Blackberries and thorns

Published 10:37 am Saturday, July 8, 2017

by Nathan Decker

You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.
– Matthew 7:16-18 NRSV

This time of year always makes me think of blackberries. I can’t stand blackberries, but it has nothing to do with the sweet-sour taste they give when I eat them. It has to do with memory — a memory that arises with the smell, taste or even hint of blackberries. When I was a kid, my mom had us run around barefoot to save money on shoes. (Yes, Ozarks, yes, hillbillies, no, not quite dirt-floor poor.) My Aunt Shirley went to the school of bad experiences, and she wanted to make sure that we did as well. She would take us out into the woods to pick blackberries in this shoe-less state. I remember cursing the plants (in my mind, not out loud) for their thorns that dug into my hands, and yes, my feet. I’m not sure Jesus ever walked in blackberry thorns, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded my silent words.

Chapter 7 of Matthew is a part of the large text we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” The chapter begins as a lesson on not judging.

“Judge not, lest ye be judged” was how I was forced to regurgitate it in my youth for sword drills. This sounds like good advice, but then Jesus goes and ruins it. In the same chapter, he warns us of wolves hidden in sheep’s wool and tells us to discern intentions by looking deep within the heart.

I think this polarity is better advice. We are not called to point out other folks’ wrong-doing any more than we want them to point out our ills. (Something about sawdust in their eye, 2×4 in our eye.) We are, however, called to judge our heart and the hearts of those we follow — teachers, preachers, leaders, etc. Evil for evil’s sake is different than making a mistake or trying to survive in an unjust situation. This is where Jesus challenges us to see the fruit. Jesus is not simply giving an “ends justify the means” ethics.  He’s telling us to look to the heart, intention and will. How? If the fruit is bad or non-existent, the roots and the heart are most likely not good. On the other hand, if the fruit is sweet, beautiful and bountiful — then God is probably in it, no matter how thorny or ugly the plant may be.

It goes without saying that we are asked to be self-reflective at the end of this chapter. What are we wasting? (Pearls before swine) What road are we taking? (Narrow or wide) Where are we building?  (On the rock or on the sand) And most profoundly, what fruit are we showing? Jesus would encourage us to ask, seek, knock and be surprised at where these questions take us. It’s what Jesus would do.  Hmm… maybe Jesus did know something about blackberry cobbler.

NATHAN DECKER is the pastor of High Street United Methodist Church. Contact him at 562-3367.