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?”
The gardener 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.” (Luke 13:6)
Do you get the impression this gardener is not going to give up?
When the owner of the vineyard arrives next year ready to cut down the unproductive tree, the gardener will be equally ready with his advice of digging and fertilizing. The gardener brings patience, watchfulness, and the expectation of growth.
Patience and watchfulness are closely connected to mercy. Mercy refuses to take the easy route of condemning and destroying the unproductive present. It always sees a deeper possibility that has not been actualized and works to create the conditions for that possibility to emerge.
Of course, we are talking about people and not fig trees. Ultimately, this is not a lesson in gardening but a strategy of human development. Underlying it is a vision of the human person in communion with God and struggling to find ways to embody that communion in how they think, will, and act.
Mercy is the way we help this process in each other. We know our efforts to become a full and loving person do not follow a strict schedule. It can go well one moment and go badly the next. We know we have to return to the struggle.
Perhaps, that is why in St. Paul’s famous hymn he includes an almost overlooked factor: love is patient. (1 Cor, 13:4)
So is mercy.
© John Shea