Monday, September 14, 2009

Acorn or Apple?

Galatians 5:22-23
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.
If nine is a holy number, it's because of the nine items on this list. In it, St. Paul names the chief Christian virtues. He says they are "fruits of the Spirit." He says there is no law against practicing such things. But is it a law that we should do them?

Well, a few lines farther on Paul does say: "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25). Certainly the standard of life which Paul describes as "the fruit of the Spirit" is something Christians aim for, and regret falling short of. But is this passage essentially Law? Does it prescribe a pattern of behavior for us to follow? Is it God's command and expectation that we show such virtues in our lives?

In the most literal sense, I think not. Contextually speaking, Paul has just been describing the conflict between the Spirit (of God) and the flesh (of sinful man), which counteract each other "so that you do not do the things that you wish" (5:17). He contrasts the fruits of the Spirit with the "works of the flesh," listed in verses 19-21, to make clear where each comes from. And most significantly he says, "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (v. 18).

In other words, what the Law is meant to control is the mind and will of our flesh. While our sinful flesh survives, we can only desire good things because of the Spirit of God dwelling in us. Even as Christians, we live in struggle: the flesh wanting to do some things, the Spirit wanting to do others. By itself the Law can only deter us, somewhat, from abandoning ourselves to the flesh's desires. Without the Spirit of God we could neither desire the fruits of love nor do them. Only with new life planted in us can we bear fruit in keeping with the Spirit.

So the fruits of the Spirit issue freely from the grace, from the gift, from the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. The Spirit has no need of the Law; it bears fruit according to its nature. As Paul says elsewhere in his letter to the Galatians, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (2:20).

To put it in a parable: Suppose a man owned a oak tree, which every year became full of fruit after its kind. One day he said to it, "Oak tree, I am sick of your acorns. I forbid you to make any more of them. From now on, you must bear tart, juicy apples!"

What do you suppose happened? Did the oak tree remain an oak, or did it become an apple tree? For it is certain that, unless it became an apple tree, it could never bear any fruit but acorns. Unless that man's Word had the power to change one kind of tree into another, in vain did he command the oak to bear apples.

Now supposing it did become an apple tree. Would that be a credit to the tree for its obedience to command? Wouldn't it, rather, bear witness to the power of its master's word?

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

Of course all parables have their limits. In order to really reflect our "flesh/Spirit" state of affairs, one would have to imagine a tree that was simultaneously oak and apple, and that bore some of each kind of fruit - until, in some end-of-time cleansing, the last particle of oakiness was finally stripped away.

Where does this leave Jesus' words (Matthew 7:17-18) indicating that a bad tree can only bear bad fruit and a good tree good fruit? That's easy. Jesus was talking about teachers and their teachings; read vv. 15-20 as a whole.