(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on January 25, 2015)
Play a little game with me–one of these things is not like the other. Can you find the unique one?
Some of those were subtle, some really obvious. For me, after all these months we’ve spent in the Sermon on the Mount, and after reading today’s section many times in the past two weeks, these verses have felt like that red apple among the green ones. These verses have just screamed at me: we are different than the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.
Maybe for you, it’s much more subtle, like the strawberry among the tomatoes; or maybe it doesn’t seem like much of a difference at all. That’s perfectly fine. But because it’s been such a contrast for me, I’ve had to do some thinking about the best way to approach it today. On one hand, if I spend a lot of my time highlighting my struggle and the inconsistencies and the questions this has brought up for me, it might come across as if I don’t fully trust Jesus, or that I’m trying to get out of obeying the bible…and neither one of those things is true.
On the other hand, if I just smooth over the questions and stick to the major points that we all agree on, I’m not being honest with myself and I’m potentially creating problems for people who see the same issues and notice that I am ignoring them. So today I want to try and have my cake and eat it too. I want to talk about the questions and the confusion this has brought, and I also want to say I do trust Jesus and I don’t feel it’s helpful for me to just discard the things in the bible which are hard for me to reconcile in my own mind.
I like that we have spent a lot of time working through every verse of the Sermon on the Mount.
It’s the largest collection of Jesus’ teaching, and I think it is important for us to take the time to know what Jesus says and wrestle with how to live according to what he taught. So I’m very glad we are taking the time to look at all of it.
However, one of the downsides of this is that there are days like today, where we are looking at a relatively small bit of teaching. Why do we do that? We do that because even taking a small section like this on a Sunday morning, we can’t touch on everything that needs to be said about it. Which creates this delicious bit of irony–we then can be frustrated that in this little section, Jesus doesn’t cover all the possible eventualities.
This may be getting the cart before the horse, but I want share an image in your mind that has helped me with my questions about this section this week. Imagine with me that you are the parent of a preschooler who wakes up yelling in the middle of the night because of a nightmare.
You stumble into her room, sit on the bed next to her, and hold her close. She tells you she dreamed that the house was on fire and she couldn’t get out, and she was afraid she would never see mommy and daddy again.
As the parent, you want to reassure and give confidence…and you want to be able to get back to sleep yourself. You can’t truthfully promise that she will never be in a fire, though. In the middle of the night, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is not exactly your best friend.“Well, honey, less than four hundred children die in a fire each year; true, that’s like one kid a night. But think of all the children there are in the world! The odds are with you that you’re probably totally fine.”
No, you’re much better off with a clearly spoken general truth, spoken with great love and empathy. “It’s mommy and daddy’s job to keep you safe, and we work really hard at it. We’re here and we love you and we trust God to keep us all safe.” You might even remind her that you checked that the stove was off and that the fire alarm batteries got changed last month, anything you can think of to help her go back to sleep.
And most likely she will go back to sleep and be perfectly fine.
But of course that’s not always the case. Sometimes fires DO take the lives of children. There are always exceptions to the general truths we hold.
That’s sort of what I think I have to wrestle with a little bit today. There are some general truths here that Jesus teaches that I have absolutely no problem with…but there are some exceptions. There are some difficulties. I don’t want to be like the parent in the middle of the night raising all the exceptions and freaking everybody out. 🙂
But that being said…I’m going to start today with the questions.
Marilyn read this section for us earlier, but I want to invite us to open our bibles to Matthew 7:15-20.
‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.’ (Matthew 7:15-20 TNIV)
Last week I was focusing on Christianity as an orientation, a direction. God gives us the invitation to seek, to ask, to knock, to enter. Life with God is stated so positively! We can trust God, and it’s worth it to seek and enter.
Two weeks ago, Steve looked at Jesus’ teaching about not judging. Before that in chapter 6 we focused on not worrying. It’s like Jesus is teaching us to move away from the uptight, legalistic world the Pharisees have created and instead throw off fear and follow God with abandon!
Then comes this section. “Watch out!” “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” It feels different to me. Instead of an open invitation to seek a good and giving God, now I’m being directed to watch out for people out to get me. Instead of not focusing on other people’s behavior and judging them, but rather focusing on my own issues…now I am supposed to watch how other people act so that I can tell if they are a wolf out to get me.
The tone seems markedly different to me.
Then it gets more difficult, in my opinion.
“Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” Hmmm…this is a metaphor, but it seems fairly clear. What do you think the good tree or bad tree represents? [ASK] Most scholars seem to agree. The trees are people, or maybe specifically in this case true or false prophets. What does the good or bad fruit represent? What comes to your mind? [ASK]
We connect it with good and bad deeds, we connect it with the fruit of the Spirit, with qualities that are ones like God’s own character. Most scholars seem to do the same, and that’s where things get difficult for me. If that’s the case, what Jesus says doesn’t really fit the world that I live in. I’ve seen good people, Christ followers, do horrible things at times. I’ve seen people who seem to want nothing to do with God at all, and yet are gracious and charitable and serve others in ways that put my actions to shame.
