By Their Fruits You Will Know Them
Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, September 27, 2015
Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29; Psalm 19:7–14; James 5:13–20; Mark 9: 38–50
My every morning begins with standing over a sink holding a sharp blade to remove unwanted stuff, and then standing over another sink with another sharp blade to remove different unwanted stuff.
The first sink is in the bathroom. The sharp blade is a razor. I shave. That’s easy. It washes down the drain, all is good. Twenty-four hours later I need to do it again.
The second sink is in the kitchen. The sharp blade is a paring knife. Every morning, I make a fruit smoothie. The exact composition depends on what was good and fresh from the greengrocer at the market that week. I always go to the same guy; we get along well, and he doesn’t steer me wrong (not intentionally, anyway). There are usually blueberries, sometimes strawberries; in season, there are peaches. I rarely use raspberries. There is always a banana.
The paring knife is for removing the rotten parts. Bananas bruise; I cut the bruises away and toss them in the garbage. Same with peaches. Strawberries can get bruised or moldy or start to rot; if just a part of the strawberry is bad, I’ll cut it away and toss it in the garbage. Sometimes this ends up being three-quarters of the strawberry. Some strawberries are just so far gone I have to toss them all. I also look for ones that are growing white beards and toss them immediately in the garbage, in the hopes they won’t spread the mould to others. No shaving when it comes to strawberries! Raspberries have a bad tendency to get rotten and mouldy by halfway through the week, and the mouldy ones stick to the others. I end up picking apart the berries by hand for the few salvageable bits and it takes forever. So I don’t usually buy them. Blueberries are the easiest: they’re small and durable and not too prone to going bad. I can just sort through them and identify the too-soft ones and toss them into the garbage. No cutting: if part of the blueberry is bad, it’s all bad. Besides, they’re small.
I don’t enjoy throwing out the bad bits, but I’m not angry about it either. It’s just necessary, though regrettable.
When Jesus talks about Gehenna, we have a tendency, thanks to the influence of the Greek mythological tradition, to think he’s referring to Hades. Hell. Actually, Gehenna was the Gehinnom valley, which was the town garbage dump for Jerusalem. There were always two things that consumed what was thrown there: flames that never stopped burning – because they always had more to burn – and worms that never stopped feasting on what was no good for anyone else. If I were making my fruit smoothies in ancient Jerusalem, Gehinnom might be where all my cut-off bits of strawberries, peaches, and bananas, and my tossed-away blueberries would end up. Fit for the worms – better tossed away than ruining the rest of the fruit and making me sick when I eat them.
In our Old and New Testament passages, we get the clear message that what matters is the results of what people do. The fruits they bear, like trees – or greengrocers. Not what creed they proclaim or adhere to; not what membership they have; not what race they are; not even what they intend to do, though obviously intents tend to shape results, and person who is producing results different from what they intend will, if they are honest and attentive, change what they’re doing. If they’re producing bad results and they justify them by saying their intention is good, they’re still producing bad results. Pretty-looking fruit that is inedible is… inedible. Edible fruit is edible no matter how ugly it is, and it’s a shame to throw out any edible food just because it doesn’t match some irrelevant abstract beauty standard.
The gospels have Jesus making this point elsewhere too. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says “by their fruits you will recognize them.” There, too, he says that trees that don’t bear good fruit are cut down and thrown into the fire. Why? Because they must be punished? No – because they’re useless. They don’t do what they’re supposed to. Might as well get rid of them. Get rid of bad trees; cut off bad parts of the fruit.
So what is the bad fruit we produce? There are various ideas about what is bad and what isn’t. We have dogmas, we have doctrines, we have moralities. Some people are very fixated on certain transgressions of established social norms that they see as sinful. Adherence to some of those ideas will give us “pretty” fruit that’s not good to eat, and force us to toss out “ugly” fruit that’s nutritious – like those unlicensed prophets in today’s scripture. Rejected for not conforming to standards that are actually irrelevant.
What is good fruit? What are good results? What is nutrition? Love, yes? Things that nourish us with love and forgiveness are good fruits to be blended into our spiritual smoothies? Feelings of wanting to hate and be angry and punish are the rotten parts that we should just get rid of? I think so.
Which also means desire to punish. Wanting to punish people who don’t conform to our principles, people whose rigid adherence to bad ideas leads them to discard good fruit, even flagrant wrongdoers. Wanting to axe them down and hack them up and torch them. “Ohhh, you’re gonna burn. You’re gonna burrrrrn! Hahahaha!” That right there is a shot of sourness and rot. It would be like me seeing a bruise on a banana and whacking the whole banana on the counter so I could throw it all away. I’d be a bad banana for so doing! …No, I wouldn’t; I’d just have bruised a bit more of myself.
But unlike a banana, I’m still growing. We’re all still growing. If we cut away the parts that produce bad results, that doesn’t make us less, it makes us more. We can grow better.
So what are we in this metaphor, really, then? Are we trees? Do we get thrown whole into the fire if we bear bad fruit, or just have branches lopped off? Are we strawberries and bananas? Cut away the bad parts and consign them to the garbage dump, but keep the rest? Are we blueberries, each one all good or all rotten?
Or are we greengrocers, with a variety of different fruits, each one having its good and bad parts? Can we choose a different supplier if the one we’ve been dealing with is giving us too much bad fruit to sell? Can we toss out whole crates of rotten fruit and take the loss rather than sneaking a few bad ones into each basket and leaving it up to the customers to sort through them? Do we know that however much we might like our customers, if we’re not careful with what we sell we won’t be doing well by them? Is it good for us to look after our customers, our fellow human beings – who might come back if we sell good fruit, or might not if we don’t?
Berries, trees, greengrocers? Well… which way of looking at it is going to produce the best fruit for you?