A reflection on the readings for February 27, 2022 — The Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The just one shall flourish like the palm tree,
like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow.
They that are planted in the house of the LORD
shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall bear fruit even in old age;
vigorous and sturdy shall they be,
Declaring how just is the LORD,
my rock, in whom there is no wrong.
That sounds incredible, doesn’t it? The just one shall be rewarded, shall flourish, shall bear fruit even into old age.
Flip back a few pages in your Bible, and you will find a very different assessment of what one can expect as a follower of the Lord:
You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.
I dare say that this week Psalm 88 resonates with most of us a little more. We have watched Russian forces march towards Kyiv for the past several days. We have prayed for the millions of Ukrainians engaged in a battle for freedom and their lives. We have held our collective breath, hoping we are not witnessing the opening stages of a third world war. History has taught us that the innocent often suffer, and vicious men wage war precisely because they benefit from its evil spoils. It does not seem as though the just ones are consistently able to flourish like a cedar of Lebanon, but rather that God’s wrath often lies heavily upon them.
At some point, every individual who counts themselves Christian must contend with the apparent dissonance of these two visions of the Christian life. At some point, we must grapple with the question: How can both psalms describe the condition of a disciple of Jesus Christ?
St. Augustine takes a crack at the question in his commentary on Psalm 92:
We are not Christians, except on account of a future life: let no one hope for present blessings, let no one promise himself the happiness of the world, because he is a Christian: but let him use the happiness he has, as he may, in what manner he may, when he may, as far as he may. When it is present, let him give thanks for the consolation of God: when it is wanting, let him give thanks to the Divine justice.
–Exposition on Psalm 92, St. Augustine of Hippo
“We are not Christians, except on account of a future life.” Reading Augustine’s response, it can be tempting to assume that this means that our destiny lies exclusively in the future, that being filled with the Spirit means recognizing the fallen nature of this world and simply waiting for our lives in the next. This interpretation veers dangerously close to the accusation leveled against Christianity by a man who, less than 200 years ago, made a not insignificant contribution to the geopolitical mess we find ourselves in today in Russia and Ukraine, namely, that religion is nothing more than an opiate for people whose present lives are miserable. We are called to actively respond to sinfulness in the world. In his February 23 audience, Pope Francis called upon Catholics and people of good faith to do precisely this in response to the war in Ukraine—to pray for an end to this war and all war, to offer aid and comfort to those affected, and to seek to change political systems that allowed this failure to take place. Christianity’s focus on the future does not mean that we should be content to simply wait out the evils of the world; we must actively confront them.
So what does “we are not Christians, except on account of a future life” mean if not lament the old order and wait for the new?
In our first reading from Sirach and in the reading from Luke’s Gospel, we are told that we should judge a tree by its fruits. This does not mean that you can identify a just person by their flourishing or a wicked person by the wrath that seems to lie heavily upon them. To interpret it thus is to contradict not only St. Augustine’s commentary and one of the most prominent theological developments that takes place in sacred scripture but our own lived experience of suffering and success in the world. The fruit cannot simply be the positive results of one’s actions. The good tree, after all, may still be the victim of an aggressive attack by a foreign power, it may still struggle to find social or professional success, it may still have churches with empty pews. To understand what fruits Sirach and Christ are referencing, we must recall an old lesson from our Confirmation classes, the list St. Paul provides us in his letter to the Galatians:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
This is how we know we have a good tree—it exhibits these qualities. These fruits do not exist exclusively in the future. We do not have to wait until the second coming of Christ to experience them; they are to be received, developed, and lived right here and right now. When we take the steps laid out by Pope Francis in his Wednesday audience and resist the forces that would lead a nation into this type of aggressive war, we are actively demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit that come from a good tree.
While they do not exist exclusively in the future, the often-challenging reality is that, because they do not necessarily correspond to worldly results, the flourishing that accompanies them often does. The good tree may bear the Holy Spirit’s good fruit in this world while simultaneously being weighed upon and overwhelmed. Augustine tells us to celebrate and enjoy happiness when it comes from the fruits we have received, but not to expect it. We often find ourselves in a position where for whatever reason, we do not experience the positive results of the fruit we bear in the world. This is why the Christian is called to bear fruit in the present while remaining always oriented towards the future.
St. Paul tells us about that future in our second reading, reminding us that our labor is not in vain because Christ’s victory in which we participate is over death itself. Suffering, evil, death have been robbed of their power to steal our future, deprived of their ability to ultimately prevent our flourishing. While it is true that the present world can weigh upon us and dim our eyes with grief, as Christians, we orient ourselves always to a future in which we enjoy Christ’s victory and flourish. We look towards the future, but we do not wait for it; we live it now through the fruits of the Spirit within us.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.