Thursday, December 13, 2018

They Shall Know Us By Our Fruit

Like his synoptic partner Matthew, Luke liked the image of fruit. In his gospel account, the image of fruit appears 11 times, starting in opening chapter--"blessed is the fruit of your womb"--and going all the way to the end--"I will not drink the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." By comparison, Mark hardly mentions fruit at all (3x), but Luke lets the image of fruit be a consistent vehicle for describing a life of faithfulness.

"No good tree bears bad fruit," Jesus says in Luke 6:43. When the sower scatters the seed in Luke 8:14ff., that which falls on good soil "bears fruit with patient endurance," but the seed that falls amidst the cares and concerns of the world is choked out and so never bears mature fruit. Luke's version of Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree in 13:6ff., the owner of which wants to cut it down for not bearing fruit, and the narrative that follows immediately is that of the bent-over woman, whose synagogue leader resents the healing Jesus offers her on the sabbath.

On Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist urge the crowd to "bear fruits worthy of repentance," and that's the concept I want to focus on. What does it mean to bear that kind of fruit? John is questioning the sincerity of the crowd: "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?...Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'" He wants the kind of behavioral change that true repentance produces. That's the fruit of a repentant life.

For John, that fruit is sharing resources with those who have none, collecting only what is due, refraining from violence or extortion, and living a contented life. What does the fruit of repentance look like today?

So often the individuals who cry for repentance have a particular sin in mind. Whether it's homosexuality and abortion or payday lending and environmental degradation, the call to repent is often uttered by those who adopt a position of self-righteousness. We have everything figured out, thank you very much, and it's time for the "others" among us to get their own lives in order. But that's not grace. That's not preparing the way for the savior who comes to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. Turning away from a life spent pursuing ungodly aims is repentance, but John's invitation isn't a demand that the crowd get their lives in order. It's simpler than that. It's more accessible than that.

We prepare the way for our transformation by turning away from self-sufficiency and turning toward God-dependency. The fruit of that is the act of generosity, the gesture of societal change. But it's not the sharing of the coat or the food or the contentment that is our salvation. Those are the fruits of repentance. John isn't the end of the story. He's still preparing the way. The invitation we hear this Sunday is a reminder to get ready--to turn away from the systems of self-interest and toward the thing that God is doing in the world. That turn makes the path for the savior straight and level, but it's only the first step.

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