Most of us have heard of the term “freeloader.” It refers to a person who takes and takes, but makes little or no effort to put back. If you go to lunch with a freeloader, more often than not they will forget to bring their money. In today’s Gospel Jesus told a story about this pattern of life, but the freeloader in this instance is not a person, but a fig tree. The tree drains strength and sustenance from the soil and it never gives anything back, it never produces any figs.
We know Jesus was not concerned about fruitless fig trees. His concern was people who take without giving. It troubled Him to see people do bad things, but it troubled Him just as much to see people do nothing, just stand by.
A cab driver responded to a call on a hot August afternoon. It was a small house in a quiet part of town. Like most drivers, he would drive up to the house, honk once or twice, wait a few minutes, then leave. He was about to do this when the door opened and two women came out: a young woman, carrying a small suitcase, helping a frail elderly lady. They stood by the cab for a long time saying goodbye;, both were crying.
When the elderly lady got into the cab, she gave him the address. She said, “Could you drive through downtown?” “But it’s not the shortest way,” the driver said. He was thinking that he was going off duty after this ride. “Oh I don’t mind,” she said, “I am in no hurry. I’m on my way to the hospice.” He looked in the rearview mirror, she was staring out of the window. “That was Mabel who walked me to the car, she has been my healthcare aide. She wanted to come with me, but it would be too much for both of us. I don’t have any family left, and the doctor said it was time.”
The cabbie surprised himself as he reached over and shut off the meter. For the next two hours they drove through the city. She showed him the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. They drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived. They pulled up outside a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing when she was a girl. Sometimes she just asked him to stop at a particular building: she would just sit and look at the building and say nothing.
Then she suddenly said, “I’m tired; let’s go now.” They drove in silence to the hospice.
The driver got out and rang the bell. Two orderlies came out with a wheelchair. The driver opened the trunk and took out the suitcase. “How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse. “Nothing,” he said. “But you have to make a living,” she protested. “There are other passengers,” he responded, then he bent over and gave her a kiss. She held onto him and said, “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy.”
After the door of the hospice closed, the driver just sat in his car for a while. He didn’t want to go home right away. He started to think, what if that woman had a different driver? What if old Jim had gone on that call? He is always angry and impatient. What if I had done what I always do? Honk once, then drive away if they don’t come out right away? He came to an important conclusion: “I don’t think that I have ever done anything more important in my life.”
As I said at the start of Lent, by all means, give up cake and ice cream, that cocktail. Get that body ready for the beach. But do not forget to reach out. Do the right thing, the nice thing, the good action. Remember what we said in the confession at the start of Mass: forgive us for the things we have done, but also for the things we failed to do. Small actions can have great results. What that driver did was not a heroic act. In his own words, “If I had not been driving her around, I would have been watching TV and drinking a beer.” But what he did had a great effect on the elderly lady. Ask yourself, will I bear good fruit this Lent, or none at all? As Mother Teresa said, never forget that we belong to one another.