Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 7:13-29) transports me to a cautionary land where Jesus warns his listeners about the dangers of disguised devotion. He starts out using a Little Red Riding Hood image, exposing what big teeth the wool-wearing werewolf preachers have. Then he switches gears, and it sounds like it’s peach pickin’ time in Georgia as we travel to a farmer’s market to sample the fare. This market displays some heirloom varieties, the good fruits of faith and hope and love, side by side with some hot-house varieties, the forced fruits of fear and oppression and violence. It shouldn’t be hard to distinguish the good fruit from the bad, Jesus says. But there seem to be some folks with plebeian palates who can’t seem to tell the difference. They come to market proudly displaying their fruits, saying the right words and doing amazing things in his name, prophesying and performing miracles, but he rejects them and tosses them into the compost heap. Jesus’ words here can produce a lot of anxiety and lead to some intense worry over the fruit of our labor, keeping us up at night with questions of our eternal security – is my fruit of the right variety? Is my life of faith certifiable, good enough for the discerning taste of the Savior?
I think about how different this passage is from the karma yoga philosophy of Hindu’s Bhagavad Gita, which teaches its practitioners to act without being attached to the fruit of their actions. Just do the right thing, it says, and don’t concern yourself with the outcomes. With all the overemphasis and stressing out over outcomes in our results-oriented culture, I think we could use some karma yoga in our lives. We tend to do exactly as the Gita warns, to wear ourselves out, not from labor, but from worrying about the fruit of our labor. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t so far from the Gita’s teaching, though. Perhaps he was telling us to simply make sure we have been grafted onto the good tree, the good vine, to make sure we are getting our plant food from him and his way of love, and then we will be able to act without worrying about the outcomes. As long as the sap of saving grace is rising in us, the fruit will be good. The cautionary note for the cross-bearing followers of Christ is to make sure we don’t cross-pollinate with bad trees, ones that produce the rotten fruits of fear and hate, greed and violence.
Jesus’ image of the bad tree makes me think of Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit. The lyrics were inspired by a horrific Lawrence Beitler photograph of a 1930s era lynching. As terrible as the images of the black victims are, equally if not more disturbing are the images of the white bystanders, men and women and children, who stand under and around the trees smiling and laughing. From what I’ve read about civil rights history, most of these folks were undoubtedly active in the churches of their community; they were professing Christians who saw no contradiction between the teachings of Jesus and the social customs that led them to these murderous noose parties. Billie Holiday’s haunting voice gives expression to this contradiction: Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. With the perspective of 75 years or more of history, it’s easy for us to have 20-20 hindsight and wonder in dismay at how any Christian could bear such evil fruit. But Jesus’ words and Beitler’s photos give me pause to wonder about today’s hybrid varieties of Christianity that mix the teachings of sacrificial love with the power plays of the world. Could the mixed fruit of our churches inspire a future Billie Holiday type to sing of the strange contradictory blues of our faith? Lest that happen, let’s commit ourselves to strengthening our connection to the True Vine, Jesus; let’s continually deepen our roots in His Story in hopes that He will transform the history we make. That’s what these daily passages are all about – and it is my prayer that as we travel through these passages, our lives will bear ever more sweeter and juicier and life-giving fruit. I think I’ll go now and and open up a jar of blackberry preserves.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.