Jesus said, ” there is no sound tree that produces rotten fruit, nor again a rotten tree that produces sound fruit. Every tree can be told by its own fruit: people don’t pick figs from thorns nor gather grapes from brambles. Good people draw good from the store of goodness in their hearts; bad people draw bad things from the store of badness in their hearts. For the words of the mouth flow out of what fills the heart.”
I’m preaching on this passage on Sunday and it’s giving me trouble. When you first read it you think it’s just common sense. But after a moment or two you realise how radical and dismaying it is. For those who know that they do and say bad things are confronted with the diagnosis that it comes from the badness within them. They are rotten trees. And how can a rotten tree do anything about its rottenness? If Jesus, supposedly the hope of sinful people, is as unhopeful as this, where can hope be found? Is there in this saying of Jesus some lurking moral determinism, even perhaps some predestination? You’re either a sound tree or a rotten tree and you can’t do much about it.
M. Well for starters Jesus I suppose I should ask if you really said this, as your gospellers were a bit free with the record of your teaching….
Jesus. So you say. In fact each of them tried to make their story consistent with what their communities knew of me as a living presence, just as you’re doing now…
M. Don’t play games with me, this is serious, did you say it, yes or no?
J. Can you remember every word you said? But yes, it sounds like me and I agree with it.
M. O.K. we’re getting somewhere now. You see the problem I imagine?
J. You mean I should be able to imagine what you see as the problem?
M. The problem is that rotten trees can’t change what’s inside them, so they’ll continue to do bad things, won’t they?
J: You may remember that I am also reported as telling people they had to change and receive God’s way like little children, or as my servant John put it, be born from above. I never pretended the change was easy or superficial.
M. But surely the woman who was a known sinner, or Matthew the tax-collector, were rotten trees, because they had done bad things…so how did they become sound?
J. Come on, you should know that picture language can’t do everything. If I talk about sound and rotten trees I also know there are many in between. Don’t assume that notorious sinners are the worst. They have gone wrong in ways that can easily be seen. But it wasn’t the prostitutes and tax- collectors that killed me. Matthew was a much sounder tree than some Pharisees.
M. Yes, yes, I can see that, but it doesn’t alter the issue and you haven’t really answered my question about how a rotten tree can change. Even a little bit rotten is still rotten.
J. Of course the picture language only takes us so far; human beings can decide to change, whereas trees can’t. But a city man like you doesn’t know a lot about trees. Trees try to be sound; if there is nourishment to make them sound, they’ll draw it in; if not, in extreme cases they’ll almost shut down to make best use of the nourishment they have. If their roots don’t immediately find food, they don’t give up but stretch and twist until they do. In my tradition of faith, there is a poem about a tree that’s planted by the waterside, which remains green and provides fruit in due season. It’s a picture of the sound person.
M. So what is the nourishment that makes a person sound?
J. In the poem, it’s the Torah, God’s commandment.
M. If that was a sufficient answer, there would have been no point in your ministry. You didn’t teach the law!
J. I used the language of trees to make sure nobody underestimated either goodness or badness. Both have their integrity. Good actions spill out from a good heart; evil actions from an evil heart. So it is not just a matter of changing the actions, the person has to change.
M. But the law is a matter of changing the actions!
J. Not at all. the Law is the way in which God forgives us and changes us. That’s the good news. God’s law is not a means of condemning us or a way of changing our actions while our hearts remain the same. It’s God’s wholehearted forgiveness and wisdom for making us sound. The rotten tree can be changed.
M. You think commandments can do that?
J. The Law of God is far more than commandments, it’s the whole story of my people, but yes, I do think commandments are creative, else why would I have given so many? Commandments put people in the way of God’s goodness. Give and God will give to you. Forgive and you will be forgiven. God’s wisdom directs people to the waterside and the nourishment that makes them sound.
M. So Paul was wrong about the Law?
J. No, Paul was not wrong. Waken up and read the scripture so that you get its meaning not just its words. What would it be like if on Sundays if your people just listened to your words and not to the truth you want to convey?
M. I think you have answered my question. Only I can never tell whether you’re real or a creature of my imagination.
J. Or both?