E WAS IN THE MIDST of an ordinary day. Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, leading them across the desert. Then Moses took notice of a bush that was on fire. That, of itself, wasn’t terribly unusual. On closer inspection, however, Moses was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not being consumed. This, he rightly decided, was a “remarkable sight.” What is the meaning of this image? It becomes a bit clearer when we compare the burning bush of Exodus with the fig tree in the Gospel of Luke.
The bush that is flaming yet unconsumed is an apt image for the Lord in many ways. The bush is at once wild and well tamed. It is both ferocious and delicate. It is, in a certain way, inscrutable. The image, therefore, captures something of the essence of God, Who paradoxically finds strength in weakness and plenitude in poverty.
The life of God is one of total self-emptying, pouring forth without ever running the well dry. In the fig tree of Luke, chapter 13, we see exactly the opposite. For three years, the tree has produced no fruit. The person who planted it decides, quite reasonably, that the time has come to cut it down. “Why should it exhaust the soil?” The life of that fig tree was one of total self-gratification, leeching off the ground while giving no return.
Where do we find ourselves? It is so easy to become like the fig tree. Children can get so caught up in themselves that they become unwilling to sacrifice a little of their comfort for the greater good of the family. Husbands and wives can withhold themselves by contraception and so fail to offer the total gift of self, one to another. Men and women in public office can grow so focused on reelection that they neglect the concerns of their constituents. Priests can very easily fall out of the practice of prayer, becoming more vigilant for their own interests than for the welfare of their parishioners.
We are not called to be like the fig tree, however, and none of us should settle for this type of parasitic behavior. No matter what our particular vocation is, every one of us is called to use the gifts we have been given to bear good fruit and contribute to the common good. When we take a lot and give back very little, we are like the fig tree. The less we take and the more we give back, the more we resemble the image of the Lord in the burning bush. In His mercy, the Lord is at work within each of us. He draws us slowly and subtly away from our fig tree tendencies, and He draws us silently and steadily closer to Himself.
The ideal of the burning bush is not beyond our reach. Each one of us has the power to make small, daily decisions to make ourselves resemble the bush more than the fig tree. When making those decisions becomes a habit, we will find ourselves on fire for the Lord.