with the Father…the gardener of our souls. He constantly prunes away whatever is harmful and fills us with rational and holy seeds so we may produce fruits for him.

Jesus is the Gardener, the one who prunes, waters, and fertilizes. It is he who invites us as individuals, as a parish, as the Church, into communion with him, and gives us multiple chances, even when we turn our back to him, even when we are fruitless for his Kingdom. How can we be fertile soil? In what areas is our parish barren or fruitless? What is the fruit of our parish, that which is pleasing to God and brings unity among the faithful? What can we do as a community to repent, turn around, and bear even more fruit for God? Does the prayer and mission of our parish align with what Jesus has appointed us to do?

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide. (John 15:16)

Fruit from Barrenness

A theme in God’s work of salvation is bringing forth fruitfulness from barrenness. In fact, the very first act of God recorded in Scripture is the creation of the world out of an empty void. We then come across Abraham and Sarah, to whom God brought forth a son, Isaac, from Sarah’s barren womb. Similarly, Mary was born to Joachim and Anne, parents who were barren. And then of course, the Mother of God herself was a virgin, through whom the Holy Spirit brought forth the Son of God.

Empty in our sin, moving toward death, we are incapable of bringing forth our own salvation. And so we depend, urgently, on a God who causes that life and fruitfulness to occur. Through Christ, we are a new creation, born from him.

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. (II Corinthians 5:17)

Thankfully, our barren lives are not without hope. Through Mary’s empty womb, God comes forth in flesh and blood, undoing sin and death, filling the world with himself, the Source of life. He shares that Life and healing with us – in baptism, through his body and blood, and being present in the unity of a believing Christian community. From all of this, our lives as individuals and as a community will bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God, as long as we continually live a life of repentance.

By Dn. Eric Vozzy