Growing up, fruit was often the core component of dessert after our meals. My grandmother tended a wonderful orchard, full of luscious delights — crisp, sweet apples; juicy pears, plump cherries, amazing berries, grapes swelled to bursting. We supplemented Midwestern fare with citrus fruits and bananas. Fruit was a sweet treat that took the place of cakes and candy (though it promoted pie to primary prominence). Whenever I hear the metaphor of fruit from scripture – especially as used by Jesus and Paul, my mind takes me immediately to the bountiful fruit of my youth and it fills me with nostalgic joy and hope. However, as with many house rules, the path to dessert always ran through the somber and difficult terrain of the vegetable. “You can’t have dessert until you finish your vegetables,” was spoken in my home no less than 24,357,615 times. I am not sure any other phrase was declared more often. No one ever had to talk me into eating fruit, but vegetables were a different matter. It made little difference how “good for me” vegetables were, I enjoyed but few — corn (almost as sweet and juicy as the finest fruit), asparagus, crisp lettuce, snap peas, and cauliflower. I could gag down a raw carrot or two, but never cooked. Brocoli seemed (then and less so now) like a bad idea. Popeye could keep his spinach. Brussels sprouts? Zucchini & squash were unpalatable then (though I have grown to enjoy both). No, most vegetables were a challenge, and those I disliked ever seemed to outnumber those I liked. It is no wonder that our scriptures never refer to the “vegetables of the Spirit.”
But, what would the vegetables of the Spirit be? I speculate here – let’s pretend we discovered Paul’s lost letter to the church at Cappadocia — and read what Paul might have written:
Certainly, brothers and sisters, we all seek the fruit of the Spirit; to live in a world of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, but we cannot enjoy the fruits without first suffering the vegetables. As children we indulged ourselves in treats, ignoring that which is necessary to keep us strong and healthy in favor of that which is sweet, but will give us a bellyache if we indulge too much. No, our Father who knows what is good for us gives us the important, which is often not sweet or good tasting, so that we might thoroughly enjoy the good, which fills us with delight. Mature Christians, brothers and sisters, live a balanced diet, producing both the fruits and the vegetables of the Spirit.
Now the vegetables of the Spirit are these: duty, commitment, justice, perseverance, mercy, sacrifice, compassion, tolerance, and accountability. By these things you will be known as people who have truly given themselves to God. The more you attend to these things, the quicker you will come to enjoy the fruits that accompany them. So deny not these vegetables, but produce them in equal measure to the fruits. (Cappadocians 4:13-17)
Fruits were always easy to swallow — many vegetables were difficult to choke down. Fruits were good; many vegetables simply necessary or required. Fruits – positive; vegetables – negative. Fruits – benefits; vegetables – costs. Talk to any kid. At least nine-out-of-ten of them will concur. And yet, they ARE good for us. We DO need them for good health. They do end up making the sweet sweeter, if for no other reason than the fruits erase the icky taste of the vegetable.
Duty — doing that which is right and necessary, not because we want to, but because it is our responsibility. There is much in our life of faith that isn’t fun or fulfilling, but it is required nonetheless. Without a sense of duty, we become complacent consumers, not disciples. Without a sense of responsibility we are more than happy to leave the work of Christ to someone else. Why should we bother? Someone else can do it for us.
Commitment — a level of caring that gets us up off our butts and out of our comfort zones to do the unpleasant and difficult jobs as well as those we like and enjoy. Being the body of Christ is not all about basking in the warm glow of the Spirit. We will get our hands dirty, our legs and back aching, and our psyche scrubbed. True Christianity is WORK. Sticking with it and doing it well means we will need to make it a priority and give up some other things — things we might enjoy more — in order to serve and please God. (And one hour every few weeks probably doesn’t count as commitment…)
Justice — the dawning realization that our faith isn’t all about us and that Jesus was actually serious about caring for the poor and marginalized and those whom the system crushes and disadvantages. We might have to grant a higher premium to being “fair,” than to being “right.” We might learn that it is not only more blessed to give than to receive, but it is expected. To do right is more valued than being righteous. To care more for another — whether he or she deserves it or not — may be our highest goal and greatest challenge.
Perseverance — sticking with the difficult tasks regardless of whether we like them, are affirmed by them, or desire them. Disciples never retire and they don’t look for the next generation to come along and relieve them. They don’t cut their losses, give up, or take their ball and go home. Disciples strive to find solutions, build bridges, repair broken systems and heal broken relationships. Not everything in the disciples job description is fun or easy.
Mercy — giving people what God wants rather than what they deserve. Discerning the difference between consequences and punishment; accountability and judgment; correction and vengeance. Allowing that each person is a valuable creation of God and that were the situation and our roles reversed, we would hope for every benefit of the doubt and measure of forgiveness. To operate by grace rather than law is truly countercultural and counterintuitive.
Sacrifice — giving instead of getting is anathema to most human beings. To let go — of possessions, principles, pride, power, position or popularity — offends every sensibility of our human nature. We want, we desire, we need — we are the center of the collective universe and to do without, to relinquish, to self-deny is crazy. Sacrifice moves us from the center and God’s will to the center. It reorients our entire life from receiving to giving, from hoarding to sharing, from comfort to true community.
Compassion — that level of empathetic connection that moves us into relationship with those in greatest need. We no longer decide who to help, but how to help all in need. We are motivated to go where the need is, to work alongside those in distress, and to offer aid and comfort wherever and whenever possible. Hunger, thirst, disease, emotional distress, displacement, homelessness, mental illness and economic injustice become our sworn enemies, and we rest only when each and every one is eliminated (i.e., never).
Tolerance — more than merely putting up with those we dislike or with whom we disagree, tolerance creates an environment where we strive to coexist, collaborate, and cooperate beyond our differences. Tolerance says that we will accept one another in our respective brokenness and disconnection, working to bridge differences and focus on common aims. To tolerate is to not merely allow another to be present, but to seek rapport with shared values and vision. We agree to disagree; we allow everyone the right to even be wrong; and, we acknowledge that “different” doesn’t mean “bad.”
Accountability — holding one another faithfully to the promises we make to God and one another, accepting that all actions — positive and negative — have consequences and that we must live with the decisions we make. Reward and punishment are a part of life — receiving accolades when we perform well, approval when we do as we have promised, and paying the price when we fail to perform well or perform badly. The pathway to Christian growth and development means we must do what we say, and if there are no consequences to breaking promises, failing to uphold vows, or ignoring commitments, we will never become who God calls us to be.
Vegetables rarely have the same appeal as fruits, yet they are every bit as important, nutritious, and necessary. Yes, we will be known by the fruit we bear — but what about the vegetables? How might our faith communities change were we to become a bit more vegetarian in our spiritual formation? May we make sure we clear the plate, giving as much attention to the veggies as we do the fruits (and the meat and grains and poultry and fish), and maintain a more balanced diet in our Christian living.