August is worth looking forward to every year, if only for the fresh tomatoes. I grow a couple of plants in my garden, but I have to go to the farmer’s market if I want to get enough to make a marinara sauce. At least I can harvest enough of those beauties to feed my most recent summer addiction: bacon/basil/tomato sandwiches. Someone put me onto them a couple of summers ago, and I haven’t looked back. I grow the basil too. I draw the line at raising a hog for the bacon.
There are many metaphors for faith to be found in the garden. Jesus didn’t hesitate to use them himself: the parable of the mustard seed, the wheat and the tares, the parable of the soils, and comparing himself to a vine, to name a few. One of the most striking to me is also the simplest: Vegetable plants only bear vegetables according to their kind. Tomato plants yield tomatoes, not beans.
Laying aside a recent podcast on Radiolab implying that plants may be sentient to some degree, they don’t have to think about producing their fruits. Tomatoes and bananas and pomegranates appear because that is what plants simply exist to do: produce fruit.
It seems that we Christians spend an inordinate amount of time debating things like free will and the nature of sin and who is guilty of sinning and who isn’t. In Fleming Rutledge’s Help My Unbelief, in her sermon about the last judgment when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25.31-46) she reminds us that we all have a little of both beasts inside of us. But those striving to follow Jesus—and thus acting more sheepish than goatish–will, by nature, exhibit the character of Jesus, so that in the course of their lives they will do myriad deeds of goodness without really thinking about it. Christians will naturally be Christ-like, just as naturally as a tomato plant produces the fruit I slice and put on my sandwich. “Jesus tells the disciples that they can expect to be transformed into new people who will ‘bear fruit’ (Matt 3.8). They will bear fruit almost unconsciously, for it will grow organically within the community that waits faithfully for Jesus.”[i]
Which means we can relax, for Pete’s sake. We don’t have to wring our hands over who is doing right and who is doing wrong, unless we’re doing jury duty. And we don’t have to agonize for weeks and months about whether or not we are doing God’s will. If we attend to our business of keeping our hearts and attitudes in Christ Jesus, (Col 3.1; Phil 2.5), we can trust God to sort out the morality of things, not to mention the eternal destiny of our annoying neighbors. We will do what is right most of the time by virtue of being disciples of Jesus.
Matthew the gospel writer has this irritating habit of making everything so dramatic. He is the one who has Jesus throwing people into the outer darkness (Matt 8.12; 22.13; 25.30), where the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” will rival an episode of “The Bachelor.” Matthew’s version of John the Baptist, in my opinion, relished his role as a prophet just a tad too much, unleashing a scorching condemnation on the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to see him: “You brood of vipers!…You’re this close to being chopped off, you worthless bunch of dead trees!” (Matt 3. 7-10). You get the feeling he had been saving that up for while.
But it is John who can’t seem to grasp Jesus’ purpose, or at least the way he went about saving sinners. John sent a messenger from his prison cell to ask, once and for all, whether Jesus had any other agenda, or was this healing and teaching business all he was going to do? A bit of a disappointment as a Messiah, according to John. But there were no other reliable candidates, and he knew deep down that Jesus was It, even though Jesus was way too soft on sinners.
But Jesus had pity on his cousin. He may have had different methods than John, but he knew that John had done his part as well as he could: “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist,” he told a crowd who probably remembered the spectacle of that strange dude in the desert. (Matt 11.11)
Matthew has Jesus judging humankind in a variety of ways in the space of one chapter: for being ready or not (Matt 25.13), for using the talents entrusted to them (Matt 25.14-30), or for having compassion on people down on their luck (the sheep and goats bit). Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ criteria are about paying attention, making the most of the gifts, and caring about people? The people who simply act like Jesus the Judge are the followers he can spot a mile away. The Jesus-fruit is hanging off their branches, growing ripe and beautiful before they even notice it themselves.
On my first trip to Mali in western Africa, I learned a little about sheep and goats. The sheep there are long-haired, and look just like goats to me. But the difference is easy to spot; the sheeps’ tails hang down and the goats’ tails turn up. Even for my untrained eye, they would be easy to sort.
I’ve been told that sheep sort themselves out anyway, following their master’s voice. While that mixes the metaphor a bit, I think this is a good way to think about our good works. We don’t do them
to rack up points with the Shepherd; they just come naturally. And thus we end up sorting ourselves out without even realizing it. It makes the job pretty easy for our Shepherd, who would rather spend his time feeding and healing us anyway.
See, Jesus not only had pity on his drama-queen cousin John, who went a little far in his theology of God’s judgement. He has pity on us too. We don’t always care about “the least of these.” Most days I can’t remotely imagine Jesus’ face gracing every single person who needs my help. But he notices that sometimes we actually do these things when we are the selves we want to be. And he gives us credit.
A little credit, a little smile from Jesus. It is as good as fresh tomato juice running down your chin. Even better, when you think about it.
[i] Rutledge, Fleming, 2000. “Jesus Will Show” in Help My Unbelief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 222-3.