Most of us are familiar with the term "freeloader": a person who takes and takes but makes little or no effort to give anything back. If you go to lunch with a freeloader, you can be sure he will forget to bring any money.
You and I do not enjoy the company of a freeloader, and most of us don't want to be one.
There is a gospel in which Jesus told a story about this behavior. But the freeloader in this instance is not a person; it is a fig tree. The tree draws strength and sustenance from the soil, but it never gives anything back. It never produces any figs.
Of course, we know that Jesus was not concerned about fruitless fig trees. His concern was people who take without giving. It troubled him to see people do bad things. But it troubled him just as much to see people who did nothing.
The fig tree in the story did not produce rotten fruit; that would have been ample reason to condemn the tree and order that it be cut down. But Jesus condemned the tree for producing nothing. I wonder if we realize how closely this accords with his thinking.
You recall that he once told a story about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Along the way, that man was assaulted by a band of thieves. They hit him and robbed him and left him beside the road half dead. We call that story the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The reason he told it was not to so much condemn thieves and robbers; he was opposed to their profession. In this story, rather, Jesus took dead aim at a priest and a Levi who saw the wounded man but passed by and did nothing.
Few things are more wrong than seeing a need and making no attempt to meet it. In the eyes of Jesus, it was wrong not to care. It was wrong not to work. It was wrong not to give. It was wrong not to help.
That is why the land owner ordered the fig tree cut down: it was non-productive. It did nothing.
The owner said, "Three years I have come seeking fruit from this tree and found none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?" A death sentence was imposed on the tree with the crime of uselessness.
It is exceedingly wasteful to do nothing. This is one of the basic laws of life. We either use what we have or we lose it. This law applies in almost every area of living.
It is true physically. Suppose that you were to bind your right arm to your body. You wrap it so tightly that you cannot use it, or even lift it. And suppose you leave it there for six weeks. For a month and a half, your arm endures an imposed period of idleness. Then you unwrap the arm and set it free.
At that point, you would probably be unable to lift your arm. If the use of your arm is not lost, it would certainly be impaired. Our muscles are not made to lie dormant; they are made for movement. If we do not use them, we will seriously damage our ability to use them.
This law applies domestically. Across the years, I have seen a number of marriages break down. A few have fallen apart due to abusive behavior. The husband or wife takes up the habit of verbal abuse, which can turn into physical abuse. They separate because they cannot tolerate one another's behavior. They no longer say "please" or "thank you." They drop the common courtesies that keep community life civilized. They no longer celebrate anniversaries or birthdays. Little by little, by simply doing nothing, they destroy their marriage.
Parents can do the same thing to their children. It isn't necessary for them to hit or aggressively abuse their children in any way. All one has to do is leave them alone, and pay no attention to them. Don't know where they are going at night or when they come home. Don't know who their friends are, and don't care.
Doing nothing is one of the most wasteful luxuries that anyone can indulge. Life is not a free ride. We have an obligation in life to give at least as much as we take. All of us must take care, lest we slip into the subtle sin of doing nothing. Let us not be "freeloaders."
Msgr. Frank C. Wissel, D.Min., is pastor at St. Mary Church in Greenwich and the founding director of the St. Maximilian Kolbe House of Studies for boys in Bridgeport. You can reach him at 203-869-9393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.