Fruits and roots
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, but 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 will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.-Matthew 7:16-20
James Forbes, former Senior Pastor at Riverside Church, one of the best preachers I ever encountered, put it this way in a sermon (as best I recollect): It’s about the fruits not the roots.
His point was that what matters is how a life is lived, whether the love of God is brought to fruition in that life. As we come to today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had just finished warning about false prophets, calling for discernment between what is true and what is false. That discernment, he seems to say, will come by looking at the fruits, not the roots. In a few verses, he will continue the theme by saying: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom.”
Too often, we want to focus on the roots. We do it in relationship to religion: What’s your theology? What’s your denomination? To what creed do you subscribe? We do it in other areas of life: Where did you go to school? What’s your zip code? What political party do you belong to? What news programs do you watch? Who are your people?
But our faith indicates that maybe the more important bit of info is not the roots but the fruits. St. Francis of Assisi famously told disciples: Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. In so saying, he echoed Jesus’ teaching that people would know his followers by the way they showed love to one another. Fruits.
St. Paul wrote a letter to the Galatians, a church that had gotten him hopping mad. In that letter, he sets up a contrast between works of the flesh and fruits of the spirit. Note that he doesn’t talk about works of the spirit. He describes them as fruit. (You can see the list above.) Those fruits grow effortlessly, not the result of works, or what one person described as teeth-gritting Christianity. The fruits are an extension, a reflection, a natural expression of who that person is, someone who has come to know grace in such a deep way that they effortlessly show grace.
They may do so unconsciously. I think of the parable Jesus told later in the gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) about the contrast between sheep and goats brought before the king, who is the judge. The sheep are commended by the judge, because they fed the poor, visited the prisoner, clothed the naked. In so doing, they are told that they had offered those life-giving, loving, liberating ministries to the king himself. The amazing thing is, the sheep did so unconsciously. They ask: Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, sick, imprisoned?
This is not to say that roots don’t matter. A prayer found in the letter to the Ephesians (also above), speaks about the importance of being rooted and grounded in love. Out of that will come fruits that reflect God’s presence and power.
If we are rooted in a mindset that it is all up to us, that we have to prove our worth through our actions, intelligence, income, resume, religious practice, theological or political correctness, those kinds of roots produce fruits that set us apart from one another. Those kinds of roots diminish or even dismiss the power of grace in our lives.
If we are rooted in the love of God, we find our worth, our value, our dignity grounded in the amazing fact that we are made in the image of God and that Christ is present in each one of us and that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever. Those roots will then bear a whole different kind of fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
Think this week about roots and fruits. Where are you grounded? How is that being expressed in your life? What kind of fruit are you bearing?