Are You Bearing Spiritual Fruit?
3rd Sunday of Lent (C)
This Sunday’s gospel reading cuts against the grain of the popular image of Jesus as a “nice guy” who says we are all just fine the way we are. Instead we come face to face with a Jesus who challenges us. Using the metaphor of a tree, our Lord gives us two clear options: bear fruit or be cut down.
Christ tells a parable about someone who plants a fig tree. He comes to his garden for three years in a row and never finds any figs on the tree. Now there is only one reason to plant a fig tree — to get figs! If it’s not producing fruit, then the tree is not fulfilling its purpose. So he tells his gardener to cut it down.
But the gardener begs for mercy for the poor fig tree. “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” (Lk 13:8-9). So the tree gets a year of reprieve. Jesus doesn’t tell us the tree’s fate, and we are left to wonder whether it bore fruit and was allowed to live, or remained barren and was cut down.
The meaning of the parable is clear. We are trees in God’s garden. God planted us for a reason, and he expects us to bear fruit. If not, we will be cut down.
This might sound harsh to us. Does God only value us for what we can produce? This parable might come across that way if we think of “bearing fruit” in terms of material goods or usefulness.
When we imagine our lives bearing fruit, we tend to think in terms of achievements. We might think of earning college degrees, or landing good paying jobs. We might think of making important scientific discoveries or advocating for marginalized populations. We might think of producing culturally significant works of music or literature. These are all good and worthy goals. But this is not the kind of fruit Jesus is talking about here.
We must be mindful of an important truth: God doesn’t value us for what we can do. He values us for who we are. The fruit God expects us to produce is spiritual.
What are spiritual fruits? According to scripture and tradition, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity (see Gal. 5:22-23). This is the kind of “produce” that God expects from us.
If we are living our lives the way God intends, then we ought to be yielding a harvest of peace, joy and generosity because that’s how God made us. Each kind of tree produces its proper fruit (see Mt 7:16). Fig trees produce figs and apple trees produce apples. Human beings are “virtue trees.” We are made to produce the kind of spiritual fruit listed above, and if we aren’t, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong.
The gardener in Jesus’ parable, in an effort to save the fig tree, says, “I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future” (Lk 13:8). How do we do the same for our spiritual lives? How do we cultivate our soil? What do we fertilize our spiritual lives with? St. Paul tells us in this Sunday’s second reading.
All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.1 Cor 10:3-4
St. Paul is referring to the miraculous way that God fed the Israelites during their flight from Egypt, by causing manna to fall from heaven and water to flow from a rock. These are signs that are fulfilled in Christ. Ultimately what God wants to nourish us with is not bread and water, but his own Body and Blood. Jesus is our spiritual food. He is the manna from heaven, and the water flowing from the rock.
If we fail to produce spiritual fruit, then we should ask ourselves: Are we letting ourselves be nourished by Christ? Are we drinking spiritual drink and eating spiritual food? I don’t just mean going to Mass and receiving the Eucharist. That is important. But are we doing more than just going through the motions? Are we truly letting that spring of living water soak in to our roots and fertilize us?
First Fruits of Glory
In other words, our participation in the faith is meant to make us more kind, more joyful, more generous, more patient, and more chaste. It should be giving us peace and self-control. If it’s not, then something is off. And it’s not God. It’s us. God is always faithful. His grace doesn’t fail. But we can fail to cooperate with it, and when we do, we experience a lack of peace, joy, and self-control, and all the other fruits listed above. We feel it. Our lives suffer.
Here’s the secret about the fruit we are supposed to bear: it’s not for God’s benefit. God doesn’t need it. He is perfect in himself and lacking in nothing. We need the fruit. We need peace, joy and all the rest. God made us to produce the kind of fruit we need to lead us to happiness.
The Catechism teaches that, “The fruits of the Spirit are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” (CCC 1832). They are foretastes of what heaven will be like, where we will experience these fruits in their perfection. But through his grace, we don’t need to wait. We can begin producing them now. By letting ourselves be cultivated by his law and nourished by his love, we can bear these fruits in our lives today.