The parable of the apple tree
This summer I enjoyed an entertaining little incident. I am making bold to recount it to you as we know each other well enough now. I had to prepare a sermon for the wedding of two divorcees. This is no easy task, but the most difficult aspect was the text I was asked to preach on, Colossians 3:12–15, with the astonishing phrase, “above all, clothe yourselves with love.”
The verb used compares love to a garment. How disappointed I felt; is love so superficial and so much a matter for show that it can be compared to a costume that can be changed with the changing day? I went out, under this cloud of disappointment, and sat beneath an apple tree at the back of my house to reflect on this strange verse. Suddenly I felt the touch of a branch on my shoulder. The apple tree under which I was sitting then spoke to me. It said, “I’m going to explain to you what love is and why it is that this verb ‘clothe yourself’ is used. There is a comparison here, but it is not a comparison taken from the world of men but from we apple trees. Apple trees, you know, clothe ourselves firstly with leaves, in the spring, and over them we put on the apples. Believe me, it takes time to get dressed like this. Slowly, peeping through the leaves they come, not appreciably from morning to morning, but little by little; there is nothing superficial, and it is the best or ourselves; it is a part of ourselves; to tell the truth it is our true activity; it is the only thing we do: we clothe ourselves with apples. I think that for you humans the same applies when it comes to love, and this is what Paul was saying — ‘clothe yourselves with love above everything else.’”
I was amazed by the words of the apple tree; it had understood everything about the verse and all about love! Then the tree added, “Have you noticed the way apples have no resemblance to the trees? Nevertheless, it is certainly we trees who make them! No resemblance at all! In winter we are rather dismal to look at, dried up and sad, with nothing attractive about us. Even our wood is no good to work. You would never guess that apples could grow and ripen on such branches. As for the leaves, it’s just the same; they don’t seem to serve any use except to give a little shade. Looking at them you wouldn’t think they lay alongside such beautiful fruit! As you see, the beautiful apples are nothing like us, yet they are ours. Well, allow me to say that the same applies to people! Disappointing as they may be, so dried up and sad, so useless and such an encumbrance, people are nonetheless able to clothe themselves with love! What could be more beautiful than love! What a poor creature is man! But how wonderful to think that they are able to love!”
I agreed completely, amazed to hear such things! After a silence which the apple tree left me in which to reply and seeing that I wasn’t responding, the tree asked if it could continue. “Yes, indeed!” I said, thinking of the wedding sermon he was delivering on my behalf!
“You people,” said the tree, “you have so many extraordinary abilities but you have never yet managed to make artificial apples. Only we apple trees are able to produce apples. You can find better wood than ours, and finer leaves on other trees, but when it comes to apples . . . ! This is the reason for our existence. God made us for this. If we don’t produce apples, who will? Well, my dear fellow, the same applies to you. Man is the only creature in the world who is able to love; it is his reason to exist. However hard you try I am sure that you will never manage to invent artificial love! And if you don’t love, who will love in your place? Where will God find love if you don’t clothe yourselves with it? Think carefully about it: isn’t this the only thing that Jesus asked of you? The only thing!”
I was dumbfounded to hear so many things from the tree. And since I was troubled at the thought of this fine tree giving me such a lesson, I replied, thinking to put him in his place with a little of his own history, “Tree, you are quite right; nevertheless, I find that if love is like your apples, then there is an element of pride here because with your apples you do rather push them to the fore; they don’t go unnoticed. Forgive me, but there is an issue of humility here!”
I felt that the tree then gave rather a blow to my status as moralizer. “It’s true,” he said, “that we show off our apples and that it is a little ostentatious. But the truth is that this pride is a fault of young trees. Look at that one over by the ditch; it has four apples, and that is enough for it to proudly stretch its branches into the sky as high as it can, saying ‘look at me.’ But look at the old tree behind it; it is so weighed down with apples that its branches hang in humility down towards the ground, and it does this the better to humbly offer its fruit to passers-by . . .”
“I understand,” I said to the tree, “say nothing more; I know that we are just the same; the less we love, the more we demonstrate ; it’s true. Tree, thank you, but before I go, I would like to pose you a question. How is that as we seek to give the best of ourselves, we bump into so many obstacles? How is that love can turn bad like a rotten fruit, to such a degree that couples separate?”
“That’s a big question, and I can only respond by telling you what I have experienced myself. I too have borne bad apples. It’s because the apple is a very vulnerable fruit. A rotten apple is a sick apple, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the tree is sick. An apple tree suffers when it has to be seen with spoilt fruit but doesn’t lose hope because of it. It knows that it will always be able to give further good fruit. No doubt this is true of you too. A particular love might become sick and spoilt, but this doesn’t have to mean the person with the rotten fruit is sick himself. It is always possible for him to love again, more humbly, but with all the more hope, having experienced what it is to have something go bad.”
I had enough for my sermon, and I was about to take my leave. I was plunged deep in reflection, but that doesn’t mean I forgot to warmly thank my friend, the tree. I had never been so grateful to an apple tree. But to stop my effusions, the tree said to me, in the same steady tone of a wise old sage, “Daniel, I do need to say one more thing to you. You will have noticed that an apple tree can produce hundreds of pounds of apples. Well, take careful note that an apple tree has never eaten so much as a single one of those apples. It is not fed by what it produces; the apples are all for people; the tree gives, and gives all that it has. What’s more, for it to give its fruit, there is no need to appeal to its good nature, to make any claim on it, or to speak to it in any way; it simply clothes itself with apples and that is enough. The apple tree attracts others to it simply because it is clothed in apples. See that you do likewise. Let your love be for others, and only for others. Don’t look to take anything from it for yourself. And then, don’t talk about it; it is unnecessary. If you love, people will come to you without you having to say a word.”
“I understand, my dear tree, but tell me something else, since you speak about nourishment. What do you feed on if it is not the apples?”
“On this point, I can’t tell you everything,” the tree replied. “Just know that my nourishment is given me in secret. I draw it up with the roots you cannot see, and it is needful for my roots to stay hidden; with them I draw my nourishment from the darkness of the earth, continually. Without this feeding I would never yield a single apple. Know too that my fruit comes from the source my roots draw on, and it is no doubt for this reason that they have no resemblance to me. That is enough, but you should realize too that it is the same with you people. All that is necessary for you to love is drawn from God in the secrecy of your prayer life. I have nothing more to say; apply yourself to prayer and you will be covered in fruit.”
I had enough for two sermons; I left full, overflowing with what the tree had given me.
As I left, I came across my cousin, who looks after the orchard. He had just been watering the trees. I looked for something or other to say to him, some story that would not reveal that I had just been conversing with one of his charges! He might have thought me a bit crazy.
“Tell me, Patrick, all this stuff grows on its own?”
“On its own — you must be joking! You’re a bit too much the intellectual, you are! If you knew the time it takes me to ensure the apple tree gives apples, the time spent pruning, watering, spraying . . . All the fruit you see is the result of hours and hours of labor, days of waiting and hoping; and, seeing you are a pastor, I can confess to you that I love my apple trees, and that is why they give such beautiful fruit.” And he said all this with a joyful light in his eyes.
“Bless you, Patrick, and thank you!” As I left I thought to myself: how much time does God need for a man to be able to give fruit, how many years of patience, labor, hope . . . and love?
Dear brother watchman, the apples will soon be ripe. I have a feeling that they will be particularly good this year. I will bring you some on my next visit; you can tell me what you think of them.
And may God keep you day by day.