“No good tree bears bad fruit.” But you do. You bear bad fruit every day. The fact that you manage to also produce edible-looking fruit which the world around you ingests and lauds as ‘pleasing to the eye’ is beside the point. The world does not determine which trees are good or bad anymore than it decides who goes to heaven or hell. Here, as in all matters of the Divine, we must let the Word alone speak: “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3).
The problem isn’t just that we produce bad fruit, it’s that our bad fruit reveals the deeper reality that we are bad trees. In other words, the problem isn’t just that we periodically do bad things, it’s that we are bad people. Down to our very roots, we are not what God wants us to be. As someone once put it: “Character precedes action.” Our actions reveal the sad state of our hearts. We produce bad fruit because we are bad trees.
Luke 6(vs. 17f) records Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.” It’s a difficult sermon to read. Let me clarify that. It’s a difficult sermon to read if you only see it as Jesus laying out the blueprint path to true discipleship, which is how most people understand it. “Jesus’ 50 Steps to Being a Better Disciple.” It sounds convenient, even doable, given a lifetime to complete it … until you actually start reading the sermon. Jesus says things like, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”
Love your ex and go out of your way to love her even when, especially when she treats you like an ex. Love that coworker who lied about your work ethic to get the promotion over you and support him in his new position. Love that fellow soccer mom who told all the other parents your kid stinks at soccer. And cheer on her kid with all the vigor and passion with which you cheer on your own. Love your liberal Facebook friend who is constantly posting things that make your blood boil. Or the conservative one. Listen to, study and strive to both learn and understand their position. Love like this. Always. Without fail. This is good fruit.
Jesus says, “If someone steals from you, give them everything you have and don’t demand it back.” Okay, I get it. Be generous, right? But there has to be a limit, no? I mean, if I just give all my stuff away, how will I survive? More than that, how will I thrive? You probably won’t. But many others more than likely thrive at your expense. This is good fruit.
How would the world judge the good fruit Jesus describes? Genuinely showing love to people who are hellbent on hurting you? They would call it ‘reckless’ at best. ‘Damaging’ and ‘destructive’ to your physical, psychological, and emotional health at worst. After all, you gotta watch out for yourself first!
Surrendering your love, your possessions, even your life, without any expectation for compensation? Foolish. Dangerous. Downright stupid! It might look good on paper, Jesus. It might even sound good in a sermon. But if we’re being honest, these are some of the most impractical things you’ve ever said! You can’t possibly be serious! Perhaps we’ll fare better at taking the other 48 steps Jesus gives on the path to true discipleship. In other words, maybe the rest of my fruit will be good enough. Ah, spoken like a true bad tree…
Like most Lutherans, I love the season of Lent. One of my favorite things about Lent is the Proper Preface read throughout the season. The Proper Preface is the transitional prayer that leads into the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”) and the Words of Institution. The Proper Preface for Lents says, “It is truly good and right that we should at all times and in all places give you thanks, O Lord, holy Father, almighty and everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who brought the gift of salvation to all people by His death on the tree of the cross, so that the devil, who overcame us by a tree would in turn by a tree be overcome.”
How awesomely beautiful is that?
Through a tree—the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—our first parents fell. Through that tree, though it also looked good and “pleasing to the eye,” the devil overcame all humanity. Through that tree and the man who ate of its fruit, sin and death entered the world. Through that tree and its fruit, we all became bad trees which produce bad fruit.
And yet, through another tree—the tree of the cross—Jesus restores our first parents. Through that tree, though it looked foolish and downright stupid, Jesus redeems humanity from sin and death. Through that tree, Jesus overcomes Satan. Through that tree and its fruit of forgiveness and life, Jesus brings His gift of salvation to bad trees like you and me.
The cross is the good tree and the one who hangs on it is the good man who “brings good things out of the good stored up in His heart” (vs. 45). Jesus is the one who perfectly loved His enemies, the ones who denied Him, betrayed Him, and the ones who nailed Him to the cross. He even loves us, who insist we’re probably good enough trees apart from the foolish tree of the cross.
Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them” on behalf of every single bad tree. He prayed this as He suffered on the good tree because “out of the overflow of His heart His mouth speaks.” Jesus produces genuinely good fruit because Jesus is truly good. Jesus is the one who recklessly gave away His love, freely gave away His possessions, selflessly gave away His life. He gives it all to you and for you that we might thrive in Him and at His expense. And what’s more is that He gives you all these things without demanding any compensation in return—no fruit required.
Because of Jesus and what He accomplished on the tree of the cross, He now declares you to be a good tree who produces good fruit. By faith, everything you do is covered in the sanctifying blood of Christ and therefore the fruit you produce is really His fruit. And His fruit is glorious, beautiful, good and perfect. And since His fruit is your fruit, yours is the same. May the Lord richly bless your day fellow “good trees” and the fruit He will produce through you.
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