Matthew 12: “Make a Tree Good”
Sunday morning worship, August 5, 2018
“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” (Matthew 12:33). I thought a lot about that verse this week. How does one make a bad tree good? The website https://www.houzz.com/ideabooks/57801886/list/tree-care-5-ways-to-keep-your-trees-healthy offers five suggestions: (1) Protect the roots; (2) Protect the bark; (3) Water effectively; (4) Prune properly; and (5) Maintain healthy soil around the tree. That sounds simple and makes sense. So I wondered, “Does Jesus make us ‘good’ the same way?” and “Does this chapter show us how?”
Houzz says about a tree’s roots: “Oxygen is necessary for nutrient absorption by tree roots, which is why healthy soil has air space. Compacted soil is one of the biggest threats to tree roots because compaction impedes water infiltration and oxygen into the root zone.” Could it be that we ‘need room to breathe’ if we are to be ‘good’? Teachers and pastors in churches spend a lot of time talking about sin, about what’s right and what’s wrong. The Pharisees seem to have perfected that practice with their lists of rules governing almost anything that could happen to a person. In vv1-2 the Pharisee saw Jesus’ hungry disciples picking some grain and eating it on the Sabbath. The problem wasn’t in the picking of the grain; that was specifically allowed in the Pentateuch. The problem was in not honoring the Sabbath. According to Pharisaic practice the hungry disciples were breaking a rule; they were sinning. But Jesus took the Pharisees back to a time when King David and his men were also hungry. Jesus condones their entering the house of God and eating “the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests” (v4). Jesus adds to this the violation the practice of the “priest on Sabbath duty in the temple [who] desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent” (v5). Jesus taught a principle triumphed over a questionable practice: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (v7) because Jesus is not about condemnation. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v8). Jesus wants our character to reflect His. Learning the rules is a good place to begin. However, to be ‘good’ we must hear/see and follow what Jesus wants us to do in every situation. That means our hearts and our minds have to be so in tune with Jesus’ heart and mind that we are merely an extension of Him—He moves, we move; He commands, we obey. That’s a lot harder that blindly following some rule, but it gives us the room we need to breathe especially when we understand Jesus is merciful and compassionate, not rigid and blind.
Houzz says about a tree’s bark: “A tree’s bark is like a living armor that protects the tree. Damaging the armor makes it easy for fungal or bacterial infections to take hold and harm the tree by rotting from the inside.” Jesus asked the Pharisees in v29, “How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.” If what is inside of us, our character more or less, is stronger than the temptation we face, we will not allow the temptation to overtake us. However, if our character is deficient in some area, we are open for attack. Don’t we often wonder how we can make the same mistake over and over again? Don’t we find ourselves confessing the same sins multiple times? Most of us can’t just say I’m going to stop a particular practice and never do that particular action again. A few common examples might we getting angry, or impatient, or saying something we shouldn’t. Don’t we often tell ourselves when things are going well we don’t make those kinds of mistakes. But when we are tired, stressed, or we let our guard down maybe because we think we are alone or maybe we are just joking around, don’t we find ourselves slipping back into old habits? When we commit the same sin multiple times we reinforce that sin’s ability to impact our character. Looking at this same verse from the opposite perspective, we can tell ourselves we need to “tie that strongman up” and then cast him out. We have to be ruthless to overcome a sinful habit or stronghold. Moses in seeking to rid the young Israelite nation of its Egyptian pagan, idolatrous practices “took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it” (Exodus 32:20). Moses wasn’t finished until not one drop of the gold that had been fashioned into the calf could ever be found again. We must emulate Moses.
Houzz says about watering a tree: “Your trees need no extra watering in the dormant winter season unless they’ve been recently planted. It’s in the heat of summer or during drought conditions that a tree needs to be irrigated. Infrequent, deep watering is the preferred schedule for trees.” Jesus told the Pharisees: “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. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (vv35-37). Trees can “store up water” for the longer periods without water. Think about the way summers normally happen—days upon days of rain followed by times when the grass is so brittle it cracks underfoot. Grass has the ability to go dormant when those longer periods without watering pass only to turn green again when the water is abundant. Too many of us never take extended periods of time to get alone with God. Quick, short daily devotions are helpful. But we also need the extended periods of time alone with God. Rarely do I hear of anyone spending an entire night in prayer, or even going off alone for a day or two to re-energize their relationship with God. We may go on vacation to re-energize our bodies, but we don’t take the same kinds of vacations to re-energize our spirits. Don’t we value extended time periods with those we love? Would we be happily married if everything we did together lasted only a minute or two and then we were off again with someone or something else?
Houzz says to (1) prune crossing branches that rub against one another and create a wound in the bark; (2) prune dead and broken branches with a clean cut so the tree will self-heal; and (3) remove low branches to allow for more light. Jesus said, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out?” (vv25-28). We all know about those that “rub us the wrong way” and create a wound not only in our exteriors, but also cut us deeply. Chances are good there are things all of us need to put behind us and quit holding onto. Chances are even better all of us need to let a little more light from the Holy Spirit filter more deeply into our souls. If we want “the kingdom of God to come upon us” we need to be pruned. We need to undergo a little spiritual surgery. If the cuts are clean and done by the Spirit, we will be able to heal. When I visit people in the hospital I talk about two kinds of pain—the pain we have before surgery that is making us sick and getting worse and the pain we have following surgery that gives way to good health as we heal. We need to expose our failings to God and invite Him to do the pruning we need in the right time and in the right way. Houzz says, “The dormant winter season is a great time to prune trees before they push out any new growth in the spring…For people with black thumbs or who are new to pruning, it’s a good idea to hire a professional who can teach you the proper techniques or can simply do the pruning for you.” We wouldn’t let just anyone do heart surgery nor would we want heart surgery done on a healthy heart. There is a right time and right person for every necessary cut. It is not our job to cure everyone else’s problems.
Houzz says, “In the forest, trees do just fine on their own
without human care. A forest has an intact layer of decaying organic matter
that regularly enriches the soil and creates a rich microbial environment that
aids nutrient absorption by roots. The leaf litter layer also retains moisture
in the soil and creates a good soil structure for water infiltration.” Most of
our growth happens without us realizing it.
We struggle and struggle and struggle with an issue only to wake up one
day and wonder why we struggled so mightily with that issue. Isaiah prophesied
about Jesus, “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I
I will put my Spirit on him…A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory” (vv18-21). Everything in life requires a process. But know in the midst of life’s journey Jesus will not break us when we hurt or “snuff out” the beauty of any of us.
Jesus doesn’t grow us by breaking us; He prunes us in the right way at the right time. But we are still the same tree. He will water us with many and varied experiences throughout our lifetimes. He will protect our hearts and our minds from all of the diseases and sicknesses of the world of sin unless we choose to invite them in. As we read our Bibles and spend extended periods of time in His presence our roots will grow deep and strong. They will spread out and interlock with the roots of others reinforcing our strength like the mighty sequoias which stand tall because they do not stand alone. Life isn’t about learning all of the rules and then shutting off our minds and our hearts. It isn’t even about being right all of the time. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” “A bruised red He will not break and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.” “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him.” “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good.” Somewhere in there is what needs to happen in each of our lives.