No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its fruit.
The tree may be a common sight and little contemplated in our highly urbanized society, but in the Bible, it serves as a complex metaphor for spiritual health and nourishment of the soul. In the ancient world from which our Bible comes, the cultivated tree, the orchards of olive trees, fig trees; the date palms of the oases and the lakeside, these were all sources of imagery that spoke to people of the times. They were very familiar with trees becoming diseased, with bad fruit, with ruined produce, and the consequences of these things.
In the Bible, the tree is often the nation of Israel, or it is the family of David; when Jesus teaches, the trees he speaks of are often you and I as individuals, but also the Church, the community of the faithful. Good trees give good fruit. The righteous nation produces good people and is strong; the family that strives for holiness inspires others; the saintly neighbor blesses his community and makes it a good place to live.
Bad fruit is evidence that the individual, the nation, the family, being represented is diseased, corrupt. We can think of crime, poverty and hunger as obvious examples of “bad fruit,” but so to is distrust, envy, anger, those things we know as vices – these are always beneath the surface of the violence and chaos that overtakes individuals and communities.
Trees as a source of nourishment are also part of the imagery of Holy Scripture that is applied to the good and bad influences we have in our lives – these influences can be individuals, but can also be our community, our family, our nation. If we consume media content, whether it be in the form of entertainment or information that misleads us and malforms our intellects and our consciences, it is like eating the toxic produce of a diseased tree, our soul will be poisoned; and then we too will begin to bear bad fruit.
So, when we come to consider our Lord’s words to us in today’s gospel passage, we need to consider all these dimensions of meaning as we recognize ourselves being like trees as organic, part of creation, and having purpose. And mindful of that purpose, we should be asking such questions as, “Do I produce good fruit? Are we as a community doing so? Upon what am I feeding? What are our children eating?”
Looking around ourselves today we see a very unsettled world, both domestically and internationally. The nation has been lately roiled by protest and the reaction of authority to that (and I’m speaking here not just of the events of recent months, but of the last few years – I’m not just referring to convoys and the suspension of civil rights, but of race riots, churches being burned to the ground, statues toppled, shop windows smashed in – there is unrest arising from a general dissatisfaction with the way things are).
The explanation often given, often shouted in the street, is that the source of our problems lies in corrupt government, or in systemic discrimination, or some other theory is offered that argues that western society is irredeemably evil. The solutions proposed are radical, revolutionary; simplistic and so, not practical and often very damaging.
Often the predicate of these solutions is the conceiving of our society as being divided along an axis of wealth, or gender, or race – that what is going on is between us and them, victims and victimizers, oppressors and the oppressed.
While we can recognize that indeed we have problems in our society of official corruption, self-serving politicians, racism, sexism, economic injustice giving rise to unacceptable disparities between those who have and those who have not; we’d better be careful of indulging in the too prevalent theories that make our problems the fault of others, that lay blame on people based on immutable characteristics like skin colour or sex; or fault the successful person and see in their wealth evidence of evil-doing and regard the petty criminal as justified because of his disadvantaged circumstances.
All such thinking is simplistic, an offer of an easy answer that suggests a too simple solution that cannot address the complexities of a human society. Our society is made up of individuals who should not be reduced to faceless categories, but remembered as being all made in the image and likeness of God.
When we turn to matters within the international realm, we need to be careful of righteous indignation and hollow pronouncements about the sacredness of democracy and our readiness to defend it. Some introspection is called for as we will find that much of the democratic West is pretty hypocritical, and unprepared to actually back up words with meaningful action. The hypocrisy and weakness comes of our spoilation by foolish policies and selfish politics that has yielded bad fruit. The evil besetting Ukraine is not simply one of invasion by an aggressor, but speaks of something profoundly wrong within the community of democracies that they are so feckless in both diplomatic and military matters.
We should educate ourselves about the complexities of our world, actively cultivating rather than passively accepting what we’re told so that we can sift out the false narratives. As our Old Testament reading advises, we need to listen to what we are told, and do so critically to discover if this is bad fruit we’re being offered; a story that misleads, misdirects, distracts and dissembles rather than speaks difficult truths, and offers sober assessments of what needs to be done regardless of what the politically correct agenda has prescribed.
As Christians, we must assess all this in light of our knowing the source of all this unrest, injustice, irresponsibility, exploitation, violence and corruption is human sin. And sin does not invade from some mysterious place beyond the horizon, but rises from within us, within the human heart. And as much as we want to grapple with the great problems of our world, and those of our local community, the solution starts within us as individuals. And from our doing that good work we are able to invite others to do the same; and slowly but surely restore humanity to spiritual health.
In the Church’s teaching, every person is responsible for their own soul – the social dimension, as important as it is, is but an aggregate of individual transgressions.
St. John Paul II teaches us clearly in his celebrated Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance: “Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act” (RP, 16). And “It is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded, in order to place the blame for individual’s sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people. Above all, this would be to deny the person’s dignity and freedom, which are manifested — even though in a negative and disastrous way — also in this responsibility for sin committed. Hence, there is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue or responsibility for sin.” (RP, 16)
A serious acceptance of solidarity with humanity recognizes that an individual’s sin in some way affects others (consider the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ we find in the writing of Saint Paul that speaks of our profound interconnection). The Communion of Saints that we confess every Sunday in the Creed tells us of the beneficial connection we have as the Church militant on earth with the Church triumphant in heaven. Just as we have that connection that eases our ascent to the Father, so too do we as human beings and as members of the Church have connections that can lead to our descent – these need to be cut off before they drag us down and away from Christ into what Saint John Paul II referred to as the “communion of sin” (RP, 16). In that evil communion, I suppose, we can speak of systemic sin, but the system relies upon individuals. Sin isn’t in money, in the soil of enemy territory or in the pigment of skin; it is only found in the souls of men and women.
We are this week drawing to a close a period of ordinary time and initiating yet another Lent. It cannot come soon enough; we live in extraordinary times and the cleansing effects of prayer, fasting and giving are needed now more than ever. For many us, we aim to set that good example for the world in the virtues we live out. For those new to the faith, this is a challenge they’ve likely been looking forward to, at last facing the enemy within and so be made ready to face the enemy without. We all should be comforted by the heavenly assistance that will come: the prayers of the saints, the nourishment of the sacraments, the blessings of the Holy Spirit in Christ, all the good fruit of God’s grace.