Fruit or Foliage?

By Alan Bean

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)

A fitting question for Holy Week, don’t you think?

When Jesus entered the holy city riding the foal of an ass, the crowds burst into spontaneous song: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Luke reports that “some of the Pharisees in the crowd” protested this unseemly display of piety.  “Teacher,” they said, “order your disciples to stop.”

“I tell you,” Jesus replied, “if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”

Sometimes, hymns of adoration are more that appropriate; they are unavoidable.

But praise, especially in a religious context, is also dangerous.

Matthew puts his “Lord, Lord” teaching like this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Words of praise, segregated from concrete acts of service to the least and the lost, constitute blasphemy.  The failure to produce “good fruit” is the sign of a “bad tree”, Jesus says, no matter how much foliage you see.

My wife, Nancy, has given up growing squash.  Things look good early.  Luxuriant vines take over the garden, followed by lovely blossoms.  And then everything dies.  We don’t know enough about gardening to understand why.  Lack of nitrogen?  Insects?  Too much Texas sun?  But the abundance of foliage never makes up for the absence of fruit.

Praise is inevitable; so is the production problem Jesus warns against.  Human weakness coupled with the heroic demands of Christian discipleship, create a gap between piety and production.  It could hardly be any other way.  We are a fallen race and we act the part.

At the same time, we are incurably religious. 

Imagine a college football team flocking to a legendary coach like chicks to a mother hen.  “You are the greatest, coach,” one player exults.  “In fact, I bet you are the wisest, most creative man who ever coached the game.”  At this, the other players break into wild applause.

The grizzled coach pays no attention.  “Now go out there and run the ball straight down the middle,” he growls.

“We’d do anything for you,” a big guard hollers as the team breaks into their traditional chant, “Go, fight win!”

The team trots onto the field, the quarterback drops back to pass and is unceremoniously tackled in the backfield.

The coach calls a timeout, the players gather around, and the harangue begins.  “I told you to run the ball.  How complicated is that?”

“You’re the greatest, coach,” the quarterback replies in jubilation.  “The best coach ever, right guys?”

More hoots and whistles.

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”

Over the centuries we have heaped so many metaphysical compliments on Jesus’ shoulders that his knees must be buckling; yet the gap between fruit and foliage has never been wider.

Jesus’ teaching is really, really demanding.  We’ve got to love other people, particularly poor wretched losers, more than we love ourselves.  Not only that, we’ve got to live out this love in concrete ways.  We can’t be satisfied with the occasional gracious gesture either; it’s got to be a way of life.

Tough stuff, no doubt.  But it’s more than tough; it’s also counter-intuitive.  We like Jesus; but we despise his friends.  We don’t want to love those people.  Moreover, we don’t think we should.  We don’t think Jesus should, either.  What’s the big attraction?  What does the Master see in those people?  They’re poor, lazy, undisciplined, ungrateful, and they make really dumb decisions.  How are we supposed to love people like that?

So, like the football team in my little illustration, we praise our Savior to the skies.  We think that if we praise long enough and loud enough it will obscure the fact that we are not living the way Jesus wants us to live.  More to the point, we have no intention of changing.  We will love the lovely, but that’s as far as we’re prepared to go.  We’re hoping that the abundance of foliage will mask the absence of fruit.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus isn’t talking about who goes to heaven.  He’s talking about the kingdom.  The kingdom comes when we live the gospel life Jesus sponsors among us.  The kingdom is fruit; it has nothing to do with foliage.

Jesus isn’t condemning praise.  Praise is appropriate; to quote the traditional liturgy, it is “meet and right”.

Praise is inevitable.  “If these were silent, the stones would shout out!”

But praise is also dangerous.  As we enter Holy Week, it is meet and right that we remember that.