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When we speak of the fruit test in the gospels, three passages come to mind:
Luke 6.43-45: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
Matthew 7.15-18: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
Matthew 12.33-35: “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. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
These passages answer a question that typically arises when I invite people to be open to more theological perspectives and to listen to the marginalized (as I have recently in Like Teacher, Like Student and The Plank In Our Own Eye and Social Privilege). People want to know, “How do you know which person’s interpretation of the Bible is correct?”
The good thing about this question is that it comes from people who understand that we all interpret the Bible. All sacred texts need to be interpreted, but sometimes, we confuse our interpretations with the text itself and fear that if we come to understand the scriptures in a new way that means the scriptures themselves are being threatened. Over the years, I’ve often been accused of “throwing out the Bible” or “ignoring what the Bible teaches.” But that isn’t the case at all.
I may challenge a certain interpretation of a Bible passage because the interpretation is destructive or harmful and, when applied to the lives of real people, results in death rather than abundant life. But that is very different from throwing out the Bible.
I may embrace a different interpretation of a text than the ones I used to teach or that some of my readers (or accusers) take for granted. But that is very different from ignoring what the Bible teaches. In order to consider interpreting the Bible differently, I first have to take the Bible seriously.
Because I take the scriptures seriously, I believe it is important, as I shared in the above two articles referenced, that we learn how people who experience life differently than us read, hear, and understand the scriptures we have in common.
The scriptures shape our lives, and so we don’t just need to know “which person’s interpretation of the text is correct.” We also need to ask “Whose interpretation is not correct? And how can we know?” The gospels teach us how in the above passages.
Jesus invites us to look beyond what teachers say, to look at what is left in the wake of various textual interpretations. Are lives being enriched or destroyed?
European, colonial, and patriarchal theology, which is often privileged by being referred to simply as theology with no adjective, has been the source of much harm in our world. I came to learn this through sitting at a shared table where I could hear non-homogenous voices speaking on their respective experiences. As we learn to listen to those who differ from us, we can understand what consequences scriptural interpretations and policies we’ve built on them have had for different sectors of the human family.
From this posture of listening to the stories of one another, we can begin to discern which interpretations of sacred texts are “healthy trees” bearing “healthy fruit” in people’s lives, and which interpretations are “decayed trees” producing “rotten fruit.”
Jesus’s principle is true of all religions and all of the texts that each religion holds sacred. Again, sacred texts and the interpretations and explanations of those texts are not the same thing. Every religion contains various interpretations of its texts. As followers of Jesus, we must have our blind spots pointed out through perceiving the fruit of these different interpretations and having the courage to choose interpretations that are truly life giving rather than “rotten“ for all people.The early Jesus communities of the gospels saw this test as an ethical teaching that enabled them to find the “way” that leads to life rather than to self-destruction.
It is as true for us today as it was for them. There is no such thing as an “objective” interpretation of sacred texts, and theologies tell us far more about theologians than they can ever tell us about God. As James Cone states in God of the Oppressed, “The assumption that theological thinking is objective or universal is ridiculous” (p. 41). A few pages before this statement he explains why, “Because Christian theology is human speech about God, it is always related to historical situations, and thus all of its assertions are culturally limited . . . Theology is not universal language; it is interested language and thus is always a reflection of the goals and aspirations of a particular people in a definite social setting.” (p. 36). And as Cone stated in most recent work, published posthumously, “None of us is free of bias, and the more power a group has, the more distorted its views.” (Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian, Kindle Location 939.)
When a non-homogenous community can analyze the fruit of various perspectives, when that community includes diversity of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and identity, we can begin to create interpretations of sacred texts that are life giving for the whole human family, not just some sectors of it.
As individuals, we do not see things as they are but rather as we ourselves are, initially, privately, or personally. Does this mean that subjective theologies are without value? No, all theologies have moral value: they either trend toward life, or lead toward death. We determine together collectively the value of interpretations that our communities hold sacred.
Let me give three concrete examples. There are various interpretations of the Bible texts that some people use to address same-sex relationships and people who identify as transgender and/or gender non-conforming. Here are the facts.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people from ages 10 to 24. Suicide is the leading cause of death of LGB youth nationally. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers who report zero to low family rejection. Many of these parents feel they must choose between their faith and their children. (Learn more here.)
- LGBT youth are twice as likely to end up homeless than heterosexual youth. 20% of homeless youth are LGBT, yet only 10% of the general youth population are LGBT. And on top of this, once they are thrown out by their families, 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth. No wonder LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%). (Learn more here.)
- Transgender women are murdered in the U.S. in shockingly high numbers. And the number of these hate-crimes continues to grow each year at an alarming rate. (Learn more here and here.)
When an interpretation of any sacred text in any religion produces this type of fruit, that interpretation must be deemed “destructive.”
We could also use other examples of destructive interpretations.
Interpretations have been used to justify racism, xenophobia, subjugation of women, and the economic creation of poverty. And that is only a few.
With this in mind, we examine the sayings and teachings of Jesus in their own social setting. Jesus was a poor, Jewish man in a 1st Century Galilee and Judea that was under Roman political and economic control. His wisdom teachings helped his followers to create an intentional community that embraced their interconnectedness with and interdependence on each other as a means of survival. Stephen J. Patterson in his book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins puts it quite nicely.
“To seek the empire of God might just mean seeking out that way of life by which all have access to the means to life, even the poor and the hungry . . . Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive— which is to say, salvation. (p. 74-75)
Ponder that last phrase for a moment, “ A way to survive—which is to say, salvation.”
Liberation and survival are two separate things; thriving is more than surviving. And while the ultimate goal is to thrive, the “in between” goal is to survive in the process of getting there. So for all those working toward a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, and especially for those who are allowing the teachings of Jesus to matter in their lives and shape their perspectives and actions, the gospels’ fruit test is something we must not ignore.