‘Learn a lesson from the fig tree’

By Vinal Van Benthem | For The Compass | November 9, 2021

In 2016, in his apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera, Pope Francis announced the beginning of a new observance known as World Day of the Poor to be celebrated every year on the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (this year, Nov. 14). He suggested the day be set aside to reflect on “how poverty is at the very heart of the Gospel” and to “meet the poor personally wherever they may be.”

I recently spent a few weeks on Maui. My building was about a mile from Starbucks and across the way from a large park. It became my habit to go for coffee most mornings, walking one way on a busy street complete with surfing schools, coconut milk stands, tattoo parlors and every other kind of tourist attraction, and returning on the opposite side through a lovely park along the ocean. I soon realized that, in addition to the surfers-in-training, the park was also home to members of the city’s homeless community. And it was in that park that I encountered what I believe Pope Francis was talking about.

As I walked along the shore I passed several picnic tables. However, most were in the sun, and since I spent much of my time reading and writing, I returned each day to one of the only tables situated in the shade.

One morning, as I was approaching what I had come to think of as “my” spot, I noticed a couple of cans of food on the bench. Over the next few days I would find not only canned goods but, one day, a simple bunch of flowers. I realized that the food was being left there for members of the homeless community who live in such poverty that everything they own fits into a shopping cart. Here was the Gospel written on a wooden picnic table. The gift allowed the recipients to get what they needed while maintaining their dignity. They probably didn’t even know who had left the food there. “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” Perhaps the flowers were the recipient’s way of saying “thank you.”

Van Benthem is a longtime pastoral minister in the Diocese of Green Bay.

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