December 17, 2019 Seventeenth day of Advent
A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Matthew 7: 18
How many times have you heard people recite Jesus’ admonition that we are not to “judge”? I have heard that phrase used as a defense to many accusations of misbehavior. You know how it goes. Someone does something that you find inappropriate, troubling, unethical or shocking. You call them on it and say something like “I am so disappointed in you!” They respond with, “It sounds like you are judging me!” This is a verbal deflection that is intended to make you feel like your observation of their bad behavior is worse than their misconduct. It’s a nice rhetorical device. “I am free to do these things because Jesus says I am not to be judged.” But what about our text today? That is the response to the “do not judge defense”. But to understand this we need to hear the entire passage (which, by the way is part of the Sermon on the Mount that also includes Jesus’ “Do not judge” admonition).
15 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Here Jesus is telling us to beware of people who deceive by claiming to be disciples of Jesus yet use their “discipleship” as a means of personal gain or the destruction of the faith community. In the recent past, we have heard of “church” people behaving badly – stealing money, inappropriate relationships within the community, power seeking, guilt spreading, rumor mongering, and, worst of all, preaching false gospel. Jesus is saying we need to beware of such folks. And to “be wary” means we are to identify them and avoid them. We identify them by looking at the fruit of their actions. Bad fruit means the people bearing it are “false prophets”. They are not for the community; they are for themselves. We don’t judge them. They judge themselves by the consequences of their actions. When we become aware of such folks among the faith community, we are well withing our rights to exclude them, so their bad fruit does not spoil the barrel, so to speak. Certainly, we should at least avoid them and give them no credibility or power. Who these folks are is not always obvious. So, we read this text with fear and trembling as we try to understand to whom it applies (us at times?).
What does this have to do with the incarnation? Emanuel – God with us – is the one who bears nothing but good fruit and teaches us what that is. What does good fruit look like? Love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Living the Jesus way. It is the peace we are promised at this time of year.