From the parables about fruitlessness and the sower and seed parable, we learn to ask ourselves and God’s Spirit the following questions:
Are you saying something to me that I am missing?
Are you saying something to me that isn’t getting into my deepest soul?
Are you saying something to me that I haven’t incorporated into how I live?
What are you saying to me that I welcome eagerly, honestly, openly, and obediently?
Some clues to how we can answer the above questions show up in the parables where Jesus talks about identifying plants by their fruit.
False Prophets: Matthew 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45
Jesus says, “And recognize those who claim to be speaking God’s truth but are themselves false. They come looking harmless but from deep inside are rapacious, hungry, thieving extortioners. You will find them out by their actions, the results of their actions, their fruits. Can anyone find grapes on brambles or figs on thistles? A good tree—useful, health-producing—bears lovely and strengthening fruit, but a worthless, worn out, unfit, rotten tree bears diseased fruit, causing pain and trouble. A healthy tree cannot bear diseased fruit that causes pain and trouble; neither can a rotten tree bear lovely, healthy fruit that increases strength. Every tree that does not bear lovely, healthy fruit is cut down and cast onto the bonfire. Therefore, recognize false from true prophets by their fruits.”
By inference from what characterizes false prophets we can learn what characterizes true prophets.
False prophets: True prophets: (the opposites)
Rapacious (greedy, predatory) Generous, self-sacrificing
Hungry (unsatisfied) Satisfied, content
Thieving (taking by guile or force) Respecting boundaries
Extorting (forcing by fear) Guarding
Causing pain Bringing healing
Causing trouble Bringing peace
What makes the difference? Even if the truth is the same, what is inside the prophet makes a big difference; truth told with a bad intent beats all the lies you can invent (William Blake).
Attributing the Good Work of God’s Spirit to the Devil: Matthew 12:33-37
The context for this passage is verse 24:
When the Pharisees heard [that Jesus deprived demons of their power over people] they said, “This one does not have power over demons except with the permission of or by means of Beelzebub, the lord over evil spirits.”
Jesus disputed their accusation by saying, “If I have power over demons by the Spirit of God, the Kingdom of God has come to you.” And then he went on to say that it is impossible to send away (forgive) the slander against the Holy Ghost of attributing evil to the Holy Ghost or crediting the Devil with the good done by the Holy Ghost. I think the impossibility is because the people who do this have such an upside down view of things that their need to repent is invisible to them. If they think God does evil and the devil does good, how can they turn to God?”
So now to our parable.
“Either make the tree good and the fruit it produces healthy and useful, or make the tree rotten and corrupt and its fruit unfit for use; thus the tree is known, understood, by its fruit.
“Children of vipers, how are you, diseased, blind, and wicked as you are, how are you able to say anything good or useful or honorable? Thus, what fills your heart shows up in what your mouth says. A good person brings valuable, precious, good things out of the good treasury of the heart, and a wicked person brings harassing, annoying, pain-causing, troublesome things out of the wicked treasury of the heart.
“Additionally, I tell you that every lazy word, every time people speak in a way that evades the good they know to do and say, creates a debt that they will have to pay up, restore on the day of judgment. Thus out of their words comes the judgment of innocence or guilt.”
Wow! Just as Jesus does with the “you have heard it said do not kill” and he goes inside to “do not be filled with rage” earlier in Matthew, here he says words are as important as actions, and they reveal what is in the heart.
This parable has several directions it can take:
First, what does it say about other people or other congregations or other denominations?
Basically, Jesus tells us to take a look at outcomes. Do we see a swath of destruction in the wake of another person or group? Do the leaders get rich off the followers? Do people come away from meetings more likely to behave lovingly or more likely to behave angrily or judgmentally? Does interpersonal abuse flourish? Is an individual causing mistrust and division between friends? Is an individual creating chaos rather than peace? We are expected to be wise as serpents and harmless or innocent as doves, not children of vipers as above. In other words, pay attention and don’t be naïve.
Further, pay attention as well to what people say and how they use words. Do they use words to blame others? Do they use words to evade responsibility? Do they create a deficit of love by how they speak?
Second, what does it say about me personally or us as a congregation or denomination?
Individually, we need to examine our own hearts and open them to the searchlight love of God to show us if we are operating out of greed, hunger, fear, bullying or whether we are operating out of love. We can do better by knowing ourselves better and cutting ourselves less slack at others’ expense. We can listen to how we talk and what we are trying to do with language. We can ask God to help us see how we are blaming others, how we are evading the responsibility we have to be loving.
We cannot know when we see a person in a limited period of time whether that person is moving toward or away from God and the law of love. People in transition can cause harm that they are just inches away from regretting. Or they can be just inches away from justifying the harm by blaming it on someone else. In the first case, they will repent and can learn to make better choices; in the second case, they make it easy to do harm again.
However, we do have a responsibility in church discipline to say to a person causing harm, “Stop it.” We don’t have to speculate about the direction of their spiritual journey and judge them as unfit for God’s Kingdom. We just have to act out of hearts of love for the person AND for the other people he or she harms.
This is extremely hard work. It is easier to tell someone they are doing wrong when we are angry. But the Bible is very clear that the proper approach is humble and loving, with full awareness of our own weakness and areas of blindness.