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Saturday, July 18th, 2020

‘Quem ergo fructum?’: a Homily for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

What fruit therefore had you then in those things of which you are now ashamed (Romans 6, 21)?

 

A fine question. And indeed what ought to be abundantly clear to each of us is the fruitlessness of sin. It is a dead-end; in the last analysis, sin doesn’t get us anything. And it is impossible that it should. In this way, then, St Paul’s question is purely rhetorical. What fruit had you?—None. Please God, most Catholics who practice are, at one level or another, already convinced about the basic imperative to avoid sin. At very least this necessity is put before us each Lent—the need to discover one’s sins and to begin to root them out under the action of divine grace.

However, both the epistle and gospel of today’s Holy Mass use the word fruit; that is, fructum. A fruit is a product; it comes about as the result of some act or set of conditions. But a fruit is more than simply a neutral effect: a fruit implies enjoyment, even profit or reward. Put in another way, a fruit is a thing that not only happens, but a thing you get. Both St Paul and our Lord use the word in this, its most natural sense. The fruit is good or bad depending upon the work or the plant that bears it.

To be clear, we are not dealing with an expression of consequentialist ethics: as if to say, that the goodness or the badness of an action is determined by what the result or fruit happens to be. No, indeed. A bad or good fruit points to an already good or bad plant; the fruit is simply a natural and logical consequence of the pre-existing goodness or badness. And this is an important point for our understanding of the moral life in general. St Paul is getting at this very thing in today’s epistle. Sin has the effect of making us miserable and ashamed; but that misery and shame does not make the sin to be a sin. The quality of a moral act comes first, its consequences second; the plant comes first, the fruit second.

Thus, a fruit is a kind of signpost. And this is the way our Blessed Lord uses the word in the Gospel. The fruits of this or that prophet will act as signposts about the nature of his interior life, namely, whether he be false or true. There follows the well-known image of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. (One thinks of the old Latin proverb: Lupus pilum mutat non mentem; ‘the wolf changes his fur, not his mind.’) In saying all this, our Lord introduces us to part of the logic of the interior life: a good tree cannot but produce good fruit; likewise an evil tree can only produce evil fruit. A consoling truth is concealed here. The Catholic should never be anxious about producing good fruits; they will happen. Frequenting the Sacraments while loving God and neighbor: this process will of itself produce good fruit, under the action of the Holy Ghost. So there is no place for worry or self-preoccupation about one’s fruits: if the soul is good, fruits will come, at God’s choosing.

At this point we could easily digress into a discussion about the sin of rash judgement, a great temptation for us during times of ecclesiastical trouble. But we will save that for another day. Suffice it to say for now, however, our Lord would have us judge fruits. Twice he says, a fructibus cognoscetis eos; ‘by way of their fruits you shall know them.'[1] Here, Our Lord gives us enough for us to get by in the spiritual life, for our own safety and for those for whom we are responsible. It is enough for us to make judgements about fruits, while reserving further judgement of souls to God.

Instead, however, we do well to return to the epistle and St Paul’s question about the fruits of sin. In fact, in the verse I have taken for our text, the Apostle does not refer to sin directly; but rather, with both power and discretion he refers to ‘those things of which you are now ashamed;’ in quibus nunc erubescitis. ‘What fruit did you have from these things?’ he asks. As we said earlier, on one level, we know the answer ought to be None; we have no fruits from our sin. Or, as St Paul will later say, death is the only wage or fruit of sin. But can we say more? According to St Francis de Sales, indeed we may:

The scorpion which has stung us is poisonous when it stings us, but when it is made into an oil it is an excellent remedy against its own sting; sin is shameful when we commit it, but when it is changed into confession and repentance, it is honourable and salutary.[2]

Words we should like to have carved in gold above the door of every confessional. And we may certainly discern the same truth in St Paul when he writes (a little later in today’s epistle), ‘But now, being made free from sin, and become servants of God, you have your fruit unto sanctification.’

Negotiating the shame of past sins is a serious matter for the spiritual life. But St Francis de Sales points out the way to not allow shame to get the last word:

Contrition and confession are so beautiful and sweet-smelling, that they efface the ugliness and dissipate the stench of sin. Simon the leper said that Mary Magdalen was a sinner; but our Lord said, no, and spoke only of the sweet perfumes which she poured out, and of the greatness of her charity.[3]

Thus we reach our conclusion, and can give an additional answer to St Paul’s question about the fruits of shame. Repentance and confession are not simply legal proceedings, as some seem to believe. Instead, they heal. Therefore, there is nothing more illogical than an unkind confessor. For when a truly repentant soul kneels to receive the Sacrament of Penance, she is precisely where she needs to be. Confession is the place to bring our sins and shame, so that, as St Francis de Sales teaches, they may be transformed into something else. Repentance and absolution is the only place where sin is eradicated, and our very shame can bear good fruit.[4]

 


[1] Interesting to note that verse 20 uses the preposition ex—’out of their fruits you shall know them’—while verse 16 uses a: ‘by way of their fruits you shall know them.’ The general sense is not altered by the difference, and the Greek text is not in front of the writer at the moment. But as usual, even the smallest differences are worthy of our attention.

[2] The Introduction to the Devout Life, trans Allan Ross, (London: Baronius Press, 2019), p 39.

[3] Ibid.

[4] It should be said that there is great healing power to frequent Eucharistic Adoration. That is a homily for another time, and it would complete the picture of what has been said here. Yet it remains, when it comes to the proper effect of the Sacraments, Penance is the necessary gateway, whereas the Blessed Eucharist continues the healing process begun in Penance.

{Art Credit: detail, John Singer Sargent, The Confession, 1914}

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