My parents live in the Central Valley of California. This particular area of California is known for its agricultural production. This portion of California feeds the nation and its topography highly resembles that of the Mediterranean climate in Israel. Every time I visit my parents, I hike in the orchards just down the street and there are miles of them. The orchards I go to are filled with walnut trees, plum trees, and cherry trees. When you’re inside of the orchards, they are so big and vast, you feel like you’re in a different world.
I have walked through these orchards probably hundreds of times over the years and have seen each of the trees in different seasons, the various stages they go through, the times when they bear fruit, the times when they are dormant, the times when they are full of leaves, to the the times they’re just blooming in the Spring. In the winter the leaves fall off, and in the summertime the branches become so heavy with fruit that they bend down toward the ground. I’ve seen when the farmers bring in bees to facilitate pollination throughout the orchards, the watering process, the exacting care that goes into nurturing these trees. I have also witnessed these farmers uprooting and cutting down whole portions of their orchards at various times for various reasons. One day I’m walking in a spot with fully matured trees which look healthy on the outside, and the next day when I visit, a whole row of them has been removed or cut completely down to the trunks.
The fruitfulness of this agriculture impacts both the farmer and the person using their product. If the orchard is unsuccessful, if there is drought, if there is rot, the survival of the farmer diminishes. In fact, the whole nation would feel the impact of this. Good fruit means thriving for the farmer and thriving for the people who need it to nourish their bodies. The farmer knows they will have to sell their fruit. They know when they have good product and their trees are producing as they should, but ultimately its the consumer who decides what they will buy and consume. The consumer can also determine what is good fruit versus bad fruit.
In today’s verse selection, Jesus is talking about this kind of transaction and process with fruit but in an analogous sense. He pulls from the agricultural environment around him in first century Palestine to draw upon an analogy where fruit symbolizes productivity, goodness, love, and the other fruits of the spirit. If a tree is bad, rotted, or corrupted in some way, it affects the entire tree from root to stem. These trees can be pruned to recover, replanted, or given treatment, but if they fail to produce, ultimately they are cut down and uprooted.
But, in this particular verse, even though this tree has not produced in three years, the farmer has trouble with with idea of cutting it down. It’s not surprising given the amount of work which goes into gaining a good crop and effort put into nurturing the tree. Jesus means for us to use this analogy when we consider the effectiveness ourselves, but also that of spiritual leaders in their failure or refusal to recognize that their theology is bad.
It is hard for people to admit when their work is ineffective, that their churches are dying, or realize their congregants are older than they are––It’s hard for the person delivering the message to admit their theology does not bear fruit; that their theology is actually hurting. Poor theological and interpretive renderings produce death in churches and congregants are the ones who suffer, they are the ones who have been deprived of nourishment. If there is no change, if there is no pruning, or willingness to look deeply inside of ourselves, there will be a reckoning. Those leaders, teachers, analogously, those trees will be cut down and new ones––new leaders, teachers, pastors, will take the place of the ineffective leaders. In addition, the fact that a tree has not been cut down, does not mean it is bearing fruit. This is something to be mindful of. There are many ineffective leaders still attempting to sell bad fruit.
As for you, the ones visiting churches or leaving churches, you are the ones with power and discernment over what is good fruit and what is bad fruit. Are the theological messages you’re being taught choking the life from you, or are they giving you life? Are you listening to your emotions, your body, your heart, your mind? These are ways and methods instilled in you by God for you to not only learn what love is supposed to be, but to actually feel it and experience it. Experiences and feelings allow you to test the quality of and verify if something is good, right, and true. God instilled you with this ability and even asks us to verify God’s own goodness. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 states, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” Psalm 34:8, tells us “O taste and see that the Yahweh is good.”
Let us uproot messages bringing death and let us plant new fruit bearing trees which give life and love to all of humanity. Jesus tells us that we have permission to verify the fruitfulness of church leaders and their messages, we have permission to have agency in determining what is good fruit and what is bad fruit.
Grace and peace,
Co-Executive Director, Brave Commons