Either make the tree good and its fruit good: or make the tree evil, and its fruit evil. For by the fruit the tree is known.
Now and forever. Amen.
It's a beautiful day outside, I've just eaten supper, and I've only got about half an hour before going out to visit a friend. So what I'm trying to say is, I have to make this quick. So let's dig in!
In the previous chapter, Jesus is seen upbraiding the crowds for their lack of faith, for choosing to be scandalized by Him, rather than being thankful for the wonders He was performing for them. In this chapter, we witness exactly what Jesus was talking about in the Pharisees. They are critical of Him, and even accuse Him of casting out devils by the power of Beelzebub, prince of the devils.
So, once again, we see Jesus chastising them in the chapter. He begins by demonstrating the absurdity of such an accusation. You're probably all familiar with the "a house divided" argument. He also makes a couple of other arguments, which I won't get into at this time. Rather, I want to focus on the image of the tree and its fruits that Jesus alludes to.
It's important to understand this context though. And immediately preceding this verse, Jesus says, "Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come." Then, He gives us this very well known image of the tree, saying "For by the fruit the tree is known."
He explains further, "O generation of vipers, how can you speak good things, whereas you are evil? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of a good treasure bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of an evil treasure bringeth forth evil things."
The image is actually really good, and pretty well understood. It's also simple. If you have a good heart, you will do good deeds and speak good things. If you have an evil heart, you will do evil and say evil. This is very much in line with what Jesus said in the previous chapter, wherein he spoke of taking scandal. The disposition of the heart is what causes a person to be scandalized by others, even when the others are doing good!
Likewise here, when Jesus is doing good works, the Pharisees, rather than praising God and honoring Jesus for the good He is doing, instead accuse Him of being possessed, and casting out demons in the manner of a witch doctor.
Jesus is going a bit deeper here, however. These aren't just grumpy men who are irascible and moody. There's something more fundamental going on here, and the image of the tree is central to it. If a tree is producing bad fruit, what's happening to it? It's not strong and healthy, but rather it is sick, and rotting from within. Its core corrupted.
But the tree has a long and ancient heritage within Jewish lore. It goes right back to the Garden. Adam and Eve had their choice of fruit from any and all trees in the Garden, including the Tree of Life, but they were not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This language, this imagery, shows Adam and Eve in a perfect state, a perfect condition, in their Original Innocence. They were permitted everything except one thing: sin--which brings about within a person a loss of innocence and a profound understanding of the goodness of the good and the badness of the evil.
This tree was a tree of death, and eating its fruit brought death to humanity. More importantly, the Tree of Life which stood at the center of the Garden represents the Divine Life, or the Holy Spirit, residing within the heart of the person. Adam and Eve enjoyed communion with God in their Original Justice. Once they ate of the Tree of Death, the Holy Spirit departed them.
This is what Jesus is getting at when He's talking about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit comes to reside in each of us in the life of Grace, to blaspheme the Spirit is to drive Him out. Disbelief in His power, disinterest in the life He has to offer, unrepentance for your sins, and the notion that you have nothing that needs forgiveness are all manifestations of this blasphemy. Unrepentant deadly sin is the unforgivable because forgiveness requires receptivity to that forgiveness, and an opening up of oneself to the life of Grace, which is the Life of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus is talking about a tree that is rotten to its core, and therefore produces bad fruit, He's talking about a soul that is devoid of that which gives it life: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the abundance of the heart, filling it with life and love. The Holy Spirit is that good treasure, and if we are filled with the Divine Life, His grace overflows out of us, and our fruits, our actions and words, will be filled with life and love. When we drive the Holy Spirit out, then what is our treasure? What is our abundance, but death, and loathing, and anger, and hatred, and accusation?
When Jesus says in verse 29, "how can any one enter into the house of the strong, and rifle his goods, unless he first bind the strong? and then he will rifle his house," the strong one here is the Holy Spirit, and we are the house. No one can enter into us (no demon can possess us), unless we first bind the Holy Spirit and let the demon in. But with the Holy Spirit unbound within us, no demon can touch us. We are protected from them, and the death that they bring.
But Jesus warns us. In verses 43-45, He says, "when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation."
It's a strict warning. Jesus is there to drive out the evil spirits from within us. He is here to free us from our sins and bring life to us. We may let Him do so, but if we do not let the Holy Spirit come within and fill our hearts, if we allow our souls to remain empty, neglecting prayer and fasting, then our souls become that empty, swept, garnished house. We may practice good virtues, but if it is not born out of the love that the Holy Spirit brings, then when that demon returns, and finds it empty, he will return with others and make our souls more desolate than before.
And isn't this the truth! How often do we confess our sins, but then neglect the life of Grace. We do not pray, nor fast, nor give help to the poor. We do not do those things Jesus commands us to do. And after a short time, we fall back into our life of sin, and often fall back into it more deeply than before. When we clean our souls, we must invite in the Spirit of God. We must persist in that life of Grace, keeping it alive. We must take the Eucharist often, and exercise those Gifts we received in Baptism and Confirmation.
Then, filled with the life of grace, we will bear good fruit. Be a living tree, and do not bind Spirit. Bear good fruit, not rotting fruit.
God bless you, and thank you for reading!