Figs, thistles and discerning direction | Questions Jesus Asked #18

Do people pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? (Matt 7:16)

Jesus is talking about self-styled religious/political leaders of his day, spokespersons for righteousness and justice. (There is no shortage of such people in today’s world either.) Watch out, Jesus cautions. Things (and people, and spiritual “authorities”) are not always what they seem. But one can test them by seeing what “fruit” results from fine words and promises.

Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Well, of course not! Why even ask? Every plant produces according to its nature – figs, grapes, or any other fruit. Everyone knows that plants are identified by what they produce over time.

2010-08 - Kyiv Village 31 berries 2912
Picking berries in “the village” – Grigorivka, Ukraine, August, 2010.

Jesus implies that it’s the same with people. People aren’t identified by how they present themselves, but by the fruit of their lives (seen in word and deed over time)… namely, what kind of fruit is it. If we’re talking about spiritual things, we know what the fruit of the spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Anyone can pretend to be living in (and speaking for) the kingdom… but only for a while. One’s essence ultimately reveals itself in words and actions. Over time, one will observe in real life whether the Kingdom is being represented by a true ambassador or an impostor. There will be a visible increase in fruit (like goodness, gentleness, and joy) or there will not.

Good point… but is there more? Why doesn’t Jesus just stick to presenting simple propositions? Is his use of question here just a nifty rhetorical device, or does it teach us something about how asking questions could take us further than merely giving information?

With a question, Jesus reframes a conversation about spiritual leadership into the context of the world of nature (and invites the listener to do the same). From a distance the little black berries on a buckthorn could be mistaken for grapes. Could certain thistle flowers look enough like a fig plant to trick someone? Maybe, but not for long.

frangula-alnus buckthorn berries
If you weren’t paying attention, you MIGHT approach this buckthorn plant to try to “pick grapes.”

How do you know that a particular a plant will give you the desired fruit? From a distance you can’t. You need to get up close – close enough to actually see the fruit growing. There are plants (and people and ideas) that, from a distance, might seem promising to pursue. But knowing whether you should do so requires closer examination.

As you observe closely, what sort of fruit is actually being produced? And (if we’re talking about spiritual concerns) how does it compare with the fruit of the Spirit?

In nature – even though things are not always what they seem on the surface – there are basic principles at play: principles that can be observed and, at some level, understood. God uses the world of nature and our reflection upon the natural world to teach us.

How does this question echo in our ears today? We need discernment in sifting through the many often conflicting voices competing for our attention, agreement and allegiance.

I hear Jesus challenging me to look beneath the surface of how promising I might perceive something to be. He’s asking me how it stands up to direct observation over time in terms of bringing forth faithfulness, peace and gentleness – the fruit of the Spirit.

2015-06 IMG_20150624 IMG_0202 berries on mill pond road
Berries along our creek.YUM! June, 2015.

What are your expectations? Why are you following this teacher or that teaching? Why are you heading in this direction in life? You’re looking for good to result… you’re looking for FRUIT. But stop and think… does fruit just grow anywhere? On any sort of plant? Of course not. What are you looking for and, in that light, are you really looking in the right place?

As a leader, I have to ask myself, “Do tactics or “method” or even compelling righteous vision yield the fruit of the Spirit?” The true fruit comes from the heart and, while it can and should be pruned and fertilized to maximize the quantity and quality of fruit, you can’t stop a vine from growing at least SOME grapes. And you can’t pull a single fig out of even the most “figgy-looking” thistle.

The heart is the wellspring of our day-to-day life. Guard it well! Be sensitive to how the heart of a leader, a movement, a concept is reflected in bringing forth fruit of the Spirit (or not). Don’t be drawn in by promises that can never be fulfilled because of a heart that is barren and cannot deliver what you’re actually seeking.



This post is one of a series, which begins here.

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