I think all of us can think of exceptions to this black and white statement that “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” Several of us on the team talked about it this week, and there are ways to make sense of it. One way is to think of God as really the only good tree. Then it sort of makes sense that all good things come from God, that God can’t do anything bad. That makes sense in a general way, but doesn’t work too well in this passage; because here we are asked to use fruit to help us decide which prophets are false. Saying all good things come ultimately from God doesn’t help with this discernment piece.
Those have been the parts that have caused me trouble this week.
So I dug into reading the thoughts of people smarter than me. Surprisingly, it was the words of a man who lived more than 1600 years ago, a man who I often don’t agree with, that gave me some help. What St. Augustine did was remind me of the context of the early church, of what arguments they were having and why certain teachings of Jesus would be important to them. Let me read you some of his words about this passage in the Sermon on the Mount:
“One must carefully avoid the error of those who think that they find in these two trees a reason for believing that there are two natures and that one of them belongs to the nature of God but that the other neither belongs to God nor depends on him.” (Augustine’s homily on the Sermon on the Mount as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Vol. Matthew 1-13, p. 154)
Ah-ha! Then I remembered. Just as the early church wrestled and argued about Jesus’ nature, taking awhile to decide conclusively that Jesus was fully God and fully human, they also wrestled and argued about us and how we are made. One of the wrong ideas that stuck around for a long time was known as Gnosticism. The wrong idea was that everything was made from two opposing urges or spirits. The evil one created the material world, everything physical. The good one was completely spirit.
Some people wrongly thought of human beings the same way. Anything to do with the physical world came from that evil part of us, while the good, spiritual part of us was completely separate. That was the one to obey. Life was a war between these two natures in the world and two natures in ourselves. (When it’s put this way, you can see that there is still some of this wrong thinking going on today in some church circles.)
Augustine and the church rejected this idea. We humans have one nature. Jesus’ words here confirm it, and they remind us that we don’t get to make the excuse, “The devil made me do it. My bad flesh made me do it.” No, for prophets and for us, we are one nature that is either oriented toward God (a good tree) or ignoring God (a bad tree). We don’t have excuses, and we can’t pass the blame. It’s on us.
The actions of our lives, the fruit of our lives, comes out of the way we have oriented ourselves. We are responsible for, as I said last week, our direction and our orientation. It’s not a constant battle between good and evil–Jesus teaches that over time, an orientation toward God bears good fruit. That’s how it works.
The next thing that helped me was a closer look at one of the verses I skipped over rather quickly.
“Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” More things started to click into place when I thought about this.
When we lived in Boise, we had a fantastic backyard–one gigantic climbing tree with a swing on it, several apple trees, and a couple of pear trees. I remember the amazing amount of apples those trees produced each year. Some of them were terrible, actually; rotten, or worm infested, or bruised. It wasn’t all good fruit. But it was all fruit.
That’s an analogy that helps me a bit here. Someone, a prophet or a teacher in this case, who is seeking God and living for God…they are going to produce fruit. Not all perfect fruit. Not all edible fruit. But you won’t find an apple tree producing poison oak.
And that led to the third breakthrough for me, when I remembered the contrasts and the tensions that can often be found in the bible. The closest example to this one is in what’s known as the wisdom literature of the bible. One strand of the wisdom tradition, shown most clearly in the book of Proverbs, states things pretty much in black and white, like Jesus does in these verses: if you do this wise thing, this good thing will always happen.
That Proverbs strand of the wisdom tradition tells general truth about the world. It’s worth following. It’s worth listening to. But of course there are exceptions, and the beautiful thing is another part of the wisdom tradition takes those into account too. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes are ones that highlight those exceptions. Job in particular is someone, it says right from the beginning, who lived an upright life. He did all the Proverbs wisdom stuff just right…but he still had things go terribly. That was confusing for all of his friends. The only “answer” that really comes in the book is that God’s presence is enough.
I can totally see these two kinds of strands in the Sermon on the Mount.
Today’s part is the general, Proverbs-type reminder. Watch out for prophets and leaders who might be trying to trick you. Watch over time to see what fruit, what qualities, what actions come out. The good trees will show themselves by their fruit, as will the bad ones.
Next week, actually, we’ll look at one of the more “Job-like” parts, where people who do miraculous things in Jesus’ name are still told, “I never knew you.” Jesus does deal with the exceptions.
But for today, we are reminded that we are either a tree that is drawing everything from God and therefore will find God’s fruit emerging, or we are a tree drawing from other sources that will produce thistles. We’re reminded, as we will see several more times in weeks ahead, of the important connection between our actions and orienting our lives around God.
(Side note that is important to say: Jesus is telling us to focus on behavior, on actions– not on belief. We aren’t invited into an orthodoxy hunt. We are to judge teachers in the church, but here at least the focus is not on whether they get the teaching right. The focus is on the fruit that comes out of the life of the community as the result of the teaching.)
Of course exceptions exist.
People and leaders are going to make mistakes, even the good ones. Of course some of the wolves are going to fool you occasionally and for awhile, even the worst ones. That doesn’t discount who God is or what God does. It doesn’t mean the overall truth falls apart, that how we live and what we do doesn’t really matter at all because there are these exceptions.
No, in general, there is this important truth that following Jesus means doing what he says. It means life change. And it brings fruit! So watch for it. And when you aren’t seeing good fruit, or when you are consistently seeing bad fruit…it might be time to make a change.