During Holy Week and the weeks of the Paschal season, we’ll turn the pages of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition to probe some of the stewardship themes brought to us by the Church. Because this time is so intensive – it’s impossible for to explore in depth the multitude of these themes, hence this endeavor to reflect up on them to ascertain their context and spiritual meaning.
The spiritual intensity builds with each day, each service held during Holy Week. In short, the Church as the voice of Christ, casts down the gauntlet to His followers to imitate Him in every way, as He has commanded. The sayings and teachings, the metaphors, examples and especially the actions of the Master become the template for life for the Christian. The Suffering Servant invites His followers to suffer and to serve, and to suffer through service. He gives us spiritual food and spiritual warnings – exemplified most perfectly in the bitter dichotomy of rejection of Judas of that which was Most Precious, for that which is worldly, in thirty pieces of silver which he would hold for mere minutes – just as Adam would taste the fruit of destruction but for a moment, before it destroyed him.
Great and Holy Monday – The Cursed Fig Tree (Mt. 21:18ff)
As the glory of the Entrance into Jerusalem recedes during Holy Week, we see Christ magnifying the terse contrast of the emerging Kingdom with the decayed state of the Judaism as it was practiced by its spiritual leaders (the Pharisees and the Sadducees). This state of decay was made clearl by the curse of the fig tree – in a strange but powerful miracle that points to the spiritual withering of Judaism, and the eventual Roman conquest politically. (Mk. 11:12ff, Mt. 21:18ff, Lk. 13:6ff). In Matthew and Mark, this story is reported as taking place during that period immediately before the Crucifixion of the Lord, and tied to the opposition of the Chief priests and scribes who were complicit in His death. This connection to the ‘death’ of their reign as spiritual leaders of a fruitless generation, is central to first level of meaning in the event. Indeed, the bearing for fruit was needful, otherwise the tree is worthless.
How and, more importantly, why does this speak to the Christian Church about stewardship today?
Well, first, we must recognize the obvious here, that this has nothing to do with stewardship as financial management. Rather it points to the deeper reality of stewardship – as the careful nurturing of the spiritual life. This stewardship nurturing was necessary not only in the Jewish people, who were the great spiritual heirs and recipients of the Covenantal relationship with the Lord entrusted to them as a people. It was more than a ‘spiritual heritage’, but a living relationship with God Himself – but they had reduced this to religious practices and human traditions. As recipients of the spiritual relationship of the New Covenant in Christ, this warning needs to be important to us as well.
This Lord’s Covenant with the Hebrews through Moses was privileged and distinctive, but needed to bear fruit. In decrying the behavior of the Chief priests and scribes, he insists that it’s not the Law or even their teaching that is at fault. Rather it is their behavior – which instead of a spiritually flowering and fruitful life, had become dead – and this death, like a disease, would propagate to others. So the internal spiritual state of the leaders was taking the entirety of the Jewish nation and people down with them. In other words, by failing to properly live the spiritual life through the righteous observance of the Law themselves, they not only failed to lead others to righteousness, but became themselves a stumbling block to anyone who did. Jesus spares no words in condemning them for how they corrupted the proselytes they brought into their religious system and made them. With rapid-fire imagery in Matthew 23, He brings righteous condemnation to their failures, all the while inviting those who would hear Him to a change of mind and heart – in a word, repentance. Two of these leaders would hear these words and take them to heart – and so we will find Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea at the foot of Cross.
Bearing Spiritual Fruit
So we see that our stewardship of our spiritual life must be of prime importance. This begins with our selves – and indeed, the greatest condemnation for the Pharisees and scribes was over their arrogant hypocrisy – laying heavy spiritual burdens on others (disciples) while not following the Law themselves. Taking this to heart, our spiritual right to lead others only goes as far as our own practice (praxis) of the Faith. This means taking the teachings of Jesus to heart and stewarding our lifestyle in the ways of simplicity of life and humble service of others that are hallmarks of the way of Jesus. This may (and must) begin in the heart, but in the end it must be lived out in faithfulness to Christ, His people, and His commandments.
Failing this, like the fig tree condemned, no spiritual fruit will be born, at least none that matures and brings sweetness, nourishment and life to people. It is not sufficient to have ‘green leaves’ and look the part, without bearing fruit. In His teachings about ‘pruning the vine’ (Jn. 15) and ‘fertilizing the fig tree’ (Lk. 13:8) we are assured that God will provide every blessing, and every opportunity to bear fruit spiritually. But failing this, the fruitless fig is destined to wither, death and destruction.
This story is frightening and it should be. We must be fruit in our spiritual life – which is then manifest in our lives in practical, visible ways. What does this fruit look like? There are many varieties of fig – and there are many ways to bear fruit in the Kingdom! The good tree will bear good fruit. The fruit is the fruit of righteousness – which is, put simply love of God and love of neighbor. When this spiritual fruit is visibly maturing, we are manifesting the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal. 5) We are doing the ‘labor of love’ for the Lord in our Churches, and our Churches are alive, with a pulsating spirit of love, mercy, generosity and fellowship. We are working out our salvation and something rich and life-giving is emerging.
Parish Stewardship – Fruitful or Not
Parishes that are alive in Christ exercise Christian stewardship by the fruits it bears. These are communities which are hospitable and receive many blessings by God to foster its life and work. These communities are true communities, formed and sustained by real relationships (spiritual and friendship) – founded in a living relationship with Christ. But these relationships go beyond the walls of the parish itself and reach deeply into the communities that surround them. These are relationships of care, service, and humility that lead to a sharing of the good news of Christ in evangelization, through love, not pressure. To quote the old song, these churches are known they are Christian by their love.
Parishes that don’t take spiritual stewardship seriously will die. It’s that simple. They produce no fruit and will be cut down. The Lord has provided every opportunity for growth – and no grace spared – that the spiritual fruits of maturity might be harvested. In some cases, the fruit may be born – but never matures, ripens or nourishes. It’s full of potential that’s never realized. These communities are not communities of love, but no different from the example of the Jewish state of affairs above. Their life is waning – it will fade and vanish. We cannot ever judge the spiritual state of any community – but we must beg the Master to sustain our life – or in some cases, resurrect the life He planted within His Church.
As with any living plant, sustaining water and food are necessary and it’s no different with the spiritual life. There is no stewardship in practice unless there is health in the soul which is the soil from which the visible life emerges. The sustaining grace present in the Holy Mysteries, prayer, spiritual reading, fellowship are not optional – they bring us life. In some cases, as in the passage in Luke 13, there is special care needed – counseling, penance, asceticism – but with these comes restoration, health and ‘production’.
This general theme – stewardship of the spiritual treasure – will be repeated in many different forms. We all will do well, not only during Holy Week, to open our minds to the deep, life-giving gift of our Orthodox Faith, the pulse of life in our souls. How well are we fostering this life – not only individually – but as families of Faith and parishes that bear fruit for the salvation of the world. These chapters all point to that final reckoning, when the Master will bring forth His judgment upon us – and whether or not there was not only life, but fruit in abundance for the Life of the world.