When I was very small, two or three years old perhaps, my mother would put me in a play pen on the back lawn, under a tree, and give me sweet slices of fresh peach. As I grew up, she always tried to have a ripe white peach from the garden for me on my birthday in early May in southern California. Peaches are still my favorite fruit. And my earliest memory is of sun through leaves, of that sweet moment of anticipation.
The Bible begins and ends with fruit. Eve sees the fruit, and it is “good for eating… a delight to the eyes… desirable to contemplate.” She took it and ate and gave it to her husband and he ate—and their eyes were opened. And so, the story begins.
And the final chapter, in Revelation, shows us “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month….”
Forbidden fruit… fruits of the tree of life…. Fruit represents desire and pleasure and joy—and life itself. In Perelandra, the brilliant second book of his space trilogy, C.S. Lewis uses fruit as part of his narrative about trust in God. The fruit on the planet Venus is “like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures… intense and almost spiritual…” (42). Some are yellow gourds, with thick rinds but full of sweet juices. Others are oval green berries, “dryish and bread-like… plain food....” But “every now and then one struck a berry which had a bright red centre: and these were… savoury, …memorable among a thousand tastes…” (49-50). The Lady, the Eve of that world, sees the fruit as metaphors for God’s gifts, pleasures that are always new. “Every joy is beyond all others. The fruit we are eating is always the best fruit of all” (83).
I have been writing this in my garden. Bees and butterflies—buckeyes and skippers and swallowtails—are busy gathering nectar from the morning glories and nasturtiums. Peaches and figs are ripening; a few days ago, I picked a perfect watermelon, about the size of a basketball, dark green with variegated stripes outside, red and juicy and crisp inside. Surely the best watermelon of all.
We understand the concept of fruit as temptation and gift, as pleasure and delight. We eat God’s fruit with thankfulness. We understand Eve; we long for the New Jerusalem. It is our story.
But this week’s lesson is about fruit of a different sort. Fruit of the Spirit. Not fruit for us to eat, but rather fruit for us to be: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Why does Paul choose the metaphor of fruit for these qualities? I wondered if perhaps the metaphor was in English only, and the Greek was actually something more literal, like “results” or “products.” He uses the word “works” just a few verses earlier: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious” (v. 19). He might have made the contrast even stronger: “But the works of the Spirit…” But of course, we’ve all heard the sermons. Fruit grows naturally… we don’t “work” at love and gentleness, they come on their own by the Spirit. And fruit is singular—it’s a package deal. We don’t focus on growing joy and after that patience. They grow together.
I like it. But there’s something about fruit, something more… I decided to look it up. It turns out the word is “karpos.” According to Wikipedia, Provider of All Knowledge, Karpos was “a youth renowned for his beauty…. the son of Zephyrus (the west wind) and Khloris (spring, or new vegetation), forming a natural metaphor — the west wind heralds the new growth of spring, which then bears fruit.”
Nice story, but I’m not sure it gets us anywhere. I kept researching. The online Biblical Greek Dictionary told me that the words “harvest” and “yield,” even “yield on investment” get us closer to the meaning of karpos. Even children can be “karpos,” the fruit of our bodies.
The Spirit produces this harvest in us; the Spirit works in us, and we yield a harvest of peace and joy, generosity and self-control. Interestingly, this site insists that “fruit” is not a metaphor at all: “…that's an auto-centric mistake. Our word is an economic term that denotes the return of an endeavor: anything that comes about after an initial investment and subsequent effort, and that includes apples, corn, children and: deeds or works, results or effects….” God invests in us through the Spirit, and we are the harvest.
Finally, we learn that the noun karpos “corresponds to the Latin verb carpo, from whence we have the familiar aphorism carpe diem, or pluck the day.” And we all know what “carpe diem” means: it means live life today, be grateful for this, now: this weather, these people, this work, this geranium, this sandwich, this nectarine.
And so, we come full circle, back to the sweet pleasures of ripe fruit, the beauty of the garden of Eden and the Tree of Life whose leaves heal the nations. Only this time we are that fruit. The Spirit works in us, and we yield fruits that please God, a harvest of righteousness. The peaches of love; the figs of peace; the watermelons of generosity.
Fox, Evertt, translator. The Five Books of Moses.
The Harper Collins Study Bible
Lewis, C.S. Perelandra. New York: Macmillan, 1944.
The Online Biblical Greek Dictionary.http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Carpus.html#.WX0Sp4qQxsM
Nancy Lecourt is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Administration at Pacific Union College.
Image Credit: Nancy Lecourt
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