Third Sunday of Lent – Fr. Bill McNeeley
March 23, 2019 – 5:00pm and March 24 – 11:00am
We all want to be happy. What’s more, we all want our lives to count for something. The only way to find real and lasting happiness is to live a life that is meaningful and to be part of something greater than ourselves. Of course, some people live their life as if it’s all about them. They care for nothing that does not benefit them. If it doesn’t help them, then they couldn’t care less. Such a life is barren, and that is precisely what Jesus condemns in today’s Gospel.
Here Jesus tells the parable of an unfruitful fig tree teaching us that it is our purpose and mission to live fruitful lives. This parable is also a subtle yet clear indictment of the temple authorities. It is told in such a way that everyone knew what he was saying and who he was referring to, but it was told in such a way that the authorities could not pin anything on him. The Scribes and Pharisees of Israel are represented by the barren tree, unable to bear fruit for the kingdom of God. The orchard owner is the Father. Jesus’s public ministry is the tilling and the fertilizing of the soil around the tree. Indeed, he is the personification of the New Covenant of faith which replaces the Old Covenant under the Law. The Law served as a pedagogue or teacher that taught the children of Israel about God, about His Commandments, and about sin. The Old Covenant had served its purpose, but in the end, it was unable to bear fruit worthy of Heaven. That made it necessary for Jesus came into the world to fulfill the righteousness required by the law.
With Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the grave, the kingdom of Heaven is opened, but it leaves us with the question of what can bear fruit worthy of God’s Kingdom? How do we avoid the pitfall of living barren and unfruitful lives? Bearing fruit for God’s kingdom is essential if one wants true and lasting happiness in life. Our society is struggling because everyone wants to be happy, but we don’t know how. Virtually everything advertised on the open market is in some way connected to finding happiness in life. There are numerous shows about finding the perfect home, or the ideal car, the latest or even the ideal mate. Those things are supposed to make us happy, but things never really make us happy. There are products to help us have the perfect hair, or in my case, much of any hair at all. Of course, there is nothing wrong with having food, shelter, clothing and even transportation but if we think that those things will make us happy or that upscaling those things will fill the void, we will be disappointed.
We live in the freest, most civilized society in human history and yet, I contend that we as a people are not happy. What can restore our happiness? I think we need to explore what it means to be happy and even the definition of happiness. We have mixed up temporary joy with happiness. We confuse sensory experience with happiness. Perhaps most of all, we think that better or more material possessions will make us happy, but they never do. I believe that a lot of depression now days is caused by not knowing where or how to find happiness in life. I think that the first step is to go back to the definition of happiness. All of the Ancients whether you are talking about Judeo-Christian values or Greek philosophers or any of them, they all believed that happiness meant having a sense of moral purpose. In the Hebrew Bible the word for happiness in simcha which essentially means right action in accordance with God’s will. God actually commands his people to be simcha. How can you be commanded to simcha, or to be happy? How can one be commanded to experience an emotion?
The idea in Judaism you cultivate the emotion by action, by right action in accordance with virtue. By doing that you cultivate a lifestyle where you live a sim-cha, in happiness in accordance with what God wants of you. This is true of Christianity as well. True happiness lies in doing what God wants of you. In the Greek thought of Aristotle, there is something called pneuma, which is not a condition of the lungs but is being active in accord with perfect virtue. Here being happy is acting in accordance with right reason over the course of your life. It means acting with purpose, acting with meaning, acting with reason.
What do we need in order to be simcha to find true happiness in life? I believe it comes down to pursue the discipline of yielding to God’s grace in our lives. By my own efforts, I can only fail. I have had to learn that lesson over and over and over again in my life. It is when I give up trying to impose my will, my ideas, my efforts onto the world around me that I gave God the space he needs to achieve his will in my life. It’s like the harder I try, the more I try to take control, the more I fail to achieve my goals and the less happy and rewarding my life has been. Learning to yield rather than taking control is not easy, and it does take time, but that is the only way I have found any degree of happiness and fulfillment in life. I can’t but God can. . One day a parishioner came to my office and spent an hour pouring out her soul and her struggles with everyday life. The problem was that I was quite distracted about some personal matter. I didn’t feel engaged and at the end of the meeting I couldn’t remember a thing she said. After she left I thought to myself “Well that wasn’t my best effort. I didn’t offer any great insights or counsel. What a waste of time.” Well, about a year later I was about to be reassigned and the parish gave me a farewell dinner. At the end of the dinner a couple of people offered some thoughts and reflections. One of those people was the lady I had met with the year before. The amazing thing was that that lady and told everyone what a great listener I was. What that taught me was what God could do in my life if I can just get out of the way.
That has been a great lesson for me in life. That is the only way I have been able to make my life meaningful and have purpose. Thanks be to God for his gracious love, grace, and providence which is what lead us through the trials of this life to the joys and the rewards of the life to come. Let us join together and become for a God a fruitful fig tree that bears fruit worthy of the Kingdom and of our Lord.