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Good Trees Can Bear Bad Fruit
February 3, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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Who's calling trees bad, anyway?

"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that fails to bear good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them."
—Bible, Matthew 7:15–18

At an early age I began to appreciate this parable (not to be taken literally) attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. People claimed to be good, but I could see they were not good.

As I grew in age and observed people I came to understand that people are complicated. Very few people do only good things or bad things. Some are mostly good, some are mostly bad, but most of us muddle along, often not even sure if what we do is good or bad. We just do what we are expected to do. We might be expected to contribute to United Way by the very same employer that pays us to maximize returns for shareholders by fleecing customers.

Jesus lived in a mainly agricultural society, but he was a carpenter by trade before becoming a rabbi. Either he never grew fruit trees, or he was simplifying for his audience, or Matthew did not take very good notes. Good trees do not always produce good fruit. There are at least four things that will ruin the fruit on a tree. There are insects and other pests. There are diseases, mostly fungi of various sorts. There are animals, like birds and rodents that like to take a bite out of a fruit before moving onto the next one. Last but not least is the weather, which can ruin fruit by being too dry, too wet, too cold, or too hot.

So you might want to expand the parable based on your own experience. Is Christianity a good tree that unfortunately has suffered from two millennia of (metaphorical) insects, mold, fruit-loving birds, and bad weather? What about your personal family: good, bad, or complicated? Does democracy always produce good results? Christians, in particular Roman Catholics, supported monarchy as the best system of government: was it? Does socialism always produce a good society? Does free market capitalism?

Another perspective concerns bad trees. Clearly in the Jesus parable the focus is on agricultural trees. If an apple tree does not make apples, the farmer cuts it down and plants a new apple tree. But for wood you might want a fir tree, that has no fruit edible to humans. In time the more enlightened part of the human race learned that every sort of tree has a value. Each type lives in an ecosystem where it provides food or a home to many other species.

I do not think this particular passage is meant to be nationalist or racist, but you can see how it could be bent that way. The books of the Old Testament in particular exalt the Jewish tribes and have no issue with pushing out or killing anyone unrelated who got in their way. There is a great emphasis on purity in Jewish culture. To some extent Christians took that over. To this day some Jewish sects refuse to eat fruit produced on grafted trees, seeing grafting as a threat to purity.

Racism and classism have their roots in concepts of purity. Here we should contemplate the difference between humans and fruit trees. All humans have the same basic set of genes, hence our coherence as a species. But variation in genes does give rise to some small ethnic differences, and the idea of races within the species. The main differences are clearly cultural. When a child is growing up all kinds of factors come into play. Parents who are deemed failures by the mainstream of our society often raise children who are quite successful. Conversely, people who are successful are often surprised when their children do poorly at school or become drug addicts or other sorts of failures.

I think there are two good ways to interpret this parable. One is to beware of leaders and sales pitches. The problem with that is that leaders are necessary and trust is necessary for a society to function. Simple rules do not work well. Let experience be your guide, and whenever possible, check to see if history is compatible with the image being presented. Beware, but don't be unfair.

The other is not about wolves in sheep's clothing: it is about ourselves. In nature wolves play an important ecological role. In human society perhaps being a sheep and being good are not 100% the same thing.

What are your fruits? What do you give to society? Are you too greedy sometimes? Are you too much of a mindless follower sometimes? Do you refuse to follow the advice of good leaders, like a dumb ass sheep run amok?

Perhaps things have not changed so much in 2000 years. Each of us still has a life to live, with many decisions to make within that life. Making a good life means making good decisions. Beware there are all sorts of people who want to influence your decisions for their own purposes.

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