The game of statistics is one of the favourite toys of politicians. Statistical data is used by the opposition to expose a government’s shortcomings or downright failures. A government uses statistical data to demonstrate its efficiency in dealing with economic and social challenges. Funnily enough, sometimes both the opposition and the government use the same set of data to support their respective but mutually contradictory views. No wonder that a saying was coined, allegedly by Benjamin Disraeli: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ When I walk my dog, statistically each one of us has three legs…! And yet, statistics is a powerful instrument, used for making assessments, analysis, and so on. One of those uses is the verification of whether the intended goals have been reached, or sufficient progress has been made to meet them. When we look a bit closer, we see that our modern Western world has been built on such an approach.
Religion seems to be one of those human activities that remains free of a similar effects-driven attitude. The ultimate goal of Christianity – the afterlife – seems to be sufficiently vague and unverifiable that – in effect – very few bother to think about it. Before we face that ultimate destination, there are similarly vague intermediate goals to be met along the way. In our Catholic tradition we have a series of milestones; chronologically these are Christening, First Communion, Confirmation, Wedding, and Funeral. The further we go down that route, the less popular the next milestone becomes. The final one – the funeral – is the one that understandably nobody really wants to reach. Yet, although we can produce some statistical data regarding those milestones, they don’t really give us any genuine measurement of faith. More often than not, those sacramental milestones are requested out of tradition, or even superstition, rather than out of faith. Maybe spirituality should remain unverifiable…
And yet, in the concluding line of today’s gospel, Jesus demands that his followers achieve something specific: ‘The kingdom of God will be […] given to a people who will produce its fruit.’ It must be pointed out that he withdraws the right to inherit the aforementioned kingdom from those who considered themselves to be worthy of it, namely the religious Jews, because they didn’t produce the right sort of fruit. It means that the outcome of religious or spiritual life can actually be assessed and subsequently can be deemed correct or not. In that case, what is that right sort of fruit, required by Jesus?
St Paul described it in his Letter to the Galatians: ‘the fruit that the Spirit produces in a person’s life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (5:22-23). It’s a set of interwoven attitudes that an individual develops over the course of his or her life according to the ever-changing circumstances, as we grow, mature, meet new people and come across new situations. Such development presents a constant, life-long challenge. You yourself are not expected to be perfectly aligned with them right now: nobody is perfect. You are expected, rather, to make the effort to grow and mature in these qualities. It’s not always easy; it’s often rather difficult; and sometimes it’s nearly impossible. That’s where faith comes into its own. As St Paul mentioned, the development of those qualities is the result of the Holy Spirit working in us much more than our own efforts. Personal prayer, attending Mass and receiving Communion, making Confession and any other religious activities are the means by which the Spirit works in us, not the goals for which to aim.
At the conclusion of today’s gospel, Jesus advanced this rather strange notion: ‘A people who will produce its fruit.’ The phrase itself refers to a community, not to an individual. Religion is always personal, but it’s never individual. You can’t develop ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ individually, disconnected from others. These qualities all relate to our relationships with other people, and can be developed only when we interact with them. I don’t know much about the kingdom of God, our ultimate goal. But it certainly isn’t built as a block of flats, with each one separated from the other. You’d better get used to having others around you this side of eternity.
Photo by geralt