On the first day of midwinter the child came home carrying a large orange, and his mother exclaimed and broke it open and shared the segments across the kitchen table. ‘Where did you find such an fruit in winter?’ she asked. The boy pointed into the forest.
On the second day of midwinter he arrived at the back door with a pomegranate the size of his head, which he had already torn open and was consuming in great mouthfuls. His mother snatched the fruit away and shared it across the table. ‘Where did you find a pomegranate in midwinter?’ The boy pointed into the forest.
On the third day the mother dragged the boy through the village by one hand, and from his other hand trailed an enormous cluster of grapes. At the elders’ house she plopped him on the ground and said: ‘Look at my son! The day before yesterday he arrives at the door with an orange. Yesterday he has a huge pomegranate. And today, these grapes! I have never seen grapes such as these grapes, and certainly never in the cold winter. When I ask where they came from he points to the forest, where the trees have been sleeping these past three months.’
The first elder addressed the boy. ‘From where came these fruits? Did you steal them?’ The boy, grape juice running down his chin, pointed to the forest.
The three elders and the mother followed the boy into the woods. He led them to the edge of the lake, where the trees were thick even in winter. In the densest part of the forest he paused, pulled aside a curtain of bushes, and motioned for the others to walk through.
Behind the wall of bushes the elders and the child’s mother found themselves standing on a grassy clearing under the canopy of an enormous tree. The tree was so thick and so huge that they had no notion of it’s height, but the lowermost branches stretched for fifty paces in every direction. Its trunk was as wide as a house. From every branch hung a different kind of fruit.
There were oranges, pomegranates and vines of grapes, but also mangoes, apples, thick green bananas, kiwis, limes, kumquats, clusters of berries. There were many, many fruits that the elders did not recognise. The boy took a stick from the ground and began swinging at a papaya. ‘Is this magic?’ asked his mother. The elders sent the woman and her son home, and stayed for many hours under the tree discussing its meaning. They also ate some fruit.
That night the entire village gathered under the tree and had an enormous party. ‘We do not know from where comes the tree,’ announced the head elder. ‘It may be a gift from God, it may be from nature. But it all tastes good, so enjoy it.’ The village cheered and began to harvest the fruit. For the next month they ate as they had never eaten in winter before. As they grew fat and healthy they began to notice that it did not matter how much fruit was picked, still more fruits would have appeared by the next morning. ‘It must be God’s gift,’ they said to one another. ‘It must be God’s tree.’
At the next village gathering it was suggested that the village begin to share the fruit with the village in the next valley. ‘We have so much, more than we can eat or store. We will bring fruit to our neighbours.’ Everyone agreed that this was a fine and honest suggestion, and the elders chose ten young men and women to fill ten baskets with an assortment from God’s tree and bring it to the next valley. The ten arrived home that night with stories of the neighbours’ amazement and gratitude, and the villagers were happy picturing their delight.
The next morning the fruit began to shrivel on the tree. Oranges shrank and moulded as fast as grapes rotted. The villagers picked among the branches but every piece they pulled at collapsed slimy in their hands. The leaves turned brown and fell in great clumps to the ground. ‘What does this mean?’ they cried to the elders. ‘Is God angry? Has he punished us for sharing his gift?’ The elders went home to the elders’ house to discuss the matter. They talked for many hours, and ate no fruit.
In the morning they gathered the villagers. ‘We had a gift,’ said the first elder. ‘We had more than we could use, and we gave some to our neighbours. And now the fruit is gone.’ The villagers cried out, but she shushed them with her hands.
‘We thought this might be God’s tree, as it was so plentiful and came to us in our leanest months. If we take it to be God’s tree, then it appears that God has punished us for our generosity.’ She lowered her hands. ‘But God does not punish generosity. God does not demand that we let our neighbours want while we flourish. The nature of God does not change to fit the world. The world is changed to fit God’s nature. So we must conclude that this is not God’s tree. This is not a lesson. It is just a tree.’ The villagers nodded, and went home.