As we near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus offering life altering wisdom to his audience. In today’s post we examine the statement: “A tree is known by its fruit.” This phrase is so common in the modern vernacular that many may not even know it comes from the bible. Despite it’s very common use, there a few less common nuances that can really transform our faith and life.
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7: 15-20 ESV)
This passage is part one of two which work together to enable us to determine whether a person is authentic or real. This may seem obvious or like common sense, but this is more of a problem than most of us realize. The pseudo (false) self is not easy to spot in others when we fail to spot it in ourselves. I think we all grasp that looks can sometimes be deceiving (wolves in sheep’s clothing), but Jesus is illuminating something deeper, namely, that our being creates our doing, not vice versa.
B.F. Skinner is synonymous with behavioral psychology. This approach to transformation is extremely popular in our modern world because it is so practical and external. An oversimplification of the behavioral method is to say that if we behave better we will feel better, therefore if we change the outside, the inside will follow. I think the church has essentially adopted this “outside-in” model of transformation through behavior modification. “Stop the sinning and you won’t be a sinner.” The only problem is that it only changes the outside and essentially gives the wolf a sheep’s persona. This the quintessential “false self” or religious hypocrite against whom Jesus so often rails.
Societies focus on the veneer is a widespread cancer in our world, and is seen in politics, education, sports, religion, entertainment, and business. We all go out into the world wearing a “persona” or presenting ourselves a certain way. If we grow to believe that our persona is actually who we are, then our true self is lost or buried. This can’t be understated and the point of this passage is to wake us up not only to what lies beneath the persona’s of others, but unlock the means to liberate our own authenticity.
This authenticity test is extremely practical and valuable as we navigate the world. Is someone hyper-critical of you? Have you been overlooked, disrespected, or marginalized? A good tree doesn’t bear that kind of fruit. Perhaps a loved one is bearing bad fruit. Is the solution to just replace one behavior with a more preferential behavior? Jesus shows us that such a Skinnerian strategy is like sticking a fig on a thistle (they don’t belong there). Outside-in transformation never lasts. Our rage, our addictions, our greed, our racism, biases, and hatred can only be changed from the inside out, not the outside in. We are always hurt by that untransformed (false) part of others, and it is that untransformed part within us that hurts others.
If we want good fruit in our lives, what are we to do? How can we bring about a lasting change in the tree itself? How do we find our true (authentic) self and release that which is false within us?
Again, Jesus points us to the answer: cutting and burning. Like other passages, its far too easy to insert our notion of hell into these passages where Jesus is not specifically speaking of such things. The pruning process is required for all plants to thrive. The dead, diseased or false branches are cut off. Hebrews 12:6 says “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and chastises every son (daughter) whom he receives.” The cutting down of the tree is the humiliation of the tree. The cure for the selfish, false self is to be humiliated and cut down. From there it is thrown into the fire. This is not a punitive hell, but a restorative process of purification as scripture often reveals.
“And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” Zechariah 13:9
“each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:13-16)
It takes spiritual sight to see the false self, this has been Jesus point all along. Once our pride is seen and identified, it must be rooted out, humiliated and purified. This deconstruction process allows for the real, authentic self to be birthed in its place. By dealing with the problem at its ontological root, the fruit of our life can be permanently altered for the good of the world. That is the whole point. Once we begin this process, we will immediately recognize it in others, “thus you will know them by their fruit.”
The behavioral world believes that we ARE what we DO and it pumps out false prophets (pseudopropheton) persona’s at every turn. They teach us that if we want to be more we have to do more because of this constantly ascending, outside-in bias. Jesus’ prescription is first to descend, to cut off, separate out, and burn or purify the climber within. First, we are to learn who we are (the Beloved) and from there all that we do and pursue is transformed. Nothing outside us can change our true state of being.
This is such a liberating discovery for those who have ears to hear. Once inclusion replaces exclusion, abundance replaces scarcity, and love replaces pride, then we are free to truly discover and live our true self, found in our Maker. But can we bare to let go and surrender the outcomes of our pursuits?
So what happens to the false self that never learns these lessons? What comes of the climber who thinks they have earned a place ahead of others?Come back next week when we examine part two of the authenticity test.