Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. (Matthew 7:16-20)
- I made the point yesterday that Jesus only spends one line on “wolves in sheep’s clothing” before quickly moving on to fruit. Although Jesus has a clear-eyed assessment of human evil, he doesn’t linger, as I do, on talking about how scummy people can be. He spends more time developing this fruit metaphor, so we can see how the inner life affects outer behavior.
- It reminds me of Jesus’s words in John: We are the branches, and Jesus is the vine. We bear fruit when we “abide,” stay connected to the vine.
- Jesus is talking about how to identify false prophets: look at what they produce.
- In one way, Jesus may be moderating what he just said about wolves in sheep’s clothing. You think someone is a false prophet? You think they are a religious charlatan? Well then, how do you account for the fact that they do so much good in the world?
- But what qualifies as “fruit?” Some Christians would point to Paul’s words in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, and so on. Although I think this is a good perspective, Paul is writing decades after Jesus. Jesus himself doesn’t define “fruit.”
- Some Christians believe fruit is a “successful” ministry: X number of believers baptized, large, full worship buildings, and lots of people helped. Maybe. But in Alabama, one of the most “Christian” states in the country, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Roy Moore, 60% deny that climate change is a problem, and a majority favor the death penalty. While I can’t deny the good that some Christians do, it is certainly a mixed bag.
- Which makes it hard to see things in the black-and-white terms Jesus is laying out here. He says “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit.” Can’t? At all? I usually operate on the principle that bad people certainly can do good things, and good people can do bad things.
- But maybe that’s the tension Jesus is trying to create. If I disagree with him here, what is it that bothers me? That someone I want to write off as a “not a real Christian” because they do bad things is, in fact, connected to the vine? Or does it bother me that I recognize how often I don’t demonstrate good fruit?
- In this way, Jesus moves us from focusing on the bad people in the world “out there” to what is going on inside of us. It’s easy for us to commiserate on how awful religious charlatans are. It is more uncomfortable to consider when we are the fakes.
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