Most couples who come to me to talk about getting married are not looking for advice. They want to talk about the ceremony – at least the brides do; the grooms are often not sure they want to talk to a priest at all. But the church requires me to spend some time with every couple I marry, and I would want to do so even if it wasn’t required. In addition to talking about the ceremony, I always ask couples a series of questions that fall under the heading “Questions Couples Should Ask Before They Marry – Or Wish They Had”. These questions include asking if they have discussed children, whether their ideas of saving and spending money are in sync, and whether or not they will have a TV in the bedroom.
But there is a topic not covered in the questions that I feel it is important to discuss, and which compels me to give to the couple the only piece of advice that I give about marriage. The topic is forgiveness.
I know couples whose basic position about forgiveness is this: that they can forgive the other almost anything, except…. The “except” is big: a line in the sand that must not be crossed. And if a couple has thought about this (although I suspect that many don’t really think about it until after the wedding day) that exception is one thing and one thing only: infidelity.
As I said, most couples don’t come to me looking for advice, and I am not inclined to give it about marriage. But on the topic of forgiveness, I am not inclined to keep silent.
And although love-besotted brides and grooms probably pay me little mind when they hear me say it, my advice to them is to begin their married life with no line in the sand; no exception established in either’s mind from the outset for which forgiveness could not be sought and offered in return. Not even if there is infidelity. No exceptions at all. This is not to say that I believe there are never circumstances in which a marriage could and should rightly end in divorce, sad though that would be. I am only saying that couples should not begin their married lives knowing that there is something the marriage could not survive, for lack of forgiveness.
My rationale for this piece of advice is found in what I believe and know about God: that there is no exception to God’s forgiveness. And that even in the simple prayer Jesus taught us to pray we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and I think husbands and wives and partners ought to mean that when they say it – or at least try.
Brides and grooms-to-be have to sit and listen to my only piece of advice, which is premised on a lesson about God. But almost no one else has to hear it – except of course a captive congregation who finds themselves sitting through a sermon! And you may or may not need to hear advice about forgiving your spouse, your partner, your friend, or perhaps your enemy. But if you are anything like me, you do need to be reminded the lesson about God. Because many of us have somehow absorbed the idea that ours is a God who has drawn lines in the sand. Our shorthand for this is to remember that we once heard it said that God is an angry and a jealous God.
To us, this sounds like a God who has all kinds of boundaries that may not, must not, cannot be crossed, or else…. And indeed we have lots of images of such an angry and jealous God who fills the skies with thunder clouds and lightning bolts as he prepares to wreak his vengeance on those who cross him.
But today Jesus has advice for those of us who believe this about God.
"A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
If I could only take one parable of the Scriptures with me to a desert island this would be it. Because the fig tree, of course, is me (or you, if you care to put yourself in the story). It requires no real stretch of my imagination to see that I have not been the person I could be; that I have not done all that I could with the gifts God’s given me; that in so many ways I have failed to bear the fruit of good works and kindness and love that God has made me for and calls me to.
Maybe you could say this about yourself as well. The season of Lent is in some measure given to us to reflect on the ways we resemble the fig tree in this parable. Notice that we do not even have to get to the things we have done wrong (although I believe we are free to remember those) it is enough to think about what we have failed to do – those things we have left undone, as we say. Have I been faithful to God in prayer? Have I been merciful to those who need my help? Generous to those who deserve my largesse? Kind to those who seek my fellowship? Have I been available to those who need me and can rightly lay claim to that need? Have I been gracious to those who just happen to find themselves in my sphere?
Sometimes we have such low expectations of ourselves that we do pretty well by these measures, until we begin to expand our focus and see more of the world around us, the people we normally ignore, or have already shut out, those beyond the immediate company of our family and friends. But God’s expectations of us are not low at all. He has always called his people to be welcoming to strangers; to care for those who are needy not because we know them, but just because they are in need; to love not only those whom it’s easy for us to like, but even to love our enemies. If this is the kind of fruit we are to bear in our lives, how are we doing?
Now, in the cartoon version of life that has become the common picture for many these days, I am supposed to rail at you from the pulpit about your many failings in these ways. I am supposed to encourage your shame, identify you as sinners, affix a scarlet letter to your clothes, condemn you to a life of guilt, and threaten you with the fires of hell. In this cartoon world, dour nuns wield stiff rulers to whack children’s hands; hypocritical priests hurl accusations at the innocent, suffering poor; and a greedy church takes from you what you can ill afford to give in order to fill her hallways with extravagance. And no doubt the church has been guilty of all these cartoon crimes at one time or another.
But there is still the matter of the fig tree, which has failed to bear fruit year after year. No one has guilted the fig tree about anything. No one berated it in Catholic school when it was young. No one took from it what was rightfully the tree’s and deprived it the chance to produce figs. The tree was just planted and left to grow and do what fig trees do: to grow figs, which are sweet and wonderful and delicious.
But year after year the tree gives no figs.
The owner of the tree remembers that he heard once that ours is an angry and a jealous God; and he remembers too that he is made in God’s image (his is a selective memory). A fig tree ought to produce figs; its owner has every right to expect them, he thinks. What is the point of a fig-less fig tree, after all? So cut that tree down and teach it a lesson – a lesson that will no doubt be noticed by all the other fig trees too! Where is that ax?
But there is also a gardener – or at least someone who we think is the gardener, though he looks a little familiar to me, come to think of it. This gardener is not the type to draw lines in the sand. Is he disappointed by a fig tree that bears no figs? Perhaps. Is prepared to give up on it and cut it down? No, he is not. Does he believe a good strong dose of guilt or haranguing, or the threat of eternal damnation will induce the tree to grow figs? It would appear not.
But the gardener has a pile of manure – which is neither expensive or exotic. And he has time. And he has a way with the owner of the tree. “Sir,” he says, “let it alone one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not…” well, you know….
In my cartoon world, on my desert island, where this is the only parable I have to tell, it is told over and over, year after year. The exasperated owner remembers that this is the third, no fourth, no fifth, no twentieth year in a row he has had this conversation with the gardener. But always he relents, neither as angry or as jealous as he had at first seemed.
And in my cartoon world, there is an endless supply of manure to be heaped on this fig tree by the gardener, to help it grow, help it thrive, help it bear much fruit.
And of course in my cartoon world, I am the fig tree, peering out from beneath my leafy, but so far fig-less branches. And I have heard the demands of the owner year after year, I have remembered that he sounds so much like a jealous and an angry God, but I notice that he always heeds the gardener. And I am grateful that there is a pile of manure for me, because it is so hard to draw a line in a pile of manure, to define the limits of what the gardener will tolerate, what he will put up with, what he will forgive. Indeed, to me, he seems to have no limit, no line that cannot be crossed. He seems to me to have nothing but patience and plenty of manure to try to keep me humble, and to coax my limbs to finally bring forth fruit, and offer the first figs to him.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
7 March 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia