“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7-10 )
Anyone who has watched a fruit tree through the course of a year, or has looked closely at the gnarled bark, knots, and middlin’ fruit of an older tree, can tell you that not all trees –even of the same species– are equally beautiful or frutiful. Not to mention, their beauty is fleeting. The beauty of a fruit tree’s blossoms in the spring often passes very quickly, so that the energy it takes to later bear fruit in those same spots can be redirected toward the production of something more useful: food.
The piece of this gospel passage that intrigues me is the call for the leaders to be more useful, not by “stepping up” and lording their blossoms over their flock as a model to aspire to, but by stepping back and repenting of their pride.
I was considering these matters (aging, pride, character) on my other blog today, in a post about the retirement of football coach Tony Dungy, a man of deep faith. He’s a classic example of someone who has borne much fruit, and achieved much goodwill the world over. Yet he’s also as humble as they come.
It takes humility and wisdom to actively repent. We don’t often go there eagerly. Yet it often takes repentence to achieve renewal and better fruitfulness as well. Similarly, the way to a good harvest is through a kind of death in winter, with the promise of rebirth in the spring. Sometimes through the humiliating, hard work of enduring “cold” periods in our lives, or aging, or being beaten by the elements (hard rains that knock off our blossoms, hot sun that scorches but gives nutrients), we achieve a kind of peace and identity that is rooted not in what we’ve accomplished or who our family/team/nation is, but in what we’ve given up or endured for the sake of others and for God.
And finally, for the tree that has aged gracefully but is perhaps not without its “wounds”, even in death there is still potential for fruitfulness and beauty. So not even all “bad” trees are destined for the fire. As a woodworker who occasionally builds furniture with cherry or walnut wood, I can attest to that beauty firsthand. Burled or wounded wood (and fruit/nut tree wood in general) is some of the most prized raw material for woodworkers the world over.
God is certainly the “What have you done for me lately?” deity, as Jesus suggests to the Pharisees. But He is also the God of second and third and seventy-seventh chances, of forgiveness and repentence.