27 August 2023
St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Know Them By Their Fruits
Matthew 7: 15-20
Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, and the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”
This gospel passage comes from the first major discourse in the Gospel according to Matthew, which we often call Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount.” Large crowds are following him, so he goes up on this hill and gathers his disciples around and starts to teach them, with everyone listening in. And his teachings are tough.
Look at some of the sermon’s highlights so far: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said, “You shall not murder,” but I say to you that if you are angry with a sibling, you will be liable to judgment. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Whenever you fast, do not look dismal. Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.
At this point, I imagine people in the crowd asking themselves, “What are these sayings? What is this teaching? This Jesus of Nazareth—is he good? Is he trustworthy? Or is he a false prophet?” I don’t doubt that there were many in the crowd asking themselves these questions, just as there are many today in our community and in our congregation asking themselves these questions. Today’s passage begins right after Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” What kind of prophet will lead you to easy street? What kind of prophet will lead you to the hard road of faithfulness? How will you know the difference?
A few observations about what Jesus is saying and what Jesus is not saying. First, he uses the imagery of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There’s a chance that Jesus, growing up in Nazareth around an increasingly Greco-Roman culture, would have heard Aesop’s fable about the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s more likely that this image was common throughout the world at that time, especially among people who tended sheep and dealt with the threat of wolves. The first metaphor is about appearance versus reality. What appears harmless on the outside might be substantially deadly below the surface.
But notice that Jesus’s instruction isn’t about discerning appearance. Jesus doesn’t say, check out that wool and make sure their sheepskin is real. Jesus doesn’t say, check out their website and make sure they have the right language, the right statements, the right affiliations listed. Jesus doesn’t say, check out one of their events and see what they look like in real life. Jesus’s instruction is not about discerning appearance, trying to figure out the source.
Jesus’s instruction is about discerning consequence. It’s about looking for the effect instead of trying to judge the cause. “You will know them by their fruits.” Jesus is telling his disciples not to get caught up in outward appearances to try to perceive inward substance. Those are connected to the cause. That won’t help us figure out whether their prophecy is true or false. Instead, Jesus is telling his disciples to pay attention to the effect.What is the result of that prophecy, that message, that word in the lives of other people? Is it life-giving gospel truth, or is it death-dealing false accusation? We human beings don’t have a good track record when it comes to judging based on the outward appearance, but we can generally tell where other people are being hurt or being healed in a given situation. When it comes to discerning false prophecies, we will know them by their fruits.
Jesus then asks the rhetorical question, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” Clearly not. But if we take Jesus seriously here, then it means we have to yield to him to decide who and what is good or bad. When it comes to who is included in the “us” that is the body of Christ, Jesus is eliminating our ability to draw the line wherever we feel comfortable. We can’t just draw the line around those who appear similar to us—similar ZIP Code, similar salary, similar ancestry, similar education. We also can’t just draw the line around those who appear different from us but at least act similar to us—similar preferences, similar priorities, similar voting record, similar stated values. When we accept that Jesus is Lord, we accept that Jesus is the one who draws the line. And he tells us that as long as we see the grapes and figs, they can’t be coming from thorns and thistles.
Unfortunately, we are human. We have a habit of stereotyping and generalizing and oversimplifying. And here’s where I have beef with just about every major English translation of this gospel, because they all reinforce this habit. Almost every translation reads: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” What we don’t see is that there are not two adjectives (“good” and “bad”) but four adjectives! Let’s read these verses with some Greek adjectives and see if you can notice the pattern.
In the same way, every “agathos” tree bears “kalos” fruit, but the “sapros” tree bears “ponēros” fruit. An “agathos” tree cannot bear “ponēros” fruit, nor can a “sapros” tree bear “kalos” fruit. Every tree that does not bear “kalos” fruit is being cut down and is being thrown thrown into fire.
Jesus uses two adjectives to describe the tree, and Jesus uses two other adjectives to describe the fruit. This isn’t a statement about “good” and “bad” trees that always produce “good” and “bad” fruits. This isn’t about separating the human race into “good people” and “bad people” where the good guys always do good things and the bad guys always do bad things. That would be judging the cause in order to determine the effect. But Jesus is teaching us to judge the effect in order to determine the cause.
So first, the trees. One tree is agathos, healthy and thriving, while the other tree is sapros, unhealthy and rotting. And then, the fruits. One sort of fruits is kalos, helpful and nutritious, while the other sort of fruits is ponēros,harmful and poisonous. Jesus talks about the trees (that is, the prophecy or message) in terms of whether they are healthy or unhealthy. Jesus talks about the fruits (that is, the result or consequence of the teaching) in terms of whether they are helpful or harmful. You can tell whether the prophecy is false by whether the result is harmful. If people are being harmed, then that’s a false prophecy, even if it’s coming from someone I think is on my side. And if people are being helped, then that’s a true prophecy, even if it’s coming from someone I think is on a different side.
Jesus uses all this vivid imagery, and most of our translations completely lose the nuance. It’s not that Jesus’s subtle poetry has become redundant prose, but that our typical reading leads us to a way of thinking that Jesus isn’t describing at all. We hear about good trees and bad trees, good fruit and bad fruit, and immediately we try to sort each other wholesale into those two categories. We ignore or minimize or justify the things we say that produce bad fruit, because naturally we belong to the good trees. We ignore or minimize or justify the things others say that produce good fruit, because we already consider them among the bad trees.
As long as I insist on the good/bad sorting paradigm, I either have to admit that there’s bad fruit coming from my words and actions—and conclude that I’m a bad tree, lost and unsaved—or I’ll rest assured on the promise that in Christ I am a good tree—and I’ll have to ignore all the bad fruit and harm that I’m causing in the lives of everyone around me. As long as I insist on the good/bad sorting paradigm, I’ll miss what Jesus is teaching. I’ll probably think that Jesus says that good trees will spared and bad trees will get thrown into the fire.
