Jesus was a carpenter, not a farmer. But He still talked and taught a great deal about fruit: what it’s good for, how it is valued, where it comes from, how it can be identified, how it grows, or how it dies.
In His teaching, the Carpenter used simple, everyday observations to help His listeners wrap their minds around spiritual and eternal realities. English majors call this the use of metaphor–implied comparison between two unlike things that actually have something important in common. A metaphor expresses the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. Metaphors are powerful because they help us think about difficult abstract stuff that seems hard or complicated in terms of easy concrete stuff we already understand.
There is a problem with metaphors, though. When you hear a metaphor over and over, its original rich meaning can become diluted. Over the centuries since Jesus first taught about fruit, “spiritual fruit” has become a very common term, especially in Christian circles. The term has come to refer to a person’s actions or activities–the things you can see. And fruit is certainly something you can see. BUT… we have dropped huge chunks of the metaphor; a tree’s fruit is what you see, but the fruit comes as a result of the tree’s nature. In other words, an apple tree is planted, cultivated, and grown into an apple producer. You can’t hang apples on a pecan tree. Well, maybe you can, but those apples didn’t come from that tree.
Look at this discussion of a tree and its fruit in Matthew 7:16-20 (NIV):
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
In the same passage from The Message, Eugene Peterson sums up the metaphor like this:
Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character.
Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say.
Jesus’ metaphor of a tree and its fruit is multilayered, dense, and question-provoking. Does a tree “work” to produce fruit? Do all fruit-bearing plants flourish in the same kind of soil? How is it that some plants can filter out impurities that change the taste of the fruit, while other plants die in the presence of the same contaminants? Are “good works” fruit? Is morality fruit? Our goal is to develop true spiritual fruit by deepening our relationship with Jesus; He is the source of fruit-producing life. He said:
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
– John 15:4 (NIV)
What the heck does that really mean? We’re going to do a little exploring and digging, praying and studying to find out.