Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Produce Department

Among the most oft-repeated principles of scripture ever enunciated by our Lord is this: that we are what we do. It is our ongoing patterns of behavior that most accurately reveal the condition of our hearts and our relationship to God.

That is not to say that our words and thoughts are inconsequential; both will be subject to God’s judgment. But words can be poorly expressed and easily misunderstood, while thoughts are often fragmentary, incoherent, transitory and quite invisible to the world. Patterns of behavior serve as much more accurate indicators of the condition of our hearts than either of these.

We might say that genuine followers of Christ are regularly found in the “produce department”. They are characterized by spiritual fruit rather than just fine words.

Obvious, But Not Obvious

This is a notion so obvious that even the carnal and obtuse enemies of the Lord were able to grasp it with ease. Jesus told a parable of two sons, one of whom first refused an order from his father, then thought better of it and obeyed, while his brother meekly promised obedience but didn’t deliver. Asked which of the sons did the will of his father, the chief priests and elders correctly replied, “The first.” The fine promises and respectful demeanor of the second brother were surely more pleasing to the father’s ears, but ultimately empty. An “I go, sir” from a child who never goes is both deceptive and meaningless.

So then, we are speaking of a principle so transparently evident that a synagogue of Satan could teach it. We who profess to be disciples of Christ should not have great difficulty with it, right? All the same, I find it a little alarming to consider how often and in how many different ways the Lord repeated it, almost as if he was concerned that we might otherwise miss his point.

The Principle Taught in Matthew 25

In Matthew 25, for example, this principle is reinforced in three different ways. The first two are parables; the last a description of coming judgment. We might reasonably infer that this principle of actions speaking louder than words is the point of the entire chapter.

Of whom do the ten virgins speak prophetically? We need not argue that here: what matters is what they did. Recognizing the importance of the occasion, five thought to bring along flasks of oil. The other five went out unprepared. The thoughtlessness of the latter reveals to us their impoverished relationship to the bridegroom: their lack of respect for his special day, their undervaluing of his invitation, and his unimportance to them personally. Their actions — or rather their inactions — tell the whole story.

Again, we may find ourselves curious about what historical period is being addressed in the parable of the talents, but that question is probably less consequential than this: that two of three servants worked diligently to make their master’s money multiply for him, while a third did nothing with it. Why? Because he thought ill of his master and didn’t trust in his promise of reward for faithful service. His actions revealed the condition of his heart.

Or again, when the coming judgment of nations is compared to the division of sheep and goats, the measure of a man’s relationship to the King turns out to be his treatment of strangers, the poor, the sick and those in prison. His care for those in need serves as a proxy for his relationship to the King himself, and the standard by which he will either enter the kingdom or go away into eternal punishment.

In each of these passages, the eschatological schema we bring to them is far less important than the necessity to grasp the metamessage: that what we do reveals who we really are.

The Rest of the Gospel

But of course that’s not the end of it. Not by a long shot. The principle is there in the Sermon on the Mount, where the evidence of family relationship to God is showing love to enemies and where one accumulates one’s treasure; or in the instructions about how to recognize false prophets, whose fruit is an accurate measure of their character and authority. It’s there in the “house on the rock”, where true security is a product not of hearing the words of Christ but of actually living them out.

It’s there in the healings: the woman with the discharge of blood surely believed on Jesus before meeting him personally, but her healing occurred in the moment when she actually touched the hem of his garment. It’s there in the Lord’s pithy sayings: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” It’s there in the Lord’s most prized relationships: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” It’s there in the parable of the sower: the good soil is the soil that produced fruit. It’s there in Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, the measure of whom was not the technical accuracy of their teaching but the effect of their rules on the needy. It’s there in the story of the rich young man: enthusiasm is meaningless without follow-through.

I’m only partway through Matthew here, but you get the point: Jesus never stopped talking about this subject. Evidently he felt he needed to.

Theory and Practice

Once you start seeing it, this is not a difficult principle to grasp. As I say, the Lord’s enemies had no difficulty with the theory. It’s the practice that’s tough, and maybe that’s why Jesus kept reinforcing in so many different ways an idea with which his disciples must have become very familiar indeed.

Just for fun, let’s imagine for a minute what our churches might look like if we were all thoroughly marinated in the notion that the regular, ongoing production of spiritual fruit is the most compelling evidence of mature Christian character and God-given authority.

For one, I suspect we would be a lot more discerning about our leadership: we would prize the quiet, hard-working shepherd over the dynamic platform presence. We would not be overly impressed by seminary graduates and religious professionals; we would be more interested in examining the long-term consequences of listening to what they have to say and following their personal example. Moreover, our strongest personal friendships would be with people who have stood back to back with us in hard times, as opposed to those with whom we might be more naturally compatible but who have done nothing more impressive than talk a good game. And perhaps even our marriages would be more solid: young, serious Christians would weigh character against looks and let character win every time.

But let’s forget shining the spotlight on others. If the reality of my relationship to Christ may be tested by the things I do, how exactly do I measure up? What evidence is there in my life that I truly believe the things I profess?

In short, how am I doing in the produce department?

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