“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20, NKJV)
Usually, the occasion for using the phrase is assessing what a person does, what his or her deeds are.
In other words, a person’s works.
Why? To know if someone is a true follower of Jesus or not. “Good” fruits indicates an affirmative answer. “Bad” fruit indicates the person is likely not a true follower, or has backslidden.
However, there’s a hook in applying the verse that way: it requires making a judgment.
For example, by what standard are a person’s deeds or works determined to be good or bad? Saying the Bible is one’s standard is fine, except…
Does one use a Catholic interpretation? A Baptist one? A Presbyterian one? A Charismatic one? Which Bible translation provides the standard? King James? New King James? New International Version? English Standard Version? New American Standard version? How about a paraphrase like The Message? Or the Phillips Translation?
Are the standards to judge “good” fruit from “bad” derived from a literal interpretation of the Bible? Or a more relaxed, perhaps even mystical, interpretation?
Do they depend on the region of the United States in which one lives? For example, those who live in the Bible Belt might have a different set of standards by which to judge one’s “fruits” than people who live in, say, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles – or Peoria, for that matter.
Are the standards consistently applied? Are they applied without taint from our own emotions, experiences, moods? Does one’s political ideology (Conservative, Liberal, Libertarian) affect one’s definition of “good” or “bad”?
Judging is usually a tricky business. At best.
Fortunately, there’s another way to look at the word “fruits.” It doesn’t depend on geography, political persuasion, Bible translation, or denomination. It doesn’t require that we judge others at all.
Best of all, it leaves the door open to a more loving approach to people.
The Greek word translated “fruits” is Karpos, which according to its entry on Wikipedia,
In Greek mythology, Karpos (Greek: Καρπός; Latin: Carpus, literally “fruit”), was a youth renowned for his beauty. He is the son of Zephyros (the west wind) and Khloris (spring, or new vegetation), forming a natural metaphor — the west wind heralds the new growth of spring, which then bears fruit. Kharpo, one of the Horae, is in some ways the feminine equivalent of Karpos; her dominion was autumn, ripening, and harvesting.
In other words, Karpos isn’t a word that refers to what one does; it’s a word based on what one is. In this case, something fresh, alive, ripe – fruit. Karpos, the person, embodied those characteristics. He didn’t do them. He was them.
So, then, what does the phrase, “You will know them by their fruits” mean?
The Bible, in the Book of Galatians, clearly tells us what “fruits” are:
But the fruit [Karpos] of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV)
There it is; clear as a bell.
The Greek word translated “fruit” in that verse is the same word translated “fruits” in Matthew: Karpos.
So here’s the $64,000 question:
What if the phrase, “You will know them by their fruits” doesn’t refer to one’s actions, per se, at all? What if it refers to whether or not one possesses “love, joy, peace patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”?
Could it really be that simple?
The Book of Matthew contains a teaching called the Parable of the Tenants:
“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Matthew 21:33-43 ESV)
Notice what’s going on there.
The tenants killed the vineyard owner’s son rather than turn over the fruits to him. Jesus asked the gathering, “What will [the owner] do to them?” The people said, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
Jesus replied by saying, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”
The people believed an eye for an eye fit the crime. But Jesus tells them that’s not an acceptable answer to his parable.
However, if “fruits” (Karpos) means actions or deeds, then Jesus’ response to them makes no sense because killing someone in revenge is an action. The answer Jesus seeks seems to be based on something else, another kind of fruit, a different criteria for meting out punishment.
The implication is that if the crowd had embodied a different attitude, a different understanding of fruits, they would not have thought death – and not just death, but “a miserable death” – was an appropriate punishment for the tenants who murdered the heir’s son.
What sort of fruits would have produced a different response from the crowd?
“…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”
One or all of the fruits (Karpos) of the spirit would have enabled them to choose a different response. In other words, their assumption that “a miserable death” was warranted might have been tempered by love.
What would their response to Jesus’ question have been, then?
But, obviously, if death was the appropriate answer Jesus wouldn’t have responded the way he did. (Incidentally, Jesus’ response bears further noodling. What did he mean when he said, “…the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” Taken away from whom? From Christians? If so, to whom will it be given – to anyone who more skillfully embodies the fruits of the spirit? The implications of that one sentence are astounding.)
Love is the hallmark of Jesus’ teachings.
It is the first of the “fruits” listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
It is called “the greatest” in 1 Corinthians 13:13:
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
It is the “new commandment” that he gave to his disciples in John 13:34.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV)
Looking at fruit as an embodiment of “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” removes the aspect of judgment from the equation. It opens the door to freedom to be who and what we are – which, in the Zen tradition is paramount. No judgments.
More importantly, if we embody “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” we will be less likely to judge others, to hold their actions against them – especially in terms of punishment for wrongs done to us.
We believe that life is not about what others do or do not.
It’s about what we do.
So we strive to embody, to be, “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”
Being known by those fruits is what Only Love is all about.