Perhaps one of the most subtly-haunting scenes of the Gospels is the following one:
In the morning, as [Jesus] was returning to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once (Matthew 21:18–19).
St Mark adds a very questionable concept to the narrative: “…for it was not the season for figs.”
Luke narrates something similar but this time it’s Jesus telling it in the form of a parable:
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Behold, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6–9).
Adding to His many agricultural analogies of the spiritual life, Jesus is less concerned here with a tree that bears literal fruit and more concerned with the Christian, grafted on to the Tree of Life that is Our Lord, that bears no fruit: that is, no virtue, no good works, and, the most requisite of all, no love of God. He is worthy of nothing but to be withered and thrown into the fire. He has not responded to the work of the divine Vinedresser, nor to the life-giving manure of suffering and trial (for it is said that carefully stressed trees produce the best fruit).
St John the Baptist vehemently rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees that came to him, saying “You brood of vipers!… Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matthew 3:8), that is, bear fruit that proves that you’ve actually repented.
On the very cusp of Our Lord’s sacrificial outpouring on the Cross, He gives us His most intimate discourse where He unfolds for us explicitly the meaning behind His fruit-bearing analogies. He says:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:1–8)
For the Christian, bearing fruit is non-negotiable. It is, quite literally, do or die.
Is it any wonder then that the world that we live in, so hell-bent on the culture of death, is obsessed with sterilisation? From the enemy’s point of view, the Christian must not, under any circumstance, be allowed to bear fruit.
Whether it be the culture of contraception that we live in; its direct consequence, abortion (cf. Humanae Vitae, 17); a widespread imposition of hand-sanitiser; or a full-on social distancing program resulting in a “politely-encouraged” or even coercively enforced public lockdown because of a virus, it seems as though more and more concrete and ‘irreformable’ procedures are being put in place to ensure that nothing good comes of anything, all in the name of uprooting an evil. One might think this too much to say, but it is without doubt the direction the world takes.
Surely there are evils, or at least undesired things, that find their way into our nations and homes, but, like Christ, we must beware of killing that which is good, our fruit, when trying to uproot the undesired weeds (cf. Matthew 13:29).
The modus operandi of the world is to kill everything, thus ensuring that the evil certainly die. It is the nuclear option. This is the idea behind nuclear warfare, for example. One might be glad that a certain evil is vanquished by a nuclear bomb, but, in principle, one should be dead-set against that which indiscriminately destroys everything for the sake of surely destroying an evil. Is this not an evil in itself greater than the one it seeks to destroy? We cannot fight Satan with Satan’s ways. We cannot cast out demons by the prince of demons (cf. Luke 11:15). While there are those who intentionally thrust the world towards evil, the multitude have no such intention and yet contribute. Why? Because their highest concern, their god, is temporal earthly life and its preservation. “Anything to stay ‘alive!’” All their choices then, good or bad, become a worthy sacrifice to this false god. All spiritual fruit is readily destroyed in sacrificial worship of this demon (cf. Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 105:37; 1 Corinthians 10:20).
Instead, we ought to be more like the careful and skilful surgeon that knows the exact tools he needs and procedures he will undertake for the operation at hand. With great distinction he removes the cause of the illness and leaves the rest untouched and intact, often to have his patient make a full recovery. Such skill takes great training, great focus, and, above all, great sacrifice at every turn. This is the path of the Christian. A successful surgery is one that prevents spiritual evil, and promotes and ensures spiritual fruit. For the Christian, “staying alive” means something very different. The martyrs zealously hastened to their deaths in order to “stay alive”. In this they bore much fruit, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8).
No matter the type of soil that the Christian is planted in, he must bear fruit. Like the surgeon, he must study the situation carefully, shrewdly examine his possibilities within it as well as stock-take his resources, whatever they may be. He must also study his patient, whether it be himself or another. He must take into account also his duties of state. Which virtues can and must be cultivated at this time? How can one fertilise the surrounding soil to cultivate yet more fruits? Above all, how can one further cultivate love of God? This is the only virtue that shall count for anything at one’s judgement.
In times like these, one can never claim that the fruit is out of season, that a situation is just too bleak, choked, and limited. Perhaps one could concede that the harvest might be smaller, but it can never be empty. To return to the story of Jesus and the fig tree, one will do well to remember that, according to St Mark, “It was not the season for figs,” and yet, Our Lord caused it to wither for lack thereof.
Let us begin on our knees, confessing our own sterility, and begging Our Lord to give growth to our labours remembering that it is the very fruit that we bear that contains the further seed. If the storm of life destroys all our trees, how then shall life continue thereafter? If the Church ceases now to bear fruit, how shall she endure?
Perhaps our Blessed Mother, privileged image of the Church, shows us her unsurpassed perfection in this: that she bore the greatest fruit beyond what was imagined possible, for blessed is the fruit of her womb: Jesus.