But Jesus doesn’t say here that bad trees will get thrown into the fire (future tense). Jesus says that trees that don’t bear good fruit are being cut down and thrown into the fire already (present tense). When Jesus is talking about good and bad trees, and that we will know them by their fruit, I don’t think he is assigning people to some kind of permanent categories where there is no room for grace. I think Jesus is talking about the work of the Holy Spirit within us as we grow in God’s grace. The Holy Spirit is the one who cultivates in us the fruit of the Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is the one who prunes the branches that bear harmful fruit.
This is a word of hope for all human beings whose words and actions produce any good fruit, the kalos fruit that is helpful. All human beings whose words and actions ever produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control? Those words and actions are healthy agathos prophecy, and God will continue to cultivate them.
This is also a word of hope for all human beings whose words and actions produce any bad fruit, the ponērosfruit that is harmful. All human beings whose words and actions ever produce impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, envy? Those words and actions are unhealthy sapros prophecy, and God will continue to prune them.
And this is a word of hope for all human beings who have done any wrestling with God. Can I share with you one of the places where I have been wrestling with God for the past dozen years or so? A dozen years ago, I was certain that the Bible had a clear message about human sexuality. I was certain that any Christian would agree about what fits God’s definition of marriage. I was certain that God had created me, a human male, to feel compatible with and be attracted to one kind of person, a human female.
The truth is that I am bisexual. The kind of person I might be attracted to and feel compatible with is sometimes a person of the same gender and sometimes a person of a different gender. Those two categories are the “bi” in bisexual. It doesn’t mean that I want to be intimate with multiple people, and it doesn’t mean that I feel attracted to and compatible with every person I meet. It means that my sexual orientation is neither exclusively heterosexual nor exclusively homosexual.
So throughout my life, as long as I have experienced sexual attraction, sometimes that experience has been oriented toward women, sometimes toward nonbinary people, sometimes toward men. For a long time, I was certain that this was temptation. I was certain that any attraction other than attraction toward a woman was not part of God’s plan for me, that this kind of attraction was not something that could honor God. I was certain that God had not made me that way. And I was certain that anyone who did feel that kind of attraction, anyone whose sexuality or gender identity deviated from what I was certain was natural and normal for every human being, could not really live a life of obedience to Christ. I thought that anyone queer was a bad tree that could not bear good fruit.
And then I met more and more queer Christians, who spoke words of love and affirmation and hope that I had been certain were false prophecy, and whose lives consistently bore the fruit of the Spirit. So I revisited those verses in the Bible and investigated the context of those sacred writings and the language of those original authors, approaching those passages with the same high view of Scripture that I used when approaching any challenging passages.
And I took Jesus seriously when he promised, “Thus you will know them by their fruits.” And I got to know those queer Christians by their fruits, by the love and joy and peace and generosity and faithfulness that I witnessed in the lives of trans Christians and gay Christians and queer Christians and lesbian Christians—and bisexual Christians, like me. And I praised my heavenly Father, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I got to know myself as a queer Christian, more and more finding the perfect love of God casting out my fear and self-doubt. And I took Jesus at his word when he promised that I would know a strong and healthy tree by its beautiful and helpful fruit.
I also examined those Christians who insisted that there are precisely two genders, that persons of one must be attracted to persons of the other, and that anyone who experienced a gender identity or sexual orientation otherwise was being tempted and deceived. I took a hard look at those ministries that were designed to train people how not to behave outside the norm, designed to change people’s orientation by changing their behavior, designed to offer what they called “conversion therapy.” I saw the toxic fruit of that false prophecy, that the one demographic characteristic associating church membership with higher rates of self-harm and suicide is LGBTQIA+ identification. And I took Jesus at his word when he promised that I would know a rotting and unhealthy tree by its harmful and poisonous fruit.
Friends, I am still wrestling with God regarding how my sexuality intersects with my calling. It’s taking longer than I expected to find my first call. So far, none of the possibilities have been willing to call a pastor who is openly queer. Sometimes, it’s tempting to “downplay” this part of myself and my story, to “blend in” and let people make an incorrect assumption about me, based on what my marriage looks like. But I am confident that being faithful to Christ means being truthful about who God created me to be. I’m a man married to a woman, so I could hide the full truth of who I am because we look like a straight couple. If I kept hiding who I am, it might be an easier road through a wider gate. But to hide who I am is to be a false prophet, to pretend to be someone that I know I am not—to erase myself, my queer Christian self—to cover up this beautiful bisexuality, which is one part of how I am fearfully and wonderfully made by Jesus my Savior, who loves me and died for me and lives again forever for me. And he claims me, just as I am, as God’s own child.
I wonder whether the people in the crowds were asking themselves, “Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Is he good and trustworthy? Or is this false prophecy?” My testimony is that Jesus is good and trustworthy. He is not a false prophet, and I know this because his words are life-giving and his message is redemption and forgiveness. He loves you and died for you and lives again forever for you. And he claims you, just as you are, as God’s own child.
When all kinds of prophecy are coming at you, over your airwaves or through your news feeds or into your conversations, remember that you will know them by their fruits—so don’t judge the cause but look at the effect. When all kinds of people are coming and going in your workplaces, your homes, your schools, and your neighborhoods, remember that Jesus is the one who draws the line—so don’t try to categorize who’s good or bad, who’s in or out. And when all kinds of doubts and questions fill your mind and heart, when you find yourself wrestling with God, remember that you belong to Jesus no matter what—so don’t fear what’s on the other side of that narrow gate.