The last few plums just fell from our plum tree.
A few years ago, when we first moved to our current home, we realized we had not one but two plum trees planted by a previous owner. I couldn’t get over the fact that we had our own fruit, provided by our very own yard. The trees were already there, already mature; all we had to do was remember to water them. The boys and I couldn’t have been more excited about those first few plums. We gathered them carefully and carried them into the house, stacking them gently on the counter. I would eat them over the kitchen sink, biting into the firm reddish-purple skin and letting the plum juice run down my chin.
We were plum hoarders those first few years, especially of those precious early plums, the first fruits of our yard, if not exactly of our labor. The pile of plums on the counter grew larger and larger, and still the trees produced more. We couldn’t eat nearly enough. I pureed and froze some into baby food cubes, but I was still left with way too many. (Not a lot of recipes call for plums., I discovered.) By the time I figured out that we really needed to give some (lots!) away, their skin was softening and puckering and growing a deep dark purple, and they didn’t seem like much of a gift. Those first couple of years, we threw many away.
I decided this year we wouldn’t make the same mistake. We would give away the fruit while it was still fresh from the trees. Then over the winter one of the trees died, losing the underground water battle to the roots of the other, stronger tree, so now we only had one.
The very first day that tree’s fruit was ripe was the day of the elementary school farmer’s market fundraiser, so my older son gathered up all the first plums and we took them to school. It felt great to give them the first tiny, perfect plums. So we kept giving more away–to the kids’ teachers, to friends, basically to anyone we thought might like plums. We still had more than enough to eat over the kitchen sink.
Even though with just one tree we had less fruit, and even thought we gave baskets and baskets away, we still had more then we needed. Plus I felt a lot better without a pile of rotting fruit on my countertop.
I always think of our tree when I read a mention of “first fruits” in the Bible, and how giving plums away somehow makes me feel like I have more. The Bible tells us that the Israelites were to bring the choicest and best of the first fruits of their harvest into the house of the Lord (Exodus 23:19, 34:22, etc.).
These offerings had the practical benefit of feeding the priests, but they also conveyed clear spiritual and material benefits onto the person who offered them. I like what Proverbs 3:9 has to say about this practice: “Honor the LORD with your substance / and with the first fruits of all your produce; / then your barns will be filled with plenty, / and your vats will be bursting with wine.”
What a non-intuitive truth. There’s something about giving that results in our having, or at least feeling that we have, more. Scholar Walter Brueggemann refers to this phenomenon as the theology of abundance. When we act with generosity, expecting that more will be provided, God provides.
I believe the concept of offering our first fruits to God was and is important for at least a couple of main reasons.
1) God deserves our best. The first fruits were the best of the harvest, so they belonged to God. Those of us who don’t have a harvest to offer God can offer God prayer when we are at our best rather than in the scraps and remnants of our day. I have recognized that I am more fresh and awake than in the early morning, so I try to pray then. I’m also thinking of trying Henri Nouwen’s suggestion of scheduling time with God on the calendar. Not only can I be sure then to make it prime time, but I also hope such overt scheduling would help me to prioritize prayer the way I want to.
2) Everything we have is God’s anyway. Offering our first fruits to God, even symbolically, just helps us recognize this truth and to be grateful for all that God has given us. This is the origin of the tithe, the offering back to God a portion of the wealth God has granted us.
These biblical words about first fruits are found among so many other gardening and growing analogies in the Bible–no wonder, written as it was in a more agrarian time. I look forward one day to more time spent gardening as a spiritual practice, so I can better understand the immense care involved in producing healthy, hardy plants from seeds or baby plants.
For now, however, the only “gardening” I’m managing is aimed at producing healthy, hardy boys. Taking care with the soil they are planted in, nourishing their bodies and their souls, giving them time and love and attention. This too is biblical. After all, the very first mention of “first fruits” in the Bible is of Jacob calling Reuben, his firstborn son, the “first fruits of his vigor” (Gen 49:3, NRSV). I often feel as though my boys are my first fruits, the best I have to offer, and so of course it makes sense to think of dedicating them to God.
Somebody else planted our plum trees, but I get to enjoy their fruit. Someday too my boys will go into the world and their lives, the fruit they produce, will be for God and the larger world, not just for me and our family. I fear I will be selfish about this, wanting to keep them for myself. I will need to remember the idea of abundance, to be reminded that they are God’s, not mine. And I hope they remember to offer their first fruits, their best, to God.