Commentary on the Gospel of
When I was in my teen years, my grandfather taught me to help him cut trees on his small acreage in South Omaha. I enjoyed learning how to safely use a double-bit axe and a crosscut two-man saw, to keep the tools sharp and clean. I wouldn’t say it was a zen-like experience, but I admit I became immersed in the task at hand. I still have those tools and prefer them to power tools.
When my wife and I bought our first house over forty years ago, one of our initial landscaping activities was to plant a tree with our young daughter. She seemed interested, but then she was a year old and lots of things interested her for a few minutes. I remember thinking at the time that this tree and our daughter would be the same age as long as both lived. Our daughter is doing well, and I sometimes will drive by our old house and see “our” tree still thriving in the front yard.
Thirty-seven years ago, we built our current house on an acreage that was all pasture – not a tree in sight. So, we set about planting and nurturing trees – spruce, pine, fir, oak, maple, locust, ash, and fruit trees. My skills, nurtured by my grandfather decades before, have come in handy as we try to manage our little corner of creation. We have spent time and physical effort in helping our trees grow, and even welcome the annual task of gathering up their leaves and needles.
But I have noticed in recent years that I don’t like to cut trees. I feel sad when I need to remove a tree or even severely prune one due to storm damage. I feel a partnership with the trees and the creative forces that help both of us thrive – food, and water, and sunlight.
So, today’s reading from Matthew is challenging for me emotionally – it is troubling to cut down trees just because they don’t bear fruit or bear bad fruit. Surely, they still possess beauty. Little boys and girls can climb on them, and birds can nest in them. They can provide shade and comfort from the hot summer sun. Their leaves and needles can be mulch or compost. Aren’t those also fruits that bear valuing? And even if we do need to cut them, won’t their wood be useful for warmth in our homes or to cook hotdogs in our fire pits or to ponder deep realities as we cuddle by a warm backyard campfire in cool evenings and eat smores?
If I feel this emotional tug about my trees, and my attempts to find other fruits that they can provide, how must our Creator feel about us and our good fruits and bad fruits? How difficult would it be for our Loving Parent to throw our tree into the fire? Isn’t the covenant with Abram really a statement that our Lord will be there for us, across countless generations and innumerable descendants, a constant source of love and support (forever as the psalmist writes) as we live our lives?
When I think about bad fruits and fire and destruction, I am reminded of the famous Ravensbruck prayer (https://jesuitprayer.org/bold-in-forgiveness/) and its call for forgiveness for the cruelties of the concentration camp staff. If these people who suffered so much could find fruit in the cruelties of their tormenters, won’t our all-loving God find some fruit in our actions and lives as well, even if our fellow humans might find fault with our actions?
We have such a powerful example of bearing good fruit in the life of Jesus and the holy women and men who have put His teachings into action. We have the examples of other holy men and women who are of different faith traditions (or even no professed faith tradition) who live powerful lives bearing good fruit.
Seeing these examples of loving lives well-lived, and knowing that God’s love is so deep, how can we consciously bear bad fruit? How can we harm others, or be selfish, or blindly squander our beautiful world, or fail to consider what evils our actions can cause? If we are aware, won’t our bad fruits be lessened in number and impacts? Won’t we say thank you to our Lord for the gift of life itself by avoiding bad fruits as we live out our one precious gift?
And so, my prayer today is for the grace to be mindful that my actions are my fruits, and can be good or not, and that being aware of my love for my Nurturer will help me bear good fruit.