Matthew 7:16-20,  know them by their fruit

7:16 “By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? 7:17 Even so, every good tree produces good fruit; but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit. 7:18 A good tree can’t produce evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit. 7:19 Every tree that doesn’t grow good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire. 7:20 Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.”

(Matthew 7:16-20 WEB)

Its all about the fruit

Verse 15 introduced us to the concept that, when it comes to identifying a reliable prophet, it is not their appearance that counts (or for that matter their demeanour, eloquence, or charisma). It is not that these things are unimportant, if a farmer claimed to have a sheep, but it looked like a wolf, then you would be right to be suspicious. But such things are, as the Sermon on the Mount now elucidates, not a prophet’s most important credentials.

In places, the scriptures compare individuals to trees and aspects of their character with fruit. Indeed there are at least nine character attributes that the Apostle Paul identifies as good fruit: love; joy; peace; patience; kindness; goodness; faithfulness; gentleness; self-control. Yet the concept of ‘fruit’ also encompasses a person’s accomplishments. For example John the Baptist called for people to bear fruit in accord with repentance, whilst in the book of Proverbs the fruit of a Godly woman’s hands is equated, through poetic parallelism, with her praiseworthy works.

Knowing this, it is clear what Jesus is telling us. A prophetic leader should be judged by their character and the outcome of their activities. Are their lives creating a wilderness where people are left to scratch a meagre living amidst the prickles, or are they creating fertile places in which you find both the grapes of joy and the figs of penitence to satisfy your soul.

The book of Proverbs, a female personification of wisdom is pictured rebuking the simple, for turning their back upon wisdom. The character of Wisdom then links fruitfulness to a persons chosen path, by promising that individuals will eat the fruit of their way and have their fill of the fruit they produce. Whoever listens, she says, will dwell securely and at ease, without any dread of disaster. Hence, it is interesting that the threat of disaster and dwelling securely are the next topics the Sermon addresses, as it talks about the fate of trees when war comes upon a land (v20), the judgement of unfaithful servants (), and where to build a secure dwelling.

In verse 20, Jesus appears to draw upon Moses’ instructions for besieging a city. In times of war, the attacker built wooden siege engines, which the defenders then attempted to burn. Vast amounts of wood were consumed by this and, through the destruction of trees, the impact on local fruit production was potentially devastating. The orchards of a captured city were a potentially valuable asset. Hence Moses instructed that during such a siege every good fruit tree was to be left. It follows from this that every bad tree to be cut down.