When I read the Gospel reading for today, and Jesus’ use of the images of good trees and rotten trees, I couldn’t help but think of the political and social climate of the country in which I live, the U.S. Jesus says, “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit… A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” It seemed to me that no matter where one is on the social, political, theological, or philosophical spectrum, it is easy to spot “rotten” trees on the other side. And it seems that it is harder and harder for people to agree on what, or who, is good or rotten. Pick any group you want: immigrants, documented or not, Muslims, LGBTQ, Catholic bishops, blacks, whites, law enforcement, just to name a few. What is remarkable to me is that we can look at the same reality and the same people and come to different conclusions about them.
And then, I thought, “How much simpler it was in Jesus’ time, when there was more agreement about what was ‘good’ and what was ‘rotten.’” But was it really simpler? I’m sure that the Pharisees who were always in opposition to Jesus saw themselves as the “good” trees. They followed the Law of God handed down by Moses to the letter. They saw the tax collectors and the prostitutes and others whom they considered sinners to be the “rotten” ones. And so when Jesus spent time with these, they considered Him “rotten” as well. I don’t think Jesus ignored the sins these people may have committed, but apparently He saw some good in them, and did not consider them irredeemable.
How can we stand up for what is right and call out evil when it occurs, and work for justice, without falling into the same pit as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day? Another image that Jesus uses in our Gospel reading is that of a splinter in a person’s eye: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? … You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” Instead of spending time in labelling others as “rotten,” we need to make sure that we are not bearing some “rotten fruit” ourselves.
Another thing to consider is a verse from our first reading from Sirach: “The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had.” Is it a good idea to consider someone as inherently “rotten” without knowing his or her story? I attended a conference with a presentation made by a priest who works with people who have had some trauma in their lives, especially when they were children, including, of course, those who were abused. And one of the things he warned against was a tendency to blame the victim.
To label others as “rotten” or “evil” is a whole lot easier than loving them as Jesus loves us. But our call is to the latter, not the former. We can still speak up and out for what is right, but we’re called to do it in love. As St. Paul writes in our second reading from 1 Corinthians: “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Fr. Phil, CP