Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 23. Good and Bad Trees
Mt 12:33 Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.
When we arrive at this verse our initial temptation may be to think, ‘We’ve been here before’ because in Study No.9 entitled ‘All about Fruit’ we considered Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 summarised, “By their fruit you will recognise them.” (Mt 7:16) These present verses seem to have a similar ring to them, but the emphasis of the two passages is different. The emphasis of chapter 7 verses is that you can tell the tree by the fruit. The emphasis of the verses that follow here is that what a tree is, it is and the fruit that comes will reveal what it is. Similar but slightly different. Let’s look at these verses.
“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (v.33) There is the fundamental teaching through these analogies: a good tree brings good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit; it is that simple. Now look at the strength of Jesus’ application of this principle: “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (v.34) Who is he talking to? The Pharisees. (v.24) We saw previously their folly but Jesus will have none of it: “You bunch of snakes!!!!” Nasty!
Now why does he say that? Well, go back into the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 and Satan comes to Eve with gentle, seductive words that are designed to undermine her. The snake is a deceiver and a liar (Jn 8:44) and even sometimes appears as an angel of light: “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Cor 11:14) To ‘masquerade’ means to disguise oneself and pass oneself off as someone different. Satan does that and Jesus says these apparent upholders of the Law do that. When he calls them a bunch of snakes he is not being insulting but factual!
His starting point is that they are evil. Now be clear on this, until we came to Christ we were evil. Evil simply means purposefully wrong. People are willfully godless, willfully unrighteous, willfully wrong-doers. We choose to be unpleasant to one another, to do others down, to take advantage of others, to be unkind, and so on. ‘Good’ means to correspond to the nature or character of God; evil is the opposite, to correspond to the nature or character of Satan, the one in rebellion against God. That is evil. When the apostle John wrote, “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one,” (1 Jn 5:19) he was distinguishing between good and evil. We who have been adopted as children of God have died to the old life of self-centred godlessness but those who do not fit this description are those whose foundation is self-centred godlessness and as such they are under Satan’s sway, because they are evil.
So here we have the perfect Son of God who comes bringing the goodness and love of God to mankind and, as we’ve recently seen, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4) Jesus comes and does all these wonderful things and then along come this bunch of theological conservative Jews who are more concerned with the minute detail of the Law than bringing all this goodness to the world. They couldn’t do it themselves, and they object to Jesus doing it. That sort of attitude can only be described as ‘evil’. Moreover, says Jesus, you prove it by your words. Your words reveal what you are like on the inside. Most of the time, people cannot help showing what they are like on the inside by the words that escape their lips. If the words are unkind and unpleasant, you have to question the state of the heart.
Jesus presses home the teaching: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (v.35) The fact that sometimes Christians speak wrongly suggests that the transformation of the heart may start at conversion but it continues throughout life. Yes, it is utterly changed at the point of conversion because the Holy Spirit takes up residence in this person in response to their surrender to the will of God for their life. It is changed as far as ultimate intention is concerned, but it seems that so often there can be dark recesses that escape the initial change and which only come to light and are dealt with as the years pass.
The ‘good man’ is the one who has surrendered their life to God and inside him (or her) there grows so much good, a combination of the work of the Spirit and the surrendered will of the individual to the will of God. The ‘evil man’ is the one who has never surrendered to God and so inside him (or her) is a store of self-centred and godless evil, and for that they will have to account, and if they quibble, it will be their words that will be used as evidence and brought in the case against them on the Last Day: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (v.36,37)
There is a direct challenge in Jesus’ teaching here and it would not have escaped the Pharisees’ understanding. It is that you are either surrendered to God – and will recognize and receive the Son of God – or you are not, and will not. Jesus’ presence, words and actions, act as a catalyst to reveal the state of heart of people. Commentator, William Barclay, once wrote, “If, when a man is confronted with Jesus, his soul goes out in a thrill to that wonder and beauty, that man is on the way to salvation. But if, when he is confronted with Jesus, a man sees nothing lovely then he stands condemned. His reaction has condemned him. God sent Jesus in love. He sent Him for that man’s salvation. But that which was sent in love has become a condemnation. But it is not God who has condemned the man; God only loved him; the man has condemned himself. By a man’s reaction to Jesus Christ, that man stands revealed. By his reaction to Jesus Christ his soul is laid bare. If he regards Christ with love, even with wistful yearning, for him there is hope; but if in Christ he sees nothing lovely he has condemned himself. He who was sent in love has become to him for judgment.”
And that is how it was with the Pharisees. Basically, they condemned themselves with their terrible responses to Jesus. Jesus simply uses their behaviour and their words to deliver this teaching which comes as a warning to all.