This is the eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and this year it is the last Sunday before we start the penitential season of Lent. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Today’s readings really drive home the importance of prayer as the foundation of a life in Christ.
You’ve probably been told that you should not judge a book by its cover, but when you go into the bookstore, it’s the cover that catches your eye. Publishers know this. That’s why they spend so much time designing the cover the book. Romance novels seem to have a couple embracing. Thrillers have a completely different look, and political memoirs are always at least 800 pages. You kind of know what you’re getting into by the cover of the book.
Jesus uses parables and everyday images in his teaching because they are easy to grasp but also have very deep meanings. Instead of books and their covers, He uses fruit trees. He tells his disciples that nobody picks figs from a thornbush. Of course they don’t. You know it’s a fig tree because you find figs on it, and you find thorns on a thornbush.
The reading from the Book of Sirach captures this when it says that “the fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.” And the words of our Lord from the gospel bear witness to this, when Jesus says, “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Our words – what we say – is the fruit of our tree or the cover to our book, and our words indicate what’s inside – what we think. Remember, the book was written before the cover was designed, and the fruit was plucked from a full-grown tree. The perfect cover cannot cover up a poorly written book. We cannot bear good fruit if we are a rotten tree. If we who claim Christ bear good fruit, the good news will be spread. The good news others need to hear they will only hear from us if we are bearing good fruit. So we need a healthy tree, and prayer is a big part of making it healthy.
Bearing good fruit requires cultivation and pruning. Wild apples are not as tasty as the apples we get from the apple orchard because the apple grower has been cultivating his trees so they provide sweet apples on a consistent basis. The good fruit of a disciple of Jesus is love, faith, generosity and all the other virtues.
For us to bear this good fruit, we must commit to cultivation and pruning just like the apple grower does to his fruit trees. Jesus describes pruning when he tells his disciples that first they should remove the wooden beam from their own eye before addressing the splinter in another’s eye.
If we are to be the light of Christ in the world, we must maintain a strong relationship with Christ. We must be right with Christ before we can maintain holy relationships with his other children. We need a process of cultivation of the life in Christ just like the cultivation of a healthy productive apple tree nurtured by the orchard owner.
As Christian disciples, we are cultivated by a life of prayer in community at the mass, in community with one another outside of mass, by ourselves in front of the Lord in adoration, and by ourselves alone with the Lord in mental prayer and contemplation. If we are not right with Christ, we cannot really get any other relationship right. In order to pull out the beam from our eye, we must first see that beam. From a life of prayer, we will grow in seeing more clearly. The beam in our eye will finally be something we can see.
People who grow up in dysfunctional families must learn the real meaning of the word normal because in their families what they thought was normal turns out to have been not normal. All of us are enticed by the devil to develop dysfunctional understandings of who we are and what we are to do with the lives we have been given. This is how we could have a beam in our eye and yet not even see it. Thus, the first step in our prayer life is to learn to see more clearly, and to recognize more quickly what is the correct norm, or rule, or way to deal with things.
Our prayers must be prayers of thanking God for his great glory, confessing our true state as fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, and asking him to care for others and ourselves. As we mature in the Christian life, many of the sins that we commit may not be all that big in and of themselves, but we develop patterns of those sins, and those patterns block us from seeing that those little sins are actually kind of serious. What we first saw as only a splinter in our eye we can finally see as the beam that it really is. Our spiritual sight will improve through our prayer life.
We have to see clearly the choices we are all making every single day, and we have to identify those times when we prefer the wicked choice over the holy choice. Once we see clearly, we can respond. We prune away the unholy choices and cultivate the holy choices, just as the apple grower does to his trees. Pruning is an on-going process. The church offers us the sacrament of spiritual healing in the confessional, so we can go and fix the problem once we see it clearly. If we make a habit of prayer, reflection, honest self-appraisal, and regular confession, we can replace the bad habits with the good habits of a Christian disciple.
If we do this, we will be able to see the beam in our own eye, and we can pluck it out in the confessional. It is only then that we will be effective messengers of the good news that all our brothers and sisters desperately want to hear. If we have been living a life of personal prayer, and communal prayer, and taking advantage of the sacraments on a regular basis, then when it comes time for us to open our mouths and share the good news, it is very likely that we are only confirming verbally what we had been communicating nonverbally. Our cover will match our insides, our fruit will be good fruit.
If we do not enter into a life of prayer and the sacraments, then when we open our mouths to share the good news it will likely fall on deaf ears, because our insides have slipped from behind the book’s cover, and our fruit from our tree isn’t as sweet as it should be. Jesus explains, “it is from the fullness of the heart that the mouth speaks.”
If we spend most of our time tending to the beam in our own eye rather than to the splinter in another’s eye, and if we grow more intimate with our God through personal prayer and spiritual reading, we will likely bear good fruit. If the inside grows in holiness, we can be more confident when we speak from the heart, for our hearts will be full. The fruit from our heart will be the holy fruit of a true disciple of Christ, one who has cultivated a relationship with our Lord and one who has pruned away the things that separate him from God.