“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” — Matthew 12:33, NRSV
The Gospel is a black-and-white kind of thing, right? In some ways, yes. You are either intentionally seeking and following God or not. There are strict consequences for fitting in the “not” category. You either love your neighbor and your enemy or you don’t. There are strict consequences for those in the “don’t” category as well.
Now, many of my liberal brothers and sisters don’t like when you bring up the idea of hell or punishment or consequences, as there seems to be no grace in these things. On one level, they are right. On the other hand, consequences are naturally built into our world due to the nature of free will, so it isn’t God’s lack of grace, but our sinfulness that lands on our own heads (Psalm 7:16). In fact, as discussed in a previous post, the teachings of punishment seem to be serving a gracious purpose, and I’d like to re-emphasize that in more detail today.
Before my conservative brothers and sisters pump their fists too high for my argument against avoiding the judgment language of Scripture, it’s only fair that I throw out some challenge in the opposite direction as well. If we get too caught up with this judgment stuff, we run the risk of treating others as though we are the ones who get to judge and condemn them, as opposed to God, the only one with the information necessary to do so. Hopefully, I don’t have to remind you that this is frowned upon by our Savior (Matthew 7:1-5). When we do this, we tend to write people off, and this is dangerous for any faithful person.
Have you ever been written off? Have you ever been categorized according to the worst parts of yourself and given in to that identity? I have. I have believed the lies other people told me because they only knew me for the mistakes I had made. I have known people who lacked grace for themselves, therefore they had even less to show others. The only thing that mattered was the black-and-white of justice, even if the truth was far more complicated. Whatever I had done wrong, that’s what I was, and you can bet I have repeated this cycle with others.
We all, in some way, do this. We categorize each other. We determine who we like, who we don’t, and we define them solely based on those characteristics. If we like or love them, we overlook the flaws. If we despise them, we overlook any complicating factors that might taint our truth. We do this with ourselves. We overlook either our faults or our gifts, usually a combination of both, and we become defined by the most narrow bit of information.
For example, consider this parable from Matthew 13:24-30. This is a pretty classic “day of judgment” piece from Jesus’ teachings. Now, the traditional interpretation that I hear when going over this Scripture is that eventually, THE judgment will occur, and some people are wheat, some are weeds, and one had better hope they are wheat! What’s more, far too many people use this to justify their prejudicial categories against others. We say things like, “One day, they’ll get what they deserve,” and “Thank goodness I am not one of those.”
Looking at the text though, we spot something interesting. When the enemy plants the weeds, the “slaves of the householder” point it out, and the response of the householder is not what we might expect. The slaves ask if they should go ahead and uproot the weeds, and the householder (Jesus) responds, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (13:29-30). On the surface, it would seem Jesus is worried about accidentally uprooted those that are wheat with those that are weeds. The problem is, people aren’t rooted in the ground, and this is a parable.
Jesus isn’t hoping that eventually the weeds and wheat grow apart. He is hoping that there will eventually be no weeds. God’s grace is evident in the fact that He doesn’t want judgment to be premature, and He wants all of us to find our way back home. We are not doomed to either be wheat or weeds. Whether or not we are the fruit of the kingdom or not is dependent upon our willingness to seek after God and live a life that reflects the love He shows us in Christ.
You are not doomed to be anything. I am not, either. We have to make daily decisions, and whatever we decide will determine what we are in the end. Will we make mistakes, even after resolving to bear the good fruit of the kingdom? Absolutely. It happens. The life of faith, however, is not about achieving the perfection of God revealed in Jesus. It is about pursuing it with grace for ourselves AND for each other. It is the refusal to give up on ourselves and on each other, just as God refuses to give up on us. I think that is some damn good news, and I hope you agree.
So, as the quote at the start of this post says, we are free to decide what fruit we will bear in our lives. It is never too late to change our choices, to seek help in order that we may walk a different path. We are not stuck with no way out of the darkness. There is a searchlight that is always shining, and it is my prayer that you will lift your hands, raise your voice, and begin the slow move toward it. God will be there every step of the way, and He will take care of the rest.
Peace be with you!