Jesus spent a lot of time breaking stuff down. Making it comprehensible to the rest of us. His parables and metaphors about the Kingdom of God drew on the world that surrounded him and his listeners: wheat, sheep, trees, clouds. Sometimes I wonder what he’d come up with to fit my urban, modern landscape. Instead of a treasure hidden in a field, maybe a thrift store couch stuffed with cash?
After sheep and shepherds of course, I would say Jesus’s metaphor of choice was fruit. The seed planted in good soil that grows up to produce bountiful fruit (Matthew 13:22). The barren fig tree that earns his curse: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14). Other fruitless trees that get chopped down down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:9). Branches that can’t bear fruit unless they remain connected to the vine (John 15:4).
I’ve been thinking lately about this metaphor. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand it in the same way the original disciples did. When I want fruit, I usually go to the supermarket. There it lies in huge shining mounds, sweet and beautiful and often cheap. Often, it’s so ripe I can buy it and immediately bite into it. It’s one of the easiest foods to enjoy, often requiring no cooking or preparation of any kind.
But Jesus’s original listeners were not office workers like me. Many of them were farmers, as we can tell from his many metaphors related to fields and crops. My main contact with plants is a few houseplants huddled on my kitchen windowsill, which I often forget to water. They tended crops whose success meant food and life. They invested so much in the growth of these plants: their resources, their hard work, and most of all, their time.
Time is such an important ingredient for fruit. It’s easy for me to forget that, since I can go to the store and buy it whenever. I forget that the fruit is the final product of a long chain of events, preceded by seed and shoot and flower. Even after fruit appears, you have to wait for it to get ripe and sweet. I chow down without a second thought on sugars that took seasons to mature. If time is money, even fruit that didn’t cost me much is pretty expensive.
I’ve never thought this much about fruit before, which is sad, because clearly it was so important to Jesus. Not in itself – he didn’t curse that fig tree because he was feeling peckish – but because of what it represents. Fruit is a metaphor for the sweet end result of something. Genesis commanded humanity to be fruitful and multiply, bearing many children who would flood the world with life; the New Testament speaks of spiritual fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.
I look at that list of fruits of the spirit sometimes and I feel so discouraged, feeling like a barren tree. Why haven’t I collected them all already? I believe in God and all that good stuff, so why am I not Mother Teresa? In my mind, I think spiritual fruits should be easy to get, like swinging by the supermarket for ripe, perfect strawberries. In real life, all fruits take plenty of time and attention, especially when they’re getting started.
Not that spiritual fruits are due to our effort alone. Far from it! I can try to be good soil, clear my soul of the rocks and weeds that might strangle out my spiritual seedlings, but what plant could grow without the God-given blessings of sun and rain? Even the most hard-working farmer can’t control those! Jesus told this parable about a growing seed to highlight the fact that true growth is something we don’t fully understand:
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Like good farmers, our role as disciples is to make sure the conditions are the best possible, then watch and wait as the mystery unfolds. But I have to remember there will be a lot of watching and waiting, a lot of time before fruit appears. Jesus expected I would know this, would have thought about how the natural world works, so I can know how it reflects the spiritual world.
This metaphor is certainly giving me a lot of food for thought. (Sorry. Had to.) I love trying to think about things the way that Jesus did, diving deeper into the stories I’ve heard so many times before. Next up: maybe sheep? Maybe.