Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
Very often when Christians think of “the fruits of faith,” they run to deeds. Certainly Jesus’ focus on deeds in our present Gospel warrants such an assumption. Jesus, after all, says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”
The message is clear: it’s not just what a preacher says, but what he does. “He doesn’t practice what he preaches.” This is supported by what St. Paul says about ministers, that they are to be above reproach. We’ve meditated how ministers who are “closet sinners,” meaning, they are harboring some sin they don’t repent of, and their message subtly begins to reflect that. They might be preaching the Gospel too much as “a liberation from,” as opposed to, “a fulfillment of” the Law. Or, they might be overcompensating by preaching the Law too harshly.
So what a preach “does” is important, and the hearer should be cognizant of his “fruits” in terms of deeds. But there’s also a lot of support that what Jesus means by fruits is the preacher’s words. What is the support for this?
First, there’s simply the logic of the expression “fruits of faith.” The only thing that truly distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian is the sounds that come out of his mouth in worship. There are lots of good non-Christians and in the ancient world there were certainly a lot of good pagan teachers. This is what made them look like lambs! But it was their teaching that ended up being thorny. And even in the Christian preacher’s case, if he himself is a wolf, it’s not his personal sin that causes the “ouch” but the teaching arising from that sin.
Second, in the above passage, Jesus says the one with bad fruits will be thrown in hell, if that’s what fire suggests, which is likely. When else does Jesus speak like this in the context of false prophets? Here are His words, which sound almost exactly like our Gospel for this week: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Here, clearly Jesus is talking about words. If that guides our understanding of fruits, then Jesus is talking about words. Those who speak condemnable words will be condemned on the day of judgment, which is to be thrown into the fire. The parallels to today’s passage are clear.
Third, the book of Hebrews and Isaiah both speak of the “fruit of the lips,” and in both cases, it’s in the context of what a false prophet does not do. Remember, a false prophet from his internal vision of a bad world speaks bad things, even if subtly: “The world is evil but here’s how together we can save the world!” The good prophet speaks from a thankful heart and a knowledge that Jesus has brought “peace on earth.” So, hear Hebrews: “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” And now hear Isaiah: “‘I create the fruit of the lips: Peace, peace to him who is far off and to him who is near,’ Says the LORD, ‘And I will heal him.’
Fourth, there’s the simple context. Jesus is talking about prophets! Prophets are preachers, speakers. They in fact are judged by what comes out of their mouths, not by whether they sin. Yes, they should be above reproach. And yes, the hearer should be wary of they have a lifestyle that blatantly goes against the will of God. But as we’ve said elsewhere, there is the difference between a sinner and one who commits sin – the former identifies with his sin and the latter confesses it. The preacher should even do the latter less, but it would be unreasonable for hearers to judge any preacher a false prophet who ever sins.
Finally, we recall what the will of God is, in the context of Matthew. (a) It is something we pray be done; (b) it is to seek and save the little ones, and (c) this by Jesus’ death on the cross. The good prophet “does” this by, well, “This do(ing)” for instance. Jesus says of Holy Communion, “This do.” That’s one important way a preacher “does” the will of God, in which we see everything come together: it is what we pray for; in it Christ seeks and saves the lost little ones through the forgiveness of sins; it conveys the benefits of Christ’s death.
Other ways the preacher “does” this will of God is by getting out of the way of the message of the Gospel, Christ’s words. He preaches repentance and forgiveness.
As we began saying, what a preacher does is also important, and part of the fruits we should evaluate. Especially because he may be playing that subtle game of enabling his sin by his preaching. But in the end, as Jesus Himself expounds later in the Gospel, it’s by a preacher’s words he will be justified. The preacher should be most careful about every idle word. Every word spoken should be geared to standing out of the Father’s execution of His will, seeking the lost little ones, and proclaiming the cross.
Why? Because the Father wants the fruit of the vine to be conveyed to His children. Interesting that.