Greetings, SBT Readers!
After I listened to Arnold Schwarzenegger's address to the Russian people on the war in Ukraine, I was struck by the power of his oratory, both in terms of content and delivery. In fact, his message is a masterpiece of non-violent language/ peaceful diplomacy-- the kind of language that unifies rather than divides, establishes common ground rather than focuses on differences. As a starting point, Schwarzenegger greets his "dear Russian friends" and the soldiers serving in Ukraine. He explains that there are terrible events going on in the world that are being kept from the Russian people. Before diving into these realities, however, he shares his own connection with Russia that began with his admiration for Yuri Petrovich Vlasov --"the strongest man in the world"-- whom he first met in Vienna in 1961 when he was 14 years old. Defying his father -- a former Nazi who hated Russians-- Schwarzenegger kept a photo of his hero in his room. In his address, he explains how his father had taken part in the devastation of Leningrad and was consumed by guilt for the rest of his life. But to Schwarzenegger, flags don't matter. He goes on to describe his various trips to Russia for body-building and movie making, and the fan base he established there.
Only after establishing his affection and respect for Russia and the Russian people, does Schwarzenegger address the horrors of Putin's war in Ukraine: "The strength and the heart of the Russian people have always inspired me. That is why I hope you will let me tell you the truth." He briefly refers to the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, and how he had felt compelled to denounce the violence in a message to the American people. Now, as then, is a time to speak out. He first debunks Putin's lie that Russia is "de-nazifying" Ukraine, pointing out that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is Jewish. He goes on to debunk the lie that Ukraine started the war, boldly stating that it was the Kremlin that had done so-- and that 141 nations at the U.N. voted that Russia was the aggressor and that it should remove its troops immediately. From there, he lists some of the atrocities committed against the Ukrainian people, showing film footage of bombed civilians and fleeing refugees.
Then he provides the facts about Russian casualties. Speaking to the Russian soldiers, he reminds them that 11 million Russians have connections to Ukraine, expressing the concern that the Russian soldiers could end up "broken" like his father.
Addressing Putin, he says, "You started this war. You can stop this war." His final message is to all those brave Russians who have been protesting the war, suffering beatings and imprisonment; they have "the true heart of Russia."
Then he ends as he began, by addressing his "dear Russian friends": "May God bless you all."
What an amazing tour de force! What power in words and in strength of presence! What a prophetic performance! If you wish to be inspired, I encourage you to watch the video for yourselves: https://youtu.be/g7nf5jYa26g
And he told them this parable:
“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?’
The gardener 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.’”
Of course, the gardener in today's Gospel is God -- at least, that's the conclusion I came to on a first reading. God is "kind and merciful" proclaims the psalmist; God "pardons all iniquities/ heals all your ills/ redeems your life from destruction/ crowns you with kindness and compassion/ secures justice and the rights of all the oppressed..." (Ps 103). Yes, such a God would definitely intervene on behalf of a seemingly barren fig tree, insisting upon offering a second chance. And not only that, this Divine Gardener will personally tend to the tree, cultivating the soil and fertilizing it. Such actions echo what we learn about Divine kindness and mercy in our first and second readings: in Ex 3, God witnesses the affliction of the Israelites and decides to lead them out of Egypt to "a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey”; similarly, 1 Cor 10 reminds us of all the protection and nourishment the Chosen People receive while escaping from Pharaoh and wandering in the desert.
But if God is the Gardner, who is the Orchard Owner? This nameless person "had the tree planted" -- in other words, he is responsible for the fig tree's existence and has paid for its upkeep for three years. That in itself is "kind and merciful." The tree, however, fails to reciprocate: instead of producing fruit, it simply takes up space-- much to the Orchard Owner's disappointment. His plan to cut down the tree is not unreasonable, especially as the tree is exhausting the soil.
What if God is both the Gardener and the Orchard Owner? Can the God of second chances also be a God who judges and condemns? This "both/and" approach to the parable is less comforting than declaring that God is the merciful Gardener.
Paul reminds us that "those who think they are standing secure should take care not to fall" (1 Cor 10:12). Despite all the love God lavishes upon them, still the Israelites grumble and rebel until even the God of infinite patience has enough. "Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert," writes Paul (1 Cor 10:6).
When we consider that Jesus prefaces his parable with a call to repentance, it would seem that he would agree with this second interpretation: at some point, the Orchard Owner will require an accounting and even though the Gardener successfully negotiates a "grace period" for compliance, that, too, has an expiration date. All this being said, this parable offers a "wake-up" call for the complacent and yet another invitation for all of us to put our spiritual houses in order.
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