Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad. For the tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! how can you speak good, since you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.
My mind has been spinning these words around this morning, imagining the various ways they could be read and heard.
They are stark words. Hard words.
Here is Jesus suggesting that we are rather monolithic beings. His words leave little room for growth, for gradual transformation. They are either/or, black and white.
I can see them being a source of pain for someone who has struggled to overcome bad patterns in relationships with family or a partner.
I can see these words, in all their starkness, being the basis for calling people to newness of life. Only transformation from the Spirit of God will enable us to be the good trees who bear good fruit.
I can imagine that the stark requirement to be good, and the need for divine transformation, might tempt us toward making ourselves the marker of goodness: you have to be transformed, which means you have to come into the people where the Spirit of transformation is active, which means that if you’re not part of this particular people at this particular place then you must beware of the judgment awaiting bad trees and their fruit.
But I could imagine that particular sword having a double edge.
Jesus was talking with the people who knew just what righteousness was to look like. He was talking with the ones who were guardians of faithful practice.
And this was a word of warning to them.
They were looking at Jesus–at his disregard for the Sabbath traditions, at the power he exercised on behalf of others, at his rearrangement of the identity of the people of God–and were judging this fruit as wicked.
They did not recognize the Spirit when they saw it.
The people saw healing and exorcism and wondered, “I think this might be the Son of David!” The leaders saw the power and wondered, “Is he in league with the prince of demons?”
The leaders wanted a sign from Jesus. They wanted a mighty wonder.
But they had already seen all they needed. They could not interpret the signs rightly. Jonah is all that is left to them: let them understand that God raises the dead after three days.
The warnings of Matthew 12 work in many directions at once.
They warn us not to imagine that our positions of authority or privilege or knowledge or ritual or liturgy or skepticism demonstrate that we are the good trees.
They warn us that the person of Jesus might be made known outside of the controlled environments that we look to for religious guidance.
They warn us that interpretation is a dangerous business from which none of us can escape. We constantly judge: does this fruit look like the fruit of the Spirit to me?
Here we are on the most dangerous ground of all, for it is right here that Jesus warns us that speaking against the Spirit is an eternal sin. And, such judgments are made in the face of the fruit itself: Jesus’ Spirit-empowered work was called the work of Beelzebul.
Where this passage sends me, then, is back to the question of whether we know good fruit when we see it.
Do we recognize the goodness that trumps received wisdom (cf. Matt 12:12)?
Do we recognize the goodness that goes beyond the walls of our communities to make God’s life-giving power known (cf. Matt 12:15-21)?
Do we recognize the eruption of God’s kingdom when it not only fails to prop up our own but perhaps works for our own little kingdom’s destruction (Matt 12:22-37)?
Do we recognize that God is made known in the upside down kingdom whose reign is put on display by the way of the cross and the wisdom of the outcast wandering teacher (Matt 12:38-42)?
Do we recognize and cling to the Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, and peace (that’s enough to stop most of us short, but feel free to read the rest in Gal 5!)?
Or do we cling to the people who prop us up through their propagation of anger, arguments, dissensions, factions and other such things as signal the bad fruit that will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal 5)?
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