“Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit.” – Matthew 12:33
This is one of the familiar passages in the Bible. In many places in the Scriptures man is likened to a tree. We read in the first Psalm, “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” So, too, in Jeremiah: “Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.”
It is evident that in our text the Lord is speaking about men, though His language is concerning trees. It is man that is known by his fruit, man who must be either good or corrupt according as his fruit is, man who is subject to the law so obvious in the world of nature, namely, that what proceeds from a thing must be of the same quality as the thing itself.
But, it is asked, what are the fruits of the human tree? What is it that going forth from a man reveals his inner nature? One answer is, his sincere actions and words, whatever he says and does as the spontaneous expression of his thoughts and affections.
The tree does not bring forth ripened fruit in a moment; so it is with man. Not until character is formed for good or evil does he give any infallible sign of the kind of fruit which may be expected of him. Before that time he is not, in the full sense, the good tree which bringeth forth good fruit or the corrupt tree which bringeth forth evil fruit, but is becoming one or the other. We are commanded to make the tree either good or corrupt. We are created with freedom of choice, and the choice must be ours. The Lord cannot make us good without our free consent and cooperation, for it is only so that we can be formed into the image and likeness of our Creator. This He does as we make ourselves receptive of His truth in our minds and His love in our hearts. We come into His image and likeness as His life of love and wisdom is received and reciprocated.
But love and wisdom, or goodness and truth, cannot remain pent up, idle, and inactive. Wherever they coexist they must needs express themselves in kind and helpful actions or, what is the same thing, in uses. Uses, or good works, will be the fruit they bear. In an evil man the reverse is the case. Instead of good he loves evil, instead of truth he thinks and believes falsity; his deeds, instead of being full of benefits to others, have exclusive reference to himself, and breathe no spirit of neighborly kindness. If they appear good outwardly, they are inwardly corrupt, being done for the sake of gaining favor with or influence over others. One lesson of the text is that it is less sinful to be openly evil than to be hypocritically good.
In the other life our real nature is made manifest. There the text is always fulfilled: “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit.”
To some extent the quality of one’s life is known here. A good child gives proof of his efforts to be obedient. A youth who indulges his evil passions and appetites seldom fails to make clear his nature. The same is true of the adult. A selfish man cannot long succeed in hiding his selfishness. In any event, whether the fact be clearly discerned or not, the tree is always showing by its fruit the kind of tree that it is. “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.” In the world of spirit it is a universal law that the tree and its fruit must be alike, both good or both evil.
Our affections and thoughts manifest their nature in acts. The comparison of a man to a tree is both striking and suggestive. All people like to think of themselves as trees bringing forth good fruit. The tree represents the man himself, or the will, the leaves the understanding, and the fruit the outward life. The word “charity” has often been misunderstood. It has been thought to mean alms-giving and similar acts. A good man will of course give aid to those in need when he sees that it is wise to do so, but such deeds comprise but a small part of what is meant by charity. Charity is love to the neighbor as expressed in the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In its essence charity is a feeling of kindness and good will, and as this feeling inevitably expresses itself in actions, so charity includes all good and loving actions.
Paul writes, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity… I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
As the purpose of the tree is to produce fruit, so the purpose of life is to do good. Charity implies a life of active uses. But before we can do good, evil must be cast out of the heart, so that our motives will be pure. This is the first step. The welfare of the entire community is far more important than that of any individual in it. Consequently he is most useful and charitable whose life most conduces to the common good. For this reason everyone should have some occupation or employment as a means of serving others. Often our employments are regarded only as a purely selfish means of earning a livelihood. But we are not sufficient unto ourselves. We should have very little if we were limited to only that which we obtain by our own labors. Society has many needs, and to serve these needs there are many occupations. So each one of us has a part in providing for the well-being and even for the existence of society; and in faithfully performing the duties for which we are qualified we find the way to serve the neighbor and to fulfill the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is comparatively easy to do occasional acts of kindness, but to be patient, honest, just, and faithful in the commonplace details of everyday work is far from easy. Yet this is charity.
This broader view of our relation to the community enlarges our ideas of humanity by lifting up our thoughts above the mere individual to the community and then on to the nation and to universal man. The community is our neighbor in a higher sense than any individual, and the welfare of the world is of still greater concern.
Then there is the church, which is concerned with matters of spiritual import. The church is the Lord’s kingdom, which includes all good men in heaven and on earth. Beyond this there is only the Lord Himself to love and serve.
The influence of those who in the Lord’s name perform their tasks is felt in the community in which they live, in the country wherein they dwell, in the church whose teachings they exemplify in life, and in the unseen communion of saints with which they feebly, yet not altogether imperceptibly cooperate. And they love the Lord by keeping His commandments and do good to Him as they serve their fellow men.
In order to be charitable in this manner it is not necessary to be engaged in any conspicuous calling or pursuits. On the contrary, the callings which attract the least attention to themselves are often the highest and noblest. For example, the care of children, though hid from the world’s gaze, is a duty second to none as regards the fulfillment of the Divine requirement of real usefulness. It affords one the deepest and most abiding means of doing good. In this office we shall find abundant opportunity to shun evils as sins against God, and to prepare for heavenly life.
We are taught in the writings of our church that in heaven there is eternal activity and usefulness. The angels in their various societies or communities are each and all engaged in specific employments which call forth the best capacities of their natures, as well as the affections of their hearts. This is but another way of saying that human beings continue to be human, and that their happiness depends upon essentially the same conditions in heaven as here. Theirs is a life of genuine charity. Good trees in the garden of the Lord, they forever bring forth good fruit, and by their fruit they are known.
The picture of the two trees – the good tree with its good fruit and the corrupt tree with its corrupt fruit – what is it but a living illustration of the truth that an orderly and happy life, in time and in eternity, consists in the active exercise of love to others with its fruitage of good